Opening with a quotation from Francis Bacon, “excellent beauty…hath…strangeness in proportion,” the author ruefully observes that Modi, using the artist’s own favored name, was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” Jeffrey Meyers does not invoke 21st-century psychological/medical/sociological analyses of Modigliani’s life, but it’s almost impossible not to be distracted by one’s knowledge of them while reading the trajectory of this artist’s short life — 1884 – 1920 — and his agglomeration of the many problems that both magnified and diminished his unique talent. Amedeo was an aristocratic Italian artist, pitifully ill, obscure in his lifetime — and a self-advertised Jew.
Meyers seemingly left no source untapped in his research and writing. Each mention of a place, person, or art style merits substantial paragraphs of explication before the author returns to the life narrative in this, one of the few books currently in print on Modigliani. To make his points, the author invokes writers and thinkers from Spinoza to Dos Passos, causing occasional confusion for the reader. He freely offers acid views of Modi’s fellow artists— a tight circle of Frenchmen and expats, who clustered in Paris. Modigliani knew them all, and both their behavior and their intense artistic visions seemingly epitomize the dissolving of European civilization in the first two decades of the 20th century.
One major editorial shortcoming of a book about an artist is that its 37 black-andwhite, small-sized plates, while numbered in the front matter, are clustered, unnumbered and unpaged mid-volume; each time an art work is analyzed in the text, the reader scrambles to find its facsimile, not knowing if it even appears in the book. Despite this, Modigliani is a worthwhile addition to the scant biographical canon of a great artist.