My first artistic passion was for Amedeo Modigliani. Not a great leap forward from the leggy nymphs of Petty and Vargas, but at least his nudes had pubic hair. I suspect that I was as much attracted by the little I could glean about his life as I was by his painting. He seemed to have much more fun than Gulley Jimson and was entirely more sexy. Had my sleep-out had the Mecca Dairy mirror, I might well have tried out a few Modigliani routines and adopted his arms-akimbo stance as my own. I rather fancied I did look just a little bit like him. (If I had had his corduroy suit I could have really pissed my father off.) I adopted the one aphorism of Modigliani I had read as my own: une vie brève mais intense (a short but intense life). What a wanker!
Just before the Library’s bargain book sale last month I was trying to find some books that I could donate to the sale to make room on our shelves for the books piled all over our window seat, where by now only the cat can fit, and only if curled up. I spotted an old, hardcover biography of Modigliani which I hadn’t looked at for years, and I thought I might have found one – already a great success rate for me. But as soon as I opened it I knew it would never go. All I had to do was reread the death scene, the two death scenes, actually, because his lover and model Jeanne Hebuterne threw herself out of a window the next morning at dawn, nine months pregnant.
Jeanne Modigliani, their first child, is the author of the book, which from a look at the dates might have been published just after Hamish Keith had had to make do with gleaning the odd aphorism. He would have known so much more, like the fact that if for him “une vie brève mais intense” was a laudable stand against monotony, for Modigliani dying young had always been the only possible outcome; he had been diagnosed with tuberculosis when he was only sixteen. This is not to say that his lifestyle (a friend drops in near the end to find him and Jeanne in bed, surrounded by empty wine bottles and open sardine tins) helped, but maybe this is where the intensity comes in. Jeanne the daughter recalls how her grandparents always mentioned Modigliani's drug use, rather than his drinking, she thinks because they rather admired Baudelaire.
So last night upon reading that passage in Native wit I got the book back down and there as a frontispiece is the photo in the corduroy suit! What a suit it is. It brings to mind the dress Scarlett O’Hara makes out of her green velvet curtains. Three piece, thick, the ribs gleaming, worn over a light-coloured necktie and a white shirt with a Peter Pan collar. The chair leg rests on a piece of rubbish, the hand dangles a cigarette. The gaze is lovely dark and deep.
I’m hoping tomorrow evening to get a chance to show the book to Hamish: yes, the library has a copy, just as old and yellowed as mine, down in our marvellous basement stack. It’s called Modigliani: man and myth.
Hamish Keith on “Hamish Keith: man and myth” is tomorrow evening at Central Library. Come at 5:30 PM for a glass of wine thanks to Glengarry Wines; the talk starts at 6:00. For more information, see our What’s on pages.