This essay is long, but it seemed appropriate to run it after a Modigliani painting recently sold for one of the highest prices of all time. The piece is from my book, Fascinating Artists: twenty-five unusual lives.
In the essay, I gave my take on the "why" of exorbitant artworks, but Modigliani's life as a subject overall was extremely interesting. Enjoy.
Modigliani’s Lonely Masquerade (1884-1920)
“Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm, for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.”
Song of Solomon 8:6
There are few cocktails more potent than this one in the effortless seduction of women: intelligence; passion; an aura of wickedness; cultural sophistication; a host of vulnerabilities, begging a nurturing touch; a stormy, rugged physicality blended with features that seem childlike, almost feminine, in shifting lights; and the sublime erotic charge from a man who can apparently see one’s soul and body at the same time.
Viewing Modigliani’s remote, reverent, almost devout, sculptures and paintings, what woman wouldn’t want the thrill of Modi’s gaze, of his hands, his brush strokes, if only for a few days or hours? What woman would forego the profound mystery of unveiling herself to the artist, of feeling her defenses slip away, of feeling his hands form her body on his canvas? Such rhapsody could ruin a girl to lesser charms forever.
Everyone wanted Modigliani. The depth of this sensual tug can be felt a century later, flipping through collections of his work, standing in front of his models in museums the world over.
There is another element in our cocktail, one, when imbibed along with the others, guarantees instant and eternal intoxication. It is the threat of death.
In 1953, Felix Marti Ibanez captured something of this in Gentry Magazine. “Modigliani paints a woman, her neck like a swan’s, her eyes like jade, her mouth set in infinite sadness.”
There is a certain kind of immediacy and sensual urgency that come with the looming, dooming threat of death. Modigliani was sick with fevers, coughing, and alcoholism for most of his brief life. Meryle Secrest argues in Modigliani: a Life that his lifelong struggle with illness was the central force in his worldview, his passion, his art, and even his drug and alcohol addictions, which were born from the pain.
Not only for the one who is dying, but for those who love him, an expiration date, sensed or certain, stokes the flames. It is sex, after all, the making of love, the making of life, which cheats death. It is this grave phenomenon, I believe, that causes our intense attraction to train wrecks.
Nice men and women lament that though they long for stability, the “heart wants what it wants.” I believe that our strange penchants for prisoners, for cuckolding, for the wild child, for the self-destructive, for those whom we cannot have and hold, are rooted in the fleeting speed of life, in the glimmer of light under the shadow of death.
Ibanez writes: “A man who knows he is going to die, as Modigliani did, knows there is only one way to defeat death- to live fast. What is lost in duration must be made up for in intensity.”
This intensity was transferable to Modigliani’s passion for women, and whether or not these women understood tangibly the pending doom, the intuitive among them sensed it; their sensuality fed on it. Ibanez calls the artist’s women, “the most naked nudes in the history of art.” Later, he concludes that Modigliani’s figures, his women, seem “beyond death.” They are immortal, “ageless idols.”
Those with even a rudimentary interest in culture can immediately conjure the trademark immortal elegance of Modigliani’s women. His name is synonymous with a style of iconic elongation and mysterious, eyeless portraiture that is difficult to describe but instantly recognizable. The Modigliani brand, if you will, is a striking amalgamation of influences that include his fascination with primitivistic and classical sculpture, the mythology of pagan Rome, Egyptian art, African masks, and Jewish iconographic traditions. His portraits and stone head sculptures possess a distinctive blend of intelligence, eroticism, and religiosity.
Half of the portrayals of painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani focus on the artist as a tempestuous, brooding drunkard and drug addict, tortured by society and obsessed by his art. The other half laments the trivialization of genius and the clichés inherent in equating creative brilliance with the myth of insanity and addiction.
“Since Modigliani’s death in 1920,” Maurice Berger writes, (in the epilogue for Mason Klein’s Modigliani: Beyond the Myth), “discussions of his work have been motivated by similar clichés and half-truths about artistic practice and temperament. These histrionic, fundamentally anti-intellectual approaches to the study of the artist and his work, fixated as they are on the biographical triumvirate of debauchery, illness, and tragedy, have helped turn Modigliani into a trivial art historical figure, an artist adored by the public but viewed with condescension by many scholars and curators.”
