Warning—possible triggers re: depression, death by suicide.
Keeping a promise to a friend shouldn’t be hard. Promising to write about an intensely beautiful and moving art exhibition shouldn’t be hard. But lately words don’t seem to belong to me.
On 17th January, accompanied by my friend Jenny, I went to Tate Modern to see the Modigliani exhibition.
Modigliani was a fixture of my childhood, a passion of my mother’s. MoDIGliani, with an unforgiving G, because none of us knew then that the Italian language abhors harsh sounds. I’m not even sure when I grasped that he was Italian, in the way that I didn’t precisely understand Picasso was Spanish. Remember, I grew up in the 1960s, where the establishing query was “What are you?” Answers varied: Italian, Polish, Russian, Korean, Irish—but ultimately, American because that’s where we’d been born and where we lived. As a kid I probably thought these artists were French, because somehow, even then, I knew that art lived in Paris.
I did not like Modigliani. My literal mind couldn’t work its way around his elongated necks and oval faces, the vacant eyes. I frequently confused the whole of his work with one print hanging in our upstairs hallway, Picasso’s Jacqueline with Flowers (1954) which I still find violently ugly and despise. Mostly, though, I did not like him because Gloria adored him.
The (to me) vile Picasso
Eventually, and without Mom’s input, my antipathy turned to admiration. I became a fan, and did what I inevitably do when my admiration is aroused: I read everything I could about Modigliani. This was pre-internet. My materials amounted to a couple of picture books, one of which was probably a QLP, because I worked for the publisher distributing them in the 1980s.
One day I turned a page and discovered that in January of 1920, Modigliani, a few years shy of 40, died of tuberculosis. My eye travelled down the paragraph and snagged on the coda. Shortly after Modi’s death, Jeanne Hébuterne, his much younger mistress, leapt to her death from the window of her parents’ flat.
She was nine months pregnant.
Jeanne Hébuterne, photographed in her teens
I must have read those lines dozens of times, trying to absorb them. By then I knew I didn’t want children. But even not-a-maternal-bone-in-her-body-me understood in the most visceral way that at nine months your baby’s a wriggling, kicking, reality, an almost out in the world reality. An entity. And I was old enough to have heard people console themselves after a loss with the existence of children or grandchildren, saying, “At least I have a piece of them left.”
I returned to the stark facts, gobsmacked that she hadn’t waited until after the baby’s birth, to end her life. At that point I didn’t know that she and Modigliani left behind a fourteen month daughter, also called Jeanne. I didn’t know that this desperate young woman was barely grown up herself, three months shy of her 22nd birthday, or that she, too, dreamed of becoming an artist. I would accumulate these and other heartbreaking elements of the story over the next few years.
I would learn about misogyny, as well. Several Modigliani biographers (and one rat bastard in particular) take a condescending, harsh line with Jeanne, ignoring her age and inexperience. They depict her as an encumbrance. They blame her for falling pregnant, and blame her for not getting help as Modi lay dying in their unheated garret studio. Well, more about that later, for I have strong opinions about those final days.
They say every novel starts with the question “Why?” For me it was “Why did Jeanne do it?” And also, “Why wasn’t the thought of her unborn child, his child, enough to tether her to life?” That question felt increasingly complicated, the deeper I delved. And delve I did, trying to separate what was true from what might be true, and what certainly did not occur. Even now, I have come across new (to me) information suggesting that some of the drawings I’ve seen ascribed to Jeanne’s hand may be forgeries.
They include these two, offering clear indications that she thought about death, and contemplated ending her life. I’ve spent years believing them to be Jeanne’s, but for now, I suppose the jury’s out.
Jeanne burrowed under my skin and lives there still. What sends a heavily pregnant young woman out of a fifth floor window? What intensity of hopelessness, what level of grief does that? What abnegation of self? I’ll never condemn her for the abandonment of one child and the death of another. I empathise.
Why? Because I’ve often thought about ending my life. Sometimes, when I am lower than low, planning the details cheers me up. Perverse, yes, but I found the courage to discuss it with a friend who lives with depression, and she understood instantly, so I’m hoping you might, as well. When nothing’s good, when the thought of yet another day to endure presses me into the mattress, ideating about suicide suggests a solution—hope, if you will—and a promise that all the sadness, the bullshit, the weariness can end. It is also (I told you this was perverse), a way of imagining one’s self doing something instead of lying around feeling devastated, drowning in sorrow and self hatred. Obviously, a sliver of light always reaches me. Laughter reaches me. The fear of hurting others has stopped me. The fear of trying and failing, winding up even worse off is another deterrent.
None of these things rescued Jeanne. She leapt. She perished.
In the course of reading everything I could find, I looked at photographs of Modigliani’s paintings hundreds of times and believed I knew them. I certainly knew enough to scoff at Pinterest pinners oohing and ahing over what to me were obvious fakes. (Modigliani’s work is some of the most forged art in the world, and the leading expert, Christian Gregori Parisot, was himself one of the biggest perpetrators of this fraud.)
I’ve been in many galleries with beloved paintings, reproductions of which sit in my books and hang on my walls, including Sargent’s Madame X, an all-time favourite. I am sure I’ve even been in a room with Modiglianis before. But holy shit, fetch me a chair and a vinaigrette of sal volatile! Seeing these paintings, assembled like this, after investing so heavily—emotionally and creatively—in the man who made them and the lives they represent, sent my rods and cones into overdrive. What. A. Revelation!
Until now, Modigliani lodged in my head in shades of umber and orange, lots of brown, and deep reds the colour of blood. He was dark, as was Jeanne, nicknamed Coconut by her friends, for the contrast between her brown hair and milky skin.
