Prolific biographer Secrest (Shoot the Widow: Adventures of a Biographer in Search of Her Subject, 2007, etc.) introduces us to Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920), and he’s not nearly as exciting as the myths that surround the “accursed” artist.
The author provides an overabundance of details about her subject’s childhood and his diseases: pleurisy, typhoid, scarlet fever and the tubercular meningitis that eventually killed him. When Secrest finally focuses on Modigliani the artist and his search for the simplicity of the perfect “line,” the author diligently illustrates his quest for fulfillment. The city of Paris engrossed him completely and showed the peripatetic artist how to find his own style through long discussions in the cafés with Soutine, Picasso, Utrillo et al. The author discredits many of the legendary exploits surrounding the artist as enhancements of friends who were easily as inebriated as he. There’s no doubt, however, that he had multiple addictions. Secrest posits that his use of alcohol and laudanum began as an anesthetic to control his consumptive cough, and that he sacrificed his love of sculpture due to the physical strain involved. Eventually he discovered the perfection of his line in nudes. While rejecting cubism, Modigliani idolized Picasso, whose influence shows throughout his work. Although many classify his work as the School of Paris, when asked in what manner he painted, he would reply simply “Modigliani.” As one of the most widely copied artists of the period, his swan-necked portraits single him out as his very own “ism.”
Sorting through the detritus of the artist’s short life, the author ultimately connects those events in great detail, but sometimes a bit too meticulously. The myths were more fun.