It is true that Modigliani is woven into art histories as volatile and self-absorbed, drowning his torments in absinthe and laudanum, churning out bastard children along the way. Yet the academics that disavow the public’s fascination with tragedy and dismiss such a dismal picture as populist gossip miss a very important point: an annoying little thing called truth.
And in this case, what is very closely linked to the truth, is something of the essence of the Modigliani appeal.
Human nature embodies light and dark. Both are parts of us, and so of course we are often drawn to the darkness, that vast abyss of terrible mystery. Looking into it makes us cling to life. Between reality and our natural attraction to drama and narrative, we have the truth, which is seldom picture perfect.
Doom and gloom, however, is never enough on its own: the vast majority of dead drug addicts and drunks fade into forgotten obscurity. But pretentious disdain for scandalmongers and muckrakers does not take into account that art and biography are interchangeable. Many scholars discount this truth, dismissing the very essence of art- the artist himself. It is not his decadence alone that attracts. That is only one ingredient in that heady brew.
When academics assume an elite understanding of art, with their important but ultimately secondary theories of mastery and craftsmanship and composition; when they assume that their studied conclusions make them trusted tastemakers, they are sorely wrong. No theorizing or scholasticism can compete with or overshadow people’s preferences. And like it or not, those preferences are inexorably linked to the cult of personality.
There are a variety of reasons why we love art. In Modi’s case, there is an elegiac tension, a desperate life force under the serene elegance of his sensual portraits. In contrast to the volatile intensity with which he lived, these coolly erotic tributes gaze eternally, dispassionately, beyond. They are frozen under his heat.
Modigliani was born to Sephardic Jewish lineage in Italy in 1884, the same year that his affluent family lost everything in bankruptcy. Modi would continue in lifelong poverty. Chronic illness began early, with childhood fevers and pleurisy. This meant little Amedeo spent most of his time sick or convalescing. This was time he spent studying and practicing art, since both were passions and sedentary pursuits. Despite their crash into poverty, his family remained cosmopolitan and valued sophistication and culture. French, Spanish, and Italian were all spoken in his household. The works of poets and philosophers were considered mandatory for culture and enrichment- Nietzsche, Emerson, Wilde, Spinoza.
Because the child nearly died of typhoid fever, Modigliani’s mother reluctantly permitted him to quit high school. This gave the inquisitive youth free rein to libraries and daydreams and drawing lessons. Because of his health, he was sent to milder climes like Naples, Capri, Rome, and Venice, where as a teenage artist he practiced and studied in reputable studios. He also joined his superiors in the exchange of ideas in long conversations.
In adulthood, plagued by weak lungs and tuberculosis, Modi discovered that alcohol and laudanum helped quell coughing fits and convulsions and eased pain. His self-medicating became a furious dependency.
The saturation in art and poetry and religious history, and the penchant for intoxication may not have culminated in greatness had there been an absence of passion and love. But this gorgeous blend of intelligence and volatility with his sensuality was infinitely appealing to women. There was no shortage of paramours. In turn, his portraits of women, nude or clothed, are the pinnacles of his profound talent. Biographer June Rose describes him in Modigliani, the Pure Bohemian, as, “always with a beautiful girl by his side.” She surmises that, “Women pursued him and so many loved him that he must have been a marvelous lover, sensual, tender, and gravely courteous, but a dreamer…”
Whether one views the man as a lothario or a Romeo is irrelevant, perhaps, to the women who loved him. Modigliani was handsome and charming, but his turbulent moods and his penniless, sometimes homeless, existence were not exactly selling points. At some points, the artist was so desperate that he gave his work away in bistros in exchange for food, an absurd contrast to the multiple millions fetched by his works today. But these women were spellbound by his tragic beauty and by his talent.
Modigliani worked prolifically but earned very little money. This was in part due to his own exacting standards and tempestuous destruction of works he deemed sub-par. According to biographer Alfred Werner, the artist destroyed all of his earliest works as a young man in Paris, exclaiming, “Childish baubles, done when I was a dirty bourgeois!” The work he loved, he would trade for a meal or a place to say. He would also give to women the portraits he had made of them.
