Non­fic­tion

Modigliani: A Life

Jef­frey Meyers
  • Review
By – October 18, 2011
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. Amadeo 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. 

Arlene B. Soifer earned degrees in Eng­lish, and has had many years of expe­ri­ence as a free­lance writer, edi­tor, and pub­lic rela­tions professional.

Discussion Questions