by ALEX CARNEVALE
What a dream Paris is, what enthusiasm there is there, and yet what decorum and order. I went many nights without sleep, without sitting down. People are mad, they're intoxicated, they're happy to sleep in the gutters & congregate in the heavens.
- George Sand
Modigliani arrived in Paris in January of 1906, but the Italian Jew did not feel like a Parisian until he had a home of his own. He moved into a hotel, then out of a hotel when he could no longer afford it.
His first studio was also his first apartment. The space was surrounded by trash, detritus, misused canvases. He still brought anyone he could to see his work. "During the Renaissance the painters lived in palaces, in velvet, in the sun!" he complained.
"Everyone loved Modigliani," intoned one of his enemies. A year earlier he had seen a Russian woman lonely and sad in a cafe. Since this was Paris before the war, she was the finest Russian poet of her generation, Anna Akhmatova.
He made love to her and showed her that he knew of what she suffered, for it was in him also. No woman ever spoke ill of Modigliani, since he was sweet in victory or defeat.
All around Modigliani genius proliferated. The hard metalwork needed for his sculptures grated on him. The toxic fumes, and his general ill health, meant he coughed blood. Still his Sephardic Jewish charms contravened his general lack of hygiene and gloomy surroundings. "He was our aristocrat," Cocteau once savagely joked.
He returned to painting, focusing on portraits because they provided the kind of renumeration he could accept relative to their difficulty. Art schools were hot, drunken rooms packed wall-to-wall depending on how much clothing the models wore. Venice had offered more in charm, and less in the way of competition, but it had no hope of being Paris.
Picasso threw a party for Rousseau, who got too drunk and had candle wax drawn over his lips. Another time, at a bash for Braque, Modigliani burst on the scene and informed the collection of artists and artists' wives and girlfriends that someone was trying to kill him. Picasso hid him from the assailant in the cellar.
He painted Cocteau, who was so disgusted and insulted by the portrait that he gave it away. Decades later it sold for so much money Cocteau regretted the momentary insolence and vanity.
He was known and loved, but not appreciated. Each street over another painter burnished an international reputation; the most famous American painter of the time could barely get gallery space in Paris. He was neither first nor last among equals, and his return to painting showed that. Yet it was true what Cocteau would say: "There is something like a curse on this very noble boy."
To improve his situation, common sense and providence suggested a woman. Her name was Beatrice Hastings; she wrote a popular gossip column. He called her Bea and they became roughly inseparable. Later, much later, he would throw her through a plate glass window.
Everyone says that Modigliani drank too much, but only some charge his behavior to it. Picasso seemed to believe the entire thing a ruse, but he was appreciative that his friend brought hash everywhere he went. Amedeo was ashamed of his studio, its dingy cherry tree and pathetic outdoor space.
His situation began to improve and decline at the same time. Few suspected he was seriously ill with consumption. His paintings, in the capable hands of a few art dealers he might rely upon, brought him out of the ghetto and into more dignified surroundings: a hotel room he could afford.
It was there he took the woman who would become his only wife, though they were never properly wedded. Jeanne Hébuterne was the real aristocrat in spirit if not in reality. Like her husband she spoke French and Italian, unlike her husband she had little regard for an inspired desolation. Once, when she planned to go to Marseilles the mere sight of a homeless person at the train station caused her to ask the conductor, "for a ticket to somewhere more civilized!"
Jeanne was fourteen years Amedeo's junior, and her weirdly foreign/native beauty and general manner utterly captivated him. As biographer Meryle Secrest put it, "This was the kind of girl one married: discreet, loyal, and quietly deferential, with an unsuspected streak of independent thought and creative accomplishment." Her practical side buoyed him.
After his death, Jeanne was disconsolate, but prepared. She plotted her expeditious departure from the world; whether she really expected to be reunited with her husband, we can suspect but not really know. She had a fourteen month old daughter when she jumped out of a fifth floor apartment window, and another gestating in her uterus. Here is her orphaned daughter of the same name:
Young Jeanne Modigliani was sent to Florence after her parents were interred. She was told nothing of them until adulthood. She would find out that after her father died, her mother blithely reassured a friend that, "Oh! I know that he's dead. But I also know that he'll soon be living for me."
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
"Say It Again" - Bad Things (mp3)
"Cold Case" - Bad Things (mp3)