One of his most famous lovers was Beatrice Hastings, a poet and an educated eccentric who vigorously defended women’s rights to birth control ahead of her time. She sometimes carried a pet duck in a basket and lived a life of colourful adventure and coarse commentary. Though known for harsh descriptives of her lover- “spoilt,” “drunk,” and “unshaven,” among them- she also considered his artwork the real deal and showed it in her studio. Her influence helped him with several sales.
Another romance was with Anna Andreyevna Gorenko, better known as Anna Akhmatova, considered one of the greatest Russian poets of the 20th century. She went on to write acclaimed masterpieces of witness to the Stalinist atrocities in her homeland. She met while honeymooning in Paris with her husband. Ultimately, Anna returned to her husband.
In Memoir of Modigliani, the poet writes about her love affair. “In 1910 I saw him very rarely, just a few times. But he wrote to me during the whole winter. I remember some sentences from his letter. One was: ‘Vous êtes en moi comme une hantise’ (you are obsessively part of me.)”
Anna went on to say, “Modigliani’s divine attributes were still veiled. He had the head of Antinous, and in his eyes was a golden gleam – he was unlike anyone in the world. I shall never forget his voice. He lived in dire poverty, and I don’t know how he lived. He enjoyed no recognition whatsoever as a painter…I thought even then that he clearly saw the world through different eyes to ours.”
There were countless other women who professed undying love. But perhaps the most tumultuous and tragic love affair was his final one, with Jeanne Hebuterne (who was played superbly by Elsa Zylberstein in the otherwise wretched flick, Modigliani.)
It was a doomed romance in many ways, not the least of which was Modi’s rapidly deteriorating health and alcoholism. There was also an age difference. Jeanne was nineteen, and Modigliani was over thirty. A major obstacle was Jeanne’s Catholic family, who reportedly hated Jews. It is likely Daddy may also have preferred someone who was not a bum. So when Jeanne found herself pregnant with Modi’s “illegitimate” child, her father went through the roof. Jeanne defied her family and moved into the artist’s squalid room, an unwise move that endangered their child but reflected the intensity of her passion and devotion. Making their home with a shared family bed on a dirty mattress in a filthy little room, Jeanne’s family was unmoved by their steps toward “legitimacy” when the pair married.
In Meryle Secrest’s book, she argues for the absolute centrality of the artist’s illness. She suggests that everything about him was born from this chronic, lifelong struggle. She argues that the enfant terrible shtick was a disguise that he conceived to hide his contagious tuberculosis from his peers. He needed to continue to function among them as he strove for creative recognition. If they’d known the truth about his illness, he would have been taken to a sanitarium and that would have been like prison for him.
“Here was no shambling drunk but a man on a desperate mission, running out of time and calculating what he had to do in order to go on working and concealing his secret for however long remained… It must have been a courageous and lonely masquerade.”
I think it’s possible that Modi could have kept his dying a secret through robust theatrics, but it’s unlikely his drug use was merely a “cover.” I am convinced that his tuberculosis and concurrent health issues were central to his story. I often maintain that denying the primacy of addictions or other details we don’t like in someone’s story is actually dehumanizing.
It’s also quite unlikely that Modigliani was the only artist in the Belle Epoque and pre-Jazz Age eras who hung around the cafes, parlours, galleries, and speakeasies without his fair share of decadent behaviour.
Nonetheless, Secrest’s focus on his illness remains highly insightful. For example, she suggests that the constant knowledge of pending death created, in part, his passion for life and love. The obsessive pace at which he worked could have been fuelled by the persistent idea that he was running out of time. Furthermore, the looming threat of death gave life a sense of preciousness and beauty.
Perhaps tuberculosis also granted to Modigliani a sense of artistic genuineness, a shared torturous bond. After all, it was how many greats met their maker, including Chopin, Keats, all three Bronte sisters, D.H. Lawrence, the great Chekhov, and many others. In this view, he may have also romanticized his own poverty and addiction as well as the TB, since as we discussed, madness itself had long been a perceived marker of the authenticity of the artist.
