Jeffrey Meyers has published more than 20 biographies (and more than 45 books); the most relevant one to his superficial 2006 biography of painter/sculptor Amedeo Modigliani (surprisingly to me) is one of writer Katherine Mansfield, both had affairs with Beatrice Hastings). I knew that Modi (as Meyers calls him) painted Blaise Cendras and Jean Cocteau and was a usually drunken figure on the Montparnasse art/;literature world of the first two decades of the 20th century that included not only Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Appolinaire but Diego Rivera (Modigliani also painted a portrait of Rivera) and Anna Akhmatova (with whom he had an affair and drew often). Modi even wrote some poems (very unimpressive in translation at least).
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Considering that Modigliani paintings became highly valued after his death in 1920, it is surprising that there is not a better recent biography of him than the pasting in of material about this person and that with a nine-page history of nude painting in Western art that Meyers provided. Very, very often Meyers quotes someone saying or writing something with which Modi might have agreed or which might characterize his condition at a particular time.
Wanting a biography of Modigliani, I was very frustrated with all the material from the biographies of others Meyers shoveled in. His descriptions of paintings is unhelpful, too. Meyers as an analyst of art is not very interesting.
STILL, the basic facts about the interrupted trajectory from bourgeois Italian-Jewish comfort to destitution, alcoholism and addiction to ether and cocaine is included, and Modigliani WAS a part of a Bohemian art world whose figures are not as famous now as Picasso (whom Meyers portrays as trying to help Modigliani).
Some of the many women Modi seduced survived him, though his last mistress, the bovine (especially nine months pregnant) Jeanne Hertebeuse survived him only a few days before leaping to her death.
Meyers considers "self destructive" as an explanation, not a pattern that needs explaining. Others have read Lautreamont's Malodor and Rimbaud without perishing. Those who tried to be dealers of his paintings (which also tended to involve supplying him with drugs and alcohol) did not market him well until after he was dead, but Meyers does not much blame them.
Both Modigliani's art and his character remain mysterious upon reaching the end of the book. I would readily acknowledge that I learned some things about Modigliani and the art world of Paris in the first two decades of the 20th century (even having known many things about the latter) and the only newer quasi-biography Modigliani: Beyond the Myth is very tendentious, pushing a substitute (Jewish) myth for the Bohemian maudit one. In particular, I'd credit Meyers for making clear how important carving was to Modigliani. The material (marble) was too expensive for him to have in Paris, however.
This biography is a French find (for Barbara) not only for being primarily set in France (Paris and, during WWI, Nice), but because Modigliani was French on his mother's side. French was his mother tongue, though he grew up in Livorno.
©2009, Stephen O. Murray
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