Modigliani: Misunderstood

A new exhibition positions the bohemian artist's work above even his operatic life story

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On a page in his sketchbook at the start of 1920, Modigliani scrawled, “A new year. Here begins a new life.” Says curator Klein: “He wrote this in Paris three weeks before he died. He knew he was dying, but he worked right up to the end.” Modigliani probably caught pneumonia. Weak and emaciated, he collapsed at home and was taken unconscious to a charity hospital, where he died two days later.

His funeral was attended by a Who’s Who of the Paris art world: Picasso, Léger, Derain, Brancusi and hundreds more. In the funeral procession mourners reported being approached by dealers eager to buy Modigliani paintings. Galleries with his work in stock raised their prices tenfold; purchasers marked them up tenfold again. Forgeries flooded the market. Even police officials were eager for his paintings. Modigliani’s mother and siblings in Italy never benefited— they owned few, if any, of his paintings. Fourteen-month-old Jeanne’s only inheritance was a collection taken up on her behalf by her father’s fellow artists.

Four years after Modigliani’s death, French novelist Michel Georges-Michel made him the tragic hero of a melodrama, Les Montparnos (the English edition was called Left Bank), which he modeled on the opera La Bohème. Since then, Modigliani’s life has been romanticized in other books, on stage and in films, most recently in a movie (no release date has been set) by Scottish writer-director Mick Davis, starring Andy Garcia. Cultural historian Maurice Berger, who has examined the artist’s posthumous reputation, says that Modigliani has “never been a darling of Modernist art historians, who consider his work perhaps not that important, but the public has always loved it: its elegance, its refinement, its panache. And people always love a good story.”


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