Today, appreciation of Modi’s genius is near universal, and his work sells for millions of dollars. Still, a group of pranksters committed a fraud in the early ‘80s to protest what they perceived as ludicrous and fickle trends in the art market. Making use of longstanding legends of Modigliani destroying his work, three youth tossed some stone sculptures into a canal where Modi, in a huff, had been rumoured to sink some poorly received works.
The art world was briefly aflame when draining the canal yielded pieces that every expert was sure had been created by Modigliani. The discovery was trumpeted the world over, but the excitement was short lived, as several of the pranksters came forward and confessed. They subsequently demonstrated their ability to create Modigliani-style sculpture to prove their abilities. The purpose of their hoax was to trump the authority of the art historian and expose the ludicrousness of value attribution in art trends.
There is some truth to what these students expressed, but this kind of thinking misses a few important points. One of the greatest indicators of value is rarity, whether in gemstones or haute couture or art collecting. When someone dies, naturally the rarity of their products increases, getting still more rare over time as works are lost or deteriorate. Secondly, it is asinine to assume that one’s ability to copy the style of another artist devalues that artist’s talent. Many masters of the fine arts learned and practiced by directly copying their masters before them. Perhaps these tricksters should pursue their own skills in art and imagination! There is nothing new under the sun, and despite the dazzling originality of Modigliani’s voice, his work too merged a number of influences, from Brancusi to El Greco to Egyptian history to Cycladic art to Jewish ethnographic portraiture.
But the most important factor that these hoaxers dismiss or fail to grasp is the power of essentialism. It may seem silly to be willing to pay a million for a sheet torn from Van Gogh’s sketchbook, and throw away the exact same drawing copied from him by Joe Shmo. And some will see this as evidence that all art is worthless, after all, or that the standards by which we judge art are faulty. But this misses the essence of art entirely.
Art is both worthless and priceless. In other words, it is worth only what someone will pay for it. I may find it absurd that anyone would pay millions for Rothko’s gargantuan sheets of muddled orange rectangles. But someone else chooses to pay that, and so it is they who set the price.
Because of essentialism.
The essence of art is not whether it is nearly impossible to create or reproduce, because nothing is. It is in the fact that a particular person touched it, put their heart into it, their skin cells, their presence, their time and labour and love.
There are many facets in the lure of essentialism. It may be the dizzy edge of a brush with death, in the case of those drawn towards objects owned by serial killers or pieces of a dead movie star’s crashed car. Or, an object can act as a time machine, when we know that our great-grandmother used a family heirloom, or that something existed a thousand years ago and we now behold it in a museum. Essentialism is a bridge of geography, bringing us the world, in the case of artifacts that were taken from another country. There are many, many reasons why the essence of an object might give us pleasure. We may enjoy the fact that it was made by or in the presence of a person with intelligence, rarity, greatness, heroism; perhaps it is, for us, our brush with a warrior, with a celebrity we love, with supreme physical prowess, with history, with genius, or divinity, or a family tie.
The unique talents and story of Modigliani mean that some people care a great deal about things that he made and touched. These same people do not care about sculptures carved by some unknown engineering student or dockworker, even if they possessed the technical skill of replication. The making of a thing is not in and of itself enough. We want that link to the individual creator.
It is this grim fact to which I relegate my own anonymity, a fact that millions of other struggling artists must also accept. Those who do purchase my work must perceive at least a shimmer of brilliance or beauty; perhaps they find me insightful or funny. I am deeply grateful to these supporters, but in the scheme of the universe, they are few and far between. It is highly likely that in my lifetime or after it, few will care enough about the objects I have touched, including my paintings, to pay dividends just to have my ghost nearby.
Essentialism is a concept delved into at length by Yale scientist Paul Bloom in How Pleasure Works. He explains with great clarity the unconscious impact essentialism has on our choices and our pleasures. The desire to own an original Modigliani stems from the same place in our soul that values a ballplayer’s autograph. A forger can easily copy Michael Jackson’s or Marilyn Monroe’s signature. But the real deal is far more valuable, because Monroe touched the pen and the paper herself.
