Amadeo Modigliani was unique among the great artists of the 20th century. He didn't have the breath-taking, explosive color madness of Van Gogh or the eclectic, mind-boggling genius of Picasso. But like Rimbaud, Modigliani created works with perspectives and color that linger and in turn haunt the viewer. Like Rimbaud, he was a stranger and could not live in the world in which he found himself. He died in 1920 at the age of 35 from alcoholism, drug addiction, tuberculosis, and above all, self-endowed poverty. Two days later, his pregnant wife and the model for his last painting, Jeanne Hébuterne, jumped to her death out of despair.
If he had sold his work for more than a few francs, if he had acquired patronage and some comfort, he wouldn't have lived much longer than he did. He was a haunted man and he was dying of a physical disease for which there was no medical control.
Since then, his work has become a commodity and his life-story the fairy-tale fodder of the "Myth of the Starving Artist".
Since then, his work has become a commodity and his life-story the fairy-tale fodder of the Myth of the Starving Artist.
When he first came to Paris, Modigliani met the young Picasso who was in what the pedants call his "blue period." Blue vs. ashen-gray evidently clashed and ran off in divergent directions—Modigliani to a roach-ridden attic where he died, unknown; Picasso to a villa where he became the world's first painter-superstar and died at 91 at his easel.
Àpropos, a few years ago, Modigliani's last painting was auctioned at Sotheby's for over $31 million dollars. What are we to make of that? Is the painting worth it?
It's a "talking-head" question. Are Jackson Pollack's scribblings worth the fortune some people are paying for them? Are Andy Warhol's dilettante offerings worth the paper they're xeroxed on? The cold fact is that something is worth the price that someone is willing to pay. And that's that!
There is no sublime irony in the image of a "starving artist" now revered and massaged by a Japanese billionaire industrialist or an American millionaire stock-broker. There is only the sticky coating of masturbatory consumerism. And what are we to make of that?
In America, the arts have historically had a secondary, often peripheral role in the society. The European and Asian flower of patronage, both state and private, didn't fully blossom in the Protestant work-ethic and the "manifest destiny" of the U.S. Anal-retentive in sex, anal-retentive in art... that was the comforting anxiety all wrapped up in red, white, and blue. It hasn't changed. But what has changed is the perspective of the merchandisers. Once they ogled the arts and artists as commodities, all joyous, profitable hell broke loose. Art, including the performing arts, became mouth-watering inventory for selling, buying, and collecting.
The frenzy is no longer inspired by the question, "Who will sell this for me?" Now, the query of motivation is, "How can I make someone sell this for me?", or better, "How can I make someone buy this?" It is the simple driving force of consumerism, amplified in the U.S. and now, in the Age Americana, spread across the global village like McDonald's butter. Disposable, discardable, here tonight, gone tomorrow morning. Everyone is a painter, a writer, a filmmaker, a dancer, a musician, an artist. Anything is art and art is anything.
The tragedy of Amadeo Modigliani was that he met the Blue Picasso and not the Gold one. If he lived today, and painted as he did then (which he probably wouldn't), he might still be a self-destructive addict but he wouldn't be poor. And what do we make of that?
We make hay while the sun shines!