How wrong I was! Modigliani’s work is about shape and form, yes. It pays homage to the Italian masters, yes. It reflects the preoccupation with African art that swept through Paris at the start of the 20th century, and echoes the work of Modigliani’s peers, yes. But how had I missed that he was a magnificent colourist? He used blue, green, pink and purple all the time. The mottled backgrounds of some portraits would send Messrs Farrow and Ball into raptures and a frenzy of absurdist name calling. The skin tones on certain nudes contain worlds within them. Even the gorgeous book of the exhibition, a gift from my companion, doesn’t capture the depth and richness of his colours.
They zing and startle the eye.
As for the faces I used to find unrealistic, crude, symbolic rather than representative, the faces that looked cookie-cutter identical to me as a kid? Wrong again. My dears, I’d recognise any of those individuals if they sprang back to life and walked into the room. (Though I admit Modi holds an unrealistic, very boyish fantasy about the buoyancy of breast tissue. In his canvases, never does a heavy breast slide toward the armpit, as gravity insists IRL.)
I felt giddy. I scanned paint strokes and ran my eyes down the edges of canvases, noting every age-darkened nail, thinking, “DNA!” I had daft Jurassic Park ideas about rebuilding Modigliani. I hugged myself, thinking, “They were in the room with these paintings.” This is not my normal reaction. (While it’s true that I think a couple of Lucien Freud’s masterpieces look chewy enough to eat, I don’t kvell that he’s been there, touched that.)
Poor Jenny. We wandered around the exhibition space separately, but occasionally collided, and I’d mutter in her ear. “You see this amazing picture? Cocteau hated it and never took delivery. Asshole.” “Hmm, Beatrice. She whisked him out of Montparnasse back up to Montmartre in the early part of the War. Remember in my book, how Jeanne’s looking for him? And there’s a rumour he threw her out of a window during one of their legendary fights.”
Did I mention that Jenny read my manuscript and made patient, wise editorial suggestions, for which I am indebted to her? The things she’s endured because of my obsession! I half suspect she chummed me in case I dropped to the floor into a whimpering heap, overcome by mixed emotions, causing a very un-British scene.
The closest I came to collapse was in the virtual reality zone they’d set up. It put us inside Modigliani’s studio, the one that did for him. This is a photo of it (not sure when it was taken) that appeared in Life magazine:
and this is a more recent photo taken from outside:
The building, and the studio, still exist though it’s been much renovated. In Jeanne and Modi’s time it consisted of two rooms—long and narrow—at the top of many steep flights of stairs. There was no plumbing, and no heat. They installed a coal burning stove, but you had to be able to afford coal—they were regularly skint—and then had to haul it up all those steps. At the end, Modigliani was too weak, and Jeanne, a small woman, too heavily pregnant to navigate it. Water for cooking, bathing and painting also had to be hauled up from an outdoor pump in the building’s courtyard. Their rooms must have been boiling hot in summertime and freezing in winter.
I strapped in. Goggles on, eyeballs adjusting, the first thing I noticed was that they’d left the window open, and it was raining outside. Nice touch. The tour took me around the claustrophobic space, where a cigarette burned so convincingly that I reached out to push the smoke away.
I nearly crawled out of my skin. Though the museum’s room didn’t look precisely like my version of it, all the same, I’d lived in this space, inhabited it alongside my versions of Jeanne and Modigliani. Together we’d pulled chairs up to the huge windows to watch German aircraft swoop through the skies on their bombing raids. We’d made love. We’d eaten, argued, painted and modelled. We’d entertained Modi’s close friend Chaim Soutine (alas, that scene was eventually cut). In the room next door, my Jeanne painted, sketched, or played her violin while Modigliani worked, half-listening through the walls to the murmur of his voice talking to his model of the day. He spoke perfect French. His mother was French, and he’d been well educated.
And in that other room, where so much of daily life occurred, they endured their final hellish week together. I took time describing it. For me it’s a key moment in their story, and I wanted to contextualise Jeanne’s behaviour. I stayed with them, my heart snagging on every ragged breath as Modi wrestled with death. It reached the point, during my revisions, where I’d fumble for the keyboard blindly (luckily I touch type), shuddering and crying, “Why do I have to kill them again? Why can’t I write them a happy ending?”
I was pretty shook coming out of that VR experience, and still hadn’t seen the room where Modigliani’s portraits of his inner circle were exhibited—a circle that included Jeanne, the girl I couldn’t save. But as keeps happening with Jeanne, she was there but not there. He painted her often enough to fill a room with images, but fewer than ten of those canvases were at Tate Modern. Unlike his other friends, male and female, whose quotes about Modigliani helped make up the signage and the VR experience, Jeanne was silent, her thoughts unrepresented. In some of his biographies their friends claim they never once heard her speak. In other versions of the story, and in mine, she has plenty to say for herself—but also understands stillness and its uses.
Once again Jeanne was an absence, though present. That’s precisely why I have been haunted by her story for twenty or so years, and why I felt compelled to write about her. I am certain she mattered, certain she was important. In a strange, selfish way, I wanted the exhibition to make more of her. I don’t want to be the only one who cares about her and mourns her loss.
But an experiment isn’t a failure if you don’t get the result you’d hoped for. It’s still valid science, worth pursuing. The exhibition is mind blowing, even if you think you know this art. It reminded me of what Dr Paul Alexandre, an early patron, said of Modigliani: “Anyone who knows how to look at his portraits of women, of young men, of friends, and all the others, will discover a man of exquisite sensibility, tenderness, pride, passion for truth, purity.”
Being at the Tate reminded me of why Jeanne (and the world) fell in love with him. That obsessive love, and what it did to her, is what brought Jeanne to the window on a cold 3 am in January. It’s what drew her out into the darkness and oblivion.
Modigliani is on at Tate Modern until 2 April.