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Secrest, respected biographer of art world personalities (Being Bernard Berenson), musicians such as Leonard Bernstein, and others, sets out in this volume to resurrect the reputation of the modernist painter Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920). Long the stuff of myth and sensationalism, Modigliani's life was fictionalized in book and film while his lifelong battle with tuberculosis was ignored and his art marginalized. Up until recently the literature has portrayed Modigliani as a ranting, drunken, stoned womanizer—"the archetypal accursed artist," as Secrest puts it. Rather, she says, he suffered throughout his life from various illnesses that he attempted to conceal. But the misperception contributed to Modigliani's status as a minor artist. The "separation of truth from fiction" is the author's cause. In her revisionist account, Secrest delves into numerous primary sources to weave together a comprehensive and well-rounded biography of the artist and to bring to life bohemian society in early 20th-century Paris. Additionally, the author surveys the history of Modigliani scholarship, the ongoing problem of forgeries of the artist's work, and the "chaotic field" of authentication. The result is an enjoyable read for all, and a most welcome contribution to Modigliani scholarship. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Secrest offers vividly detailed accounts of Parisian bohemia. . .She takes us on a fascinating, up-to-the-present tour of the artist’s posthumous history. . . particularly gripping in her description of the end of his life. . . Secrest’s book both preserves and alters [Modigliani’s] legend. Modigliani’s story is by far the most interesting thing about him. It is certainly the most complex thing, and Secrest lets the complexity unfold in complicated ways, probing it with a historian’s eye, dramatizing it with an advocate’s passion." —Holland Cotter, The New York Times Book Review
"[Secrest is an] adept biographer. . . a masterly account." —Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker
"An engaging writer and highly accomplished biographer…the man [Secrest] portrays is far more complicated and interesting than his popular image." —Suzanne Muchnic, Los Angeles Times
"With a keen nose for canards and unprecedented access to primary materials, exemplary biographer Secrest revisits the life and achievement of artist Modigliani. . . Every aspect of Modigliani’s life takes on new meaning, including his iconic portraits. . . Astute and gripping." —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred)
I'm glad I read this book as I like Modigliani's paintings and the book was very informative. Secrest has done very thorough research and the photographs through the book really add to it. There are also a few color plates. However, it really could have done with a map of Paris since the author refers to various areas without the reader being able to picture where they are in relation to each other. The explanation for the secrecy surrounding Modigliani's tubercular meningitis illness and his use of drugs and alcohol to cover pain, makes clear why there has been so much confusion as to the type of person the artist was. Nevertheless, I found a lot of the writing irritating - the jumps from one person to another where the reader has to figure out who is being talked about, the repetition of certain words or phrases in close conjunction, the insertion of the author in places where it is just a distraction- all interfered with the flow of the narrative and made me wonder why there hadn't been more of an editorial revision. Maybe the editor felt Secrest's experience - she has written ten biographies- was enough. But it wasn't - it could have been a better book with more control from the editors.
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Modigliani: A Life, by Meryle Secrest, Knopf, New York, ISBN 978-0-307-26368-1
By Donald A. Collins
Title: Amadeo Modigliani: His Bad Image Repaired
I don't know how many times in my extensive travels I have encountered the work of the artist, Amadeo Modigliani, but at each viewing of his powerful nudes, sculptures and other paintings, I was reminded of the bad publicity which he enjoys today. Too bad, but after all Carravagio was a murderer!
Even the relatively sympathetic account in Wikipedia continues this theme of a licentious and rampantly wild life style, although the accompanying photo there seems to belie that image.
"Amedeo Clemente Modigliani (July 12, 1884 - January 24, 1920) was an Italian artist who worked mainly in France. Primarily a figurative artist, he became known for paintings and sculptures in a modern style characterized by mask-like faces and elongation of form. He died in Paris of tubercular meningitis, exacerbated by poverty, overwork, and addiction to alcohol and narcotics."
Wikipedia documents his shaky start into his life of poverty and turmoil. Born a Sephardic Jew in Livorno, Italy, where Jews had long sought refuge from persecution, "Modigliani was the fourth child of Flaminio Modigliani and his French wife, Eugenia Garsin. His father was a money-changer, but when his business failed, the family lived in poverty. Amedeo's birth saved the family from ruin, as, according to an ancient law, creditors could not seize the bed of a pregnant woman or a mother with a newborn child. The bailiffs entered the family's home just as Eugenia went into labour; the family protected their most valuable assets by piling them on top of her.Read more ›
A book in need of a good editor. Writing is ponderous and often irritating. Secrest is a primarily a researcher who happens to write. Just because you dug it up, doesn't mean it needs to be in the book. Often had me asking what is the point of this or how is it relevant. Finally, I started skipping paragraphs and then pages. Very disappointing book on one of my favorite artists.
Meryle Sechrist has proven her merits as a biographer in her books on Frank Lloyd Wright, Kenneth Clark, Bernard Berenson and Leonard Bernstein and she has always shown a penchant for cleansing the facade of famous people and examining their lives in context with the times in which they lived and worked. In MODIGLIANI: A LIFE she has written a near novel about a fascinating artist whose works are deeply admired but whose personal reputation has been to date that of a inordinately handsome alcoholic, hashish addicted, imbiber of absinthe womanizer whose behavior when under the influence of his drugs of choice was that of a self destructive and cruel bohemian.
What Secrest brings to light in this book is how Modigliani's shame at having tuberculosis for most of his life, hiding that ominous fact by altering his mind with alcohol etc. partially explains his behavioral patterns. It may sound like a clinical soap opera story but in Secrest's learned and highly respected hands a new vision of the life of Modigliani surfaces, making way for a closer appreciation of his art. Though he died young (at age 35!) he left behind his trademark elongated necked portraits of women and men, his polished portraits of colleagues and interesting models, his highly sensually charged nudes on both canvas and paper, and his sculptures whose lines are still being imitated today by artists. Secrest shares his life as an Italian born Sephardic Jew from an impoverished family, his affairs with Russian poet Anna Akhmatova and the English journalist Beatrice Hastings and his preoccupation with psychic phenomena.
The book is accompanied by numerous photographs of the artist and his colleagues and acquaintances and reproductions of some of his works.Read more ›
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