Heavy iron doors pushed wide enough so we could sneak past as a resident left. Geraniums competed to burst out of copper planters. Broad leaves proudly holding clusters of bold red blooms. The courtyard looked pristine. My eye went naturally to the dark corner with the stairs. So this was where Amadeo Modigliani lived.
I had signed up for a walking tour of the Montparnasse district of Paris. It was the summer of 2004 and I was meeting fellow walkers and the tour guide at a particular point. When time came, there was only one other girl who showed up but our guide Paul was kind enough to go ahead with the tour. I believe it made it more personal. Before that day, I had not heard much of this fellow Modigliani. I had seen a painting of his at the Centre Georges Pompidou. Of his personal life, I knew nothing.
After Paul pushed that iron door open and we slipped into the courtyard, we scurried quickly toward that corner stairway before a resident could catch us. Paul told us in hushed tones that this is where ‘Modi’, a pun on peintre maudit (accursed painter), had lived. We walked up the sweeping stairway and came right to the door to the apartment. All three of us were giddy with excitement; we almost felt transported to the beginning decades of the twentieth century. A great artist walked these steps while battling his demons with only self pride as an amour and producing works of art. Walking back down the steps, I kept my hand on the banister, perhaps hoping some of that artistic talent would somehow rub off on me.
Intrigued, I would soon seek out Modi’s work. There seems to be an ethereal sorrow and humanness to his work which bestow upon it more beauty. Despite their haunting quality, he sold just a handful of paintings while he lived. Legend has it he drank copiously and used hashish to mask symptoms of tubercular meningitis. If known, his condition would have exiled him into a quarantined facility and have alienated him from the company of friends, on which he thrived. His contemporary and friend, Picasso, with whom he sometimes exchanged ideas and techniques, was immensely successful because he was willing to sell his paintings while Modi chose to give them away for almost nothing. On the other hand, when approached by art dealers, he was unwilling to negotiate, demanded the price he wanted or there was no deal. It was not unusual, if negotiations did not go his way, for him to fly into a fit of rage to break a canvas in front of a bewildered dealer. There are also stories of landlords using his works on canvas, given in lieu of rent, to patch up mattresses. Perhaps he thought he was being true to his passion or was he the epitome of the tortured artist?
He would fall in love with the nineteen year old Jeanne Hebuterne madly and deeply, just as she did him. If the Montparnasse colony of bohemian, hedonistic, starving artistes thought Modi was fanciful, flamboyant and dramatic, Jeanne’s entry to that life just heightened the drama. But he kept the secret of his illness to himself, not even sharing it with his cherished love who bore him his daughter and left her well to do, petit bourgeois family to be with him, in this (then) run down apartment. Jeanne became Modi’s principal subject of his paintings and is now somewhat synonymous with his work.
Modi finally gained some recognition at a London art show only to die from tubercular meningitis months later. Jeanne moved back to her parents’ home and unable to bear her grief, flung her eight-month pregnant self out of a fifth-story window to her death a day after Modi was buried. Ten years later, her embittered family finally agreed to have her buried with Modi in Pere Lachaise. On her tomb, her epitaph reads: “Devoted companion to the extreme sacrifice.”
As I recall walking up those steps, standing inches away from that front door to the apartment that held so much love, so much talent, so much passion and so much pain, I wonder how different we are today from this tortured story of vagabond love and genius talent. What do we not tell our most beloved for fear of losing them? What do we not dare utter? What demons do we battle which we suppress with a mask of normalcy? What words do we regret by not saying them? Do we mask our friendships with the wine of generality and the hashish of outward appearances? Do we cling on to a thread of genuine passion somewhere deep inside us while in effect burying its growth in the graves of perceived fear and self-inflicted doubt? How do we find the courage to be what we are, in the face of all these snarling, unseen demons? What, in fact, would we, could we achieve, if we were set free of these fears and doubts, to lean on each other, to bare open these emotions, to grow with each other and add beauty to the world? And would we allow ourselves to see and recognise that beauty?
Amadeo Modigliani died on 24th January, 1920. On his tomb, his epitaph reads: “Struck down by Death at the moment of glory.” During his lifetime, his paintings would fetch around ten US dollars. In 2004, the year I stood in front of his door, his portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne sold for $31.3 million US dollars. Perhaps Modi is now at peace with the art world for finally recognising his worth.