A handsome artist is ruined by booze and drugs, living in bohemian squalour, leaving behind a trail of suicidal mistresses and illegitimate children—including a half-Canadian born to Simone Thiroux. That’s the popular myth of artist Amedeo Modigliani (b. 1884), whose life story is given a sympathetic revision in Secrest’s evocative new biography. Her book floats an unexpected hypothesis to explain away some of the artist’s loutish behaviour. According to Secrest, Modigliani’s predilection for alcohol and hash was a cover for his illness, tubercular meningitis. “He feigned an addiction he did not have, at least at first, in order to conceal a disease,” says Secrest. It seems like an apologist’s desperate gambit to reclaim her hero’s reputation, but Secrest backs up her theory with compelling research and builds credibility with every page.
Modigliani was well educated though raised in poverty in Italy, where he survived bouts of TB as a child. At 22, he moved to Paris to rebrand himself as a charming bohemian. He moved in café circles with Picasso, Brancusi and all the big-name artists in Montparnasse in the early 1900s. Yet, Modi, as he was known, refused to make art that belonged to anyone else’s “ism,” such as cubism. At the time, people with TB were socially shunned, so Modi kept his malingering illness to himself. As his health deteriorated, he abandoned sculpture for painting and spent his last days feverishly making portraits to secure his position in art history. He died on the cusp of stardom, 35 years old, leaving behind a two-year-old daughter named after her mother, Jeanne Hébuterne, who was eight months pregnant with her second child when she committed suicide soon after Modi’s death.
Secrest received legal threats from Hébuterne’s family, so she had to cull sections from the book on Modi’s last relationship. Still, it does not disappoint. The book ends with a riveting chapter on the daughter, Jeanne, a Second World War Resistance fighter, feminist and Communist in France. She died in 1984, an alcoholic.