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Books: Modigliani and Hébuternein in bohemia

Semi-scandalous biographies of artists are all the rage

Modigliani died in Paris of pulmonary meningitis in 1920, aged thirty-five. Three quarters of a century later his image as the paradigmatic Bohemian artist still exerts its magnetism, commanding the critical attention of June Rose in Modigliani’s The Pure Bohemian and the not-so-critical passions of Patrice Chaplin in Into the Darkness Laughing.

Patrice Chaplin tells the story of Jeanne Hebuterne, Modigliani’s last mistress who committed suicide by jumping from the fifth-floor window of her parents’ home the morning after Modigliani’s funeral. She was twenty-two years old and nine months pregnant with their second child. In the first third of the book, Chaplin discloses her personal fascination for Modigliani as she sets off on a Bohemian pilgrimage (necessarily extensive since Modigliani probably moved apartment more than any other artist in history). This makes tedious reading. She labours under the impression that the stones, the neighbours, the very concierges can somehow throw new light on what occurred seventy years back. In a narrative too much about its own making, Chaplin confides in us the minutiae of her trivial pursuit. She informs us that she wants to “set the record straight” regarding Jeanne, and reveal her as a woman in her own right, maligned by her contemporaries, Modigliani’s dealer Zborowski and the critics. But the book is marred by its author’s overpresent syrupy empathy. There is little new material here save for a handful of letters from Jeanne H to her close friend, Germaine Labaye. One third of the way through, the book switches style to biographical novel.

Jeanne Hebuterne, born to provincial respectable bourgeois parents, gravitated at the age of nineteen into Modigliani’s orbit. M. and Mme Hebuterne recoiled in horror when they found their daughter was living with, and later (twice) made pregnant by, a Jewish Italian penniless alcoholic artist habituated to drugs who was reputed to sleep with most of the women who modelled for him. They were unwilling to admit to his talent (their own son, André was an academic landscape painter) or his charm, refinement, intelligence and striking beauty –  physical and of character. Mme Hebuterne failed in her attempt to separate Jeanne from Amedeo when she chaperoned her daughter during the trip to Haut-de-Cagnes in 1918. Efforts to legitimise the baby daughter (named Jeanne) by forcing through a marriage also failed.

Any biography of Jeanne H, however tragic her story, is bound to be overshadowed by Modigliani. His spirit dominated her and also dominates this book. By contrast June Rose is wary of such mesmeric attentions and she takes scrupulous care not to fall into the prurient snares along the path of the man and his myth. Her approach consequently is more persuasive and readable. It is broadly researched and generously illustrated in colour and black-and-white. She avoids the pitfalls of discussing the Bohemian life in a matching style, but one yearns for a few more digressions; her account is so capably linear. The chapter on Jeanne takes its proper place in the sequential biography of the artist and lucidly presents the plight of the young woman who would escort the drunken Modigliani home from cafés late at night or calmly endure his affairs with other women.

Interestingly, June Rose omits the affair between Amedeo and Madame Jacobelli, the grocer’s wife in Haut-de-Cagnes whose seventh child, Lina, bore a strong resemblance to Modigliani, which prominently featured in Patrice Chaplin’s account. Modigliani the artist and Modigliani the Bohemian seem inseparable. He required the Parisian environment. When away in Provence or home in Livorno, he yearned for Paris. Books on the years between 1912 and 1920 are always replete with lists of artists drawn to the capital: Picasso; Braque; Derain; Matisse; Leger; Arp; Epstein; Lipchitz; Kisling; Rousseau; Marevna; Soutine; Brancusi; Bakst; Gris; van Dongen; Rouault; Pascin; Orloff; Kikoine; Zadkine; Utrillo; Vlaminck. It is paradoxical that whilst he knew all these artists and was so colourful a participant on the Bohemian scene, his art was insular, on the periphery of, and only tangentially influenced by African masks, and his work alongside Brancusi in 1909. His difficulty in selling his art can largely be ascribed to his remarkable turbulence of character and his habit of giving away his drawings – often in the presence of his dealer. At the disastrous exhibition of his works at the Berthe Weill gallery in 1917, the public were offended by the sight of pubic hair, and the show closed on its opening day. It was only then that the refined sensuality of his paintings became peppered with scandal and his works were sought by collectors.

Ironically, his first major acceptance was not in Paris but at the London exhibition of modern French art (at the Mansard Gallery in Heals) organised by Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell. Modigliani was not present.

June Rose’s final chapter entitled ‘The Loss and the Legacy’ is particularly poignant. She describes his funeral with the dealers descending on the mourners to barter with them during the Kaddish in the hope of gathering up available Modiglianis. Perhaps more than any artist this century his work has been linked with the cult of his personality. A new study, focusing on his art, would be refreshingly welcome.

June Rose The Pure Bohemian (Constable 249 pp, 8 colour plates, 75 b/w, £20)

Patrice Chaplin Into the Darkness Laughing (Virago Press, 151 pp, 17 b/w, £20)

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Bohemian Quarry'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 3 December 1990