The idea of transference of essence, that an object can carry a part of the person, is the driving logic behind sympathetic magic. Note that hexes and spells cannot work unless their targets and initiators believe. And when there is belief, it is powerful, and primitive, and as irrational as love.
This sympathetic magic is it is common for people to sleep with the clothing of a deceased or otherwise gone partner. They are holding on to some part of who they have lost. It is why people believe psychics can “see” better when holding the belongings of a lost child or dead relative.
We pass our wedding rings and baby shoes down through our family, and they are treasured beyond riches even when their monetary value is worthless.
These impulses are the same ones many of us condemn when we hear about some pervert nicking a girl’s knickers off the floor to take home with him, or when we read in the paper about some weirdo keeping his victim’s finger or stuffed animal as a “trophy.”
Beautiful or disgusting, the power of essentialism should not be underestimated. Consider its deep resonance in religion- supposed relics of Christ’s cross or shroud or bones of the saints are deeply revered. At its most extreme and most primitive, the near-universal trait in history of ritual cannibalism is driven by essentialism, the desire to imbibe the traits of a person, whether as a warrior or as an ancestor, to keep him or her as a part of one forever, a way to integrate their essence.
Essentialism is a profound intimacy, a relationship, a defense against our own lonely masquerade.
All of this is why I argue that an artist’s biography is inextricably linked to his or her work. His life story, his struggles, his scandals, his thoughts all matter when it comes to assessing our connection to him. When some scholars argue against the maudlin sentimentality of masses glomming onto tragedy, claiming that artwork should stand apart from the personality that created it, they are missing the point. It is the relationship we have with a person, perceived or actual, that increases the value of their cultural contribution. It is the perceived intimacy that determines how deep our attachment will run. Their essence is a conglomeration of all these life experiences.
Their original art is the essence of their essence, if you will.
As Bloom observes, much of the pleasure or connection we derive from art, much of its value, is, “rooted in an appreciation of the human history underlying its creation.”
Modigliani held a powerful erotic charge through his passions, his trials, and his talents. His illustrative skills were important to his women, who gave up their mighty comforts and good reputations- indeed, their very lives- to be with him.
The art remains our tie to this charismatic personality and the strong tide he exerted over our emotions. His excesses and tragedies are not merely the fodder of the unwashed masses. They are an inescapable essence in the artwork itself. They are vital, they are its vitality. According to Oxford, the word “vital” means, “critical” or “absolutely necessary.” Elsewhere, it turns up full circle as “essential.”
And if you go all the way back to its roots, the etymology of “vital” is “life” itself.
We can get close to Modigliani by examining his paintings, and even closer by contemplating his originals. Januszczak writes, “When you lean closer to any example of a pale and silent madonna, clothed or unclothed, you discover brushwork that is always restless and insouciant and brave.”
Essentialism is not rational, but neither are the other profound mysteries and joys in life, from the varieties of religious experiences to falling in love.
If Jeanne had been more rational, she would have stayed with her family and raised her baby, eventually finding a suitor who could provide her with stability. But in all probability, she was, in that blush of youth, powerless to help herself.
She couldn’t live without Modigliani, so she stayed with him. In the end, Jeanne was sure that she could remain with him, that they could merge essences, if she experienced death, too. When he died at thirty-six, of excess and of tuberculosis meningitis, Jeanne concluded their epic love in a garish finale.
Mary Morton writes, “Two days after his death, poor Jeanne, pregnant with their second child, jumped to her death out of a window of her parents’ apartment, sealing the romantic tragedy of the Modigliani myth with a gruesome flourish.”
Young Jeanne could not live without him; now the rest of us who are moved by his life and talents want a piece of him.
I cherish his vision of beauty and sorrow and passion through reproductions of his work. Through these, his story, his essence, lives on, especially in the treasured originals in museums and private homes.
And I can go there, to the gallery, to transcend a century, to stand beside him, just to be in proximity of a portrait, near a canvas, near him, near anything, something that was touched by his hands.
Lorette C. Luzajic
2/12/2022 10:53:14 am
Great essay! I've often wondered why I'm so attracted to Modigliani's art. I think after reading your essay that I know. Thanks for so beautifully explaining his erotic appeal.
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