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Lecture: Meryle Secrest

Biographer Secrest
Questions Authorities
On Artist Amedeo Modigliani

[1]Perhaps a detective in a previous life, Meryle Secrest can’t resist challenging a too-good-to-be-true story.  Expanding on her work as a journalist, she relentlessly pursues facts behind myths surrounding larger-than-life artists and their supporters.  Secrest’s efforts have thus far produced ten biographies, including psychologically insightful ones on Salvador Dalí and Romaine Brooks.  As with her latest, Modigliani: A Life [2], she ferrets out family and childhood factors to illustrate their influence on the life and artistic development of her subjects.

Undoubtedly a stop on a book tour, Secrest’s talk at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Concerts & Lectures Series [3] on March 19, 2011, gave her fans the pleasure of listening to her narrate the circumstances surrounding the evolution of her latest biography.  Curious about the widely accepted version of the life of artist Amedeo Modigliani, she marshaled her ample journalistic skills to go after the truth.

The story of a “darling, gifted artist, willing to live in squalor, who drank and drugged himself to death,” and whose 21-year-old girlfriend, eight months pregnant with their second child, leapt out a window of her parents’ apartment 36 hours after her 35-year-old lover died, reads like a discrete form of “chick lit,” Secrest explained.  In keeping with that particular appeal, she added, her publisher selected the photo that it did to use on the biography’s cover.

Part of a group of artists and their friends who gathered in the cafés of avant garde Paris, Modigliani died from tubercular meningitis [4].  Enough bad will and grudges survived him to create the negative images that proliferated after his death.

Secrest loves to tell stories and, during the lecture, offered many about her quest for descendants of people close to Modigliani willing to share material passed down to them.  Undaunted by dead ends like tracking down a supposed archive to a museum that never housed them and encountering resistance from the heirs of Jeanne Hébuterne (the ill-fated lover) who refused to speak with her, Secrest hit pay dirt when she located the grandchildren of Paul Alexandre, Modigliani’s first patron.  The extensive archive the collector’s family made available to her contained valuable material on her artist.

In addition, Secrest benefited from the assistance of several scholars who, well versed in the man and his times, helped her paint a more nuanced picture of Modigliani, especially concerning his substance abuse.  From the Alexandre family, Secrest gathered that the artist never abused alcohol though he drank wine regularly as did his cohorts; he used drugs, legal at that time, seeking to expand his vision.

At this point in the lecture, Secrest introduced the artist’s childhood history, an aspect of her writing that sets her apart from others’ discourses on artists’ lives and works.  In the case of Modigliani, the financial losses of his family prior to his birth and the tuberculosis [5] he contracted at sixteen, which would plague him throughout his life, set him apart from his peers.  The stigma surrounding his disease forced him to manage his recurrences in secret lest he be whisked away to a life in quarantine, the prevailing treatment at that time.  Secrest contends that Modigliani used alcohol and drugs to manage his symptoms and their accompanying pain.

In a 2003 interview [6] with then NEH Chairman Bruce Cole, to his observation that, “You notice other things other people miss,” Secrest replied, “And I love doing that.  I think if I had had an education, perhaps I would have become a psychiatrist.”  That inclination reveals itself in the way she deduces the powerful impact tuberculosis had on Modigliani’s life.

Secrest spoke of the “violent hemorrhaging and fever” suffered by the teenager, whose survival she attributed to his mother’s persistent caregiving.  She then fast forwarded to the adult Modigliani’s fascination with alchemy, death and transformation, relating how he carried around a poem, “a rambling outpouring of rage and despair” by an author who died from tuberculosis at 24.  Her conclusion?  Modigliani’s surviving such a frightening ordeal explains so much about him.

During the remainder of her presentation, Secrest displayed several slides of Modigliani’s paintings, briefly exploring the connections between his life and his art, then focused on her discoveries about his girlfriend.  Analyzing watercolors Hébuterne produced in the months before her death, the biographer surmised that she had planned her suicide well before her lover died.

The lecture ends with the last photo taken of Modigliani and another story, this one about Secrest’s pilgrimage to the artist’s final residence.  She kept looking for a happy ending, she confessed, and finally found it in the apartment.  Never one to ruin a good tale, Secrest refused to give away the ending, instead directing the audience to her new book.