LAUNCHPROJECTS - I just finished the new Meryle Secrest biography Modigliani: A Life. Known for his Francis Bacon-esque life of hard drinking, drugging, and womanizing; this biography sheds new light on Modigliani's life-long battle with Tuberculosis. Secrest's biography is in many ways an argument that Modigliani's drinking and drug use was predominantly “a cover (or a compensation) for the debilitating tuberculosis that he kept secret –- a spasmodic condition managed with the opium, laudanum and alcohol that contributed mightily to his tragic death at 35.”
The epidemic of Tuberculosis in Europe from 1800 - mid 1900's was a terrifying and deadly situation - one that could be likened to the AIDS epidemic of contemporary society. A contagious disease without a cure at the time, "consumptives" were frequently shunned and ostracized from society. Secrest's hypothesis is that Modigliani would have gone to any extreme to hide his condition. Immoderation, however, was also a part of the artistic lifestyle - fuel to the creative force - and the majority of artists, writers, dancers, and actors living in Paris in the early to mid 1900's lived in the extreme.
Among Modigliani's great and influential peers at the time included Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Constantin Brancusi and Chaim Soutine. Each felt destined for a special fate in life, one that released them from the conventional mores and standards of their time. As Secrest describes, “like Frank Lloyd Wright a few years later, Modigliani was clearly influenced by Nietzsche’s theories about the emergence of the Übermensch.The artist, as Superman, was divinely endowed, therefore divinely inspired, for as Nietzsche also wrote, the artist had his own truth, or a special kind of truth. ‘He fights for the higher dignity and significance of man; in truth, he does not want to give the most effective presumptions of his art: the fantastic, uncertain, extreme, the sense for the symbolic… the faith in some miraculous element in the genius.’” In a letter to a friend Modigliani wrote that “People like us… have different rights, different values than do the normal, ordinary people because we have different needs which puts us – it has to be said and you must believe it – above their moral standards.”
Modigliani and peers believed they were different, chosen, fated. “In his mind, fatalism and idealism, creativity and death, seemed intertwined.” The conviction that the true artist is one destined to live a tortured and extreme life beyond the bounds and rules of conventional society remains to this day. One of Bruce Nauman’s iconic works of art is a neon installation that reads “The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths.” Nauman, in describing this piece that proclaims the artist as outlier and oracle, stated that “the most difficult thing about the whole piece for me was the statement. It was a kind of test—like when you say something out loud to see if you believe it. Once written down, I could see that the statement [...] was on the one hand a totally silly idea and yet, on the other hand, I believed it. It's true and not true at the same time. It depends on how you interpret it and how seriously you take yourself. For me it's still a very strong thought.” Just add tragedy and stir.