Monday 4 November 2013 - by Kyl Chhatwal
It is 1906, and Italy’s answer to Modernism—the painter Amedeo Modigliani—has just arrived in Paris. Among the penniless bohemian artists of Montmartre, the flashy 21-year-old Italian, from a once-rich but now impoverished Livorno family, cuts an aristocratic figure indeed. “There’s only one man in Paris who knows how to dress,” says Pablo Picasso of him. Modigliani turns heads with lavish get-ups he can barely afford—including one particularly memorable chocolate brown corduroy suit. A handsome man, he’s constantly fawned over by women. Fernande Olivier, a former mistress of Picasso’s, once described Modigliani as so “young and strong… you couldn’t take your eyes off his beautiful Roman head with its absolutely perfect features.”
Behind these perfect features, however, burn both relentless ambition and a powerful obsession with artifice. After a year in Paris Modigliani completely abandons what he calls his “dirty bourgeois” sensibilities to become the “bohemian’s bohemian,” deliberately outdoing his fellow artists in poverty, dissipation, and slovenly habits.
A reader of Nietzsche, Modigliani is convinced that true creativity comes only through defiance and disorder. So as effortlessly as changing clothes, the dandy trades in his comfortable persona for that of the booze-soaked, drug-addled genius. And there’s a certain logic to his tortured behaviour: stripping naked in restaurants, or tearing apart cafes in drunken rages, Modigliani is really masking a deeper secret, something that will eventually kill him. From the age of 16, he’s suffered from tuberculosis. His drunk-artist act is merely a complex subterfuge, say scholars today, a way to mask the symptoms of his disease. After all, as the New Yorker critic Peter Shjeldahl puts it, “drunks were tolerated” in early 20th century Paris, while “carriers of infectious diseases were not.”
So who is the real Amedeo Modigliani? Even his birth involves a certain dishonesty, if not elements of farce. The year he was born his father, Flaminio, declared bankruptcy. To avoid losing everything, he evoked an archaic Italian law forbidding creditors to repossess the bed of a pregnant woman. So onto his wife’s distended belly—and onto his in utero son—Flaminio piled all the worldly goods he hoped to save.
Arriving in Paris, Amedeo first wanted to be a sculptor, and studied under Constantin Brancusi who introduced him to African art. But he quickly gave up the chisel (all that rock dust was bad for his health) for the paint brush. Although something of those long, blank faces of African sculpture stuck in his imagination. Modigliani projected these faces onto his contemporary European sitters—mostly women, often nudes. With their thin, swan-like necks, and disturbing, vacant eyes, his portraits seem to show us the masks we habitually hide behind.
Modigliani was prolific, and between 1916 and 1919 he produced his finest work, while always aware that he was painting against the clock. The ambitious young painter wished to be remembered, and in his last years, developed the distinctive style he’s known for today. With its simplicity and accessibility, this style has allowed his paintings to remain in high demand nearly a hundred years after their creation. In 2010, a Modigliani painting sold for $68 million USD at auction. And experts estimate that over a thousand Modigliani forgeries are presently circulating in the art market, making him one of the most forged artists in history.
In August 1919, Modigliani finally enjoyed some success at a showing in London, where critics noted that his paintings had a “suspicious resemblance to masterpieces.” Five months later, in January 1920, a neighbour found him in a coma in his apartment. He later died of tubercular meningitis in hospital. He was 35. Italy’s great Modernist, Modigliani was cut down in his most prolific period, and at the peak of his powers, before he could reveal what, exactly, lay behind all those beautiful masks he made.