Modigliani and the Poets


Jeffrey Meyers

The cultured and literate Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) was passionately interested in and emotionally involved with Italian and French poetry of the past as well as with the work of his friends, Anna Ahkmatova, Max Jacob and Blaise Cendrars. On the 100th anniversary of his tragic death in 1920 we can see how the poets who fascinated him portrayed the pain of sex and love, the exaltation of art, the effect of narcotics on creativity and the need to suffer extreme experience. They encouraged his compulsion to live dangerously, and taught him to see the artist as victim, outcast and superman. They provided intellectual justification for the deliberate derangement of his senses and glorified his devotion to art. He didn’t just read poets. He lived according to their principles as if they were imprinted on his body as well as in his mind. These powerful poets both inspired his work and—as he was drawn to disaster and followed their maniacal descent–helped to destroy him.

Modi (as he was called) was Jewish, Italian, handsome, charismatic, charming and seductive as well as impoverished, tubercular, alcoholic, self-destructive, suicidal and involved in many wretched love affairs. Proud of Italian poetry, he fluently recited Dante’s Inferno and La Vita Nuova, Petrarch’s love sonnets, Ariosto’s epic Orlando Furioso, Leopardi’s lyrical Canti, Carducci’s patriotic declamations in the Odi Barbare and D’Annunzio’s sensuous Canto Novo. Modigliani’s French listeners missed the meaning of the words when he declaimed long passages in Italian, but they understood his need to express himself, make an mpression and assert his national identity. The poignant lines from the Inferno that he loved to quote seemed to reflect his own tragic decline. They expressed his intellectual confusion:


In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within

a dark wood where the straight way was lost (1.1);


his disappointments and failures:


Without hope we live in desire (4.42);


his sense of hopelessness and depression:


What sweet thoughts, what longing led them to the woeful pass



the contrast between his great expectations and abject wretchedness:


There is no greater sorrow than to remember happy times in

misery (5.121);


his descent into poverty, alcoholism and drug addiction:


Consider your origin: you were not born to live like brutes, but

to follow virtue and knowledge (26.118).


These famous and familiar lines, schoolboy knowledge for most Italians, contained bitter truths for Modi. One friend, thinking of Modi declaiming Dante’s Inferno , compared his cries while drunk to those of “a sinner condemned to eternal torment.”

Modi’s refined and cosmopolitan mother had translated into French works by the poet, playwright and novelist Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938), the most famous Italian author of his time. At the turn of the century D’Annunzio was notorious for his heated rhetoric, his luxurious way of life and his flamboyant love affairs. During the Great War he became an outstanding hero in all three military services. After the war, he ruled the independent city of Fiume for a year before being blasted out by the Italian government. The historian Denis Mack Smith defined the quintessential qualities that so strongly appealed to the young and impressionable artist: “Perpetually lonely and unsatisfied, [D’Annunzio] took everything to excess, seeking always for new experiences and indulgences, for greater speed, greater passion, a more shocking private life, a more violent assault on convention than anyone else… . He preached that everything should be forgiven the artist, who was a superman above ordinary morals, just as he should also be above the payment of debts.” For Modi, Nietzsche’s ideas were filtered through and reinforced by D’Annunzio.

D’Annunzio penned a characteristically Nietzschean passage—mocking conventional morality, emphasizing self-overcoming, transcending good and evil—in The Triumph of Death (1894): “Where lives the strong, tyrannical dominator, free from the yoke of any false morality, sure in the feeling of his own power, convinced that the essence of his person overcomes in value all accessory attributes, determined to raise himself above Good and Evil by the pure energy of his will, capable of forcing life to maintain its promises to him?” Unlike D’Annunzio, Modi was never able to force life to recognize and reward his genius.

Modi was also drawn to the D’Annunzian connection between sexuality and creativity, between spilling sperm and spreading paint. In his autobiographical Sparks from the Hammer (1928), D’Annunzio, using a sculptural metaphor in his title, confessed that this concept had dominated his life: “Always something fleshly, something resembling a carnal violence, a mixture of atrocity and inebriation, accompanies the begetting of my brain.” In a similar fashion Modigliani—alluding to D’Annunzio’s novel The Flame of Life (1900)—exclaimed: “I need a flame in order to paint, in order to be consumed by fire.”

The source of Modi’s fiery inscription on his drawing “Portrait of a Woman with a Hat” (1918), which combines spirituality and sensuality, has not been identified. But it sounds very much like the combustible D’Annunzio: “By chance the woman of great soul and beauty would also burn with an immeasurable fire of insane desires.” Another aphoristic inscription, on his drawing of Lunia Czechowska (1919), quotes a passage from D’Annunzio’s journal Il Convito (The Banquet, 1895) that exalted the godlike power of the artist: “Life is a gift from the few to the many, from those who know and have to those who don’t know and don’t have.”

Modi’s mother gave him Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” (1896) when he left Livorno for Paris. He was struck by Wilde’s observation: “all men kill the thing they love”—an idea that had tragic implications for his lovers—one of them a pregnant suicide– at the end of his life. Wilde, the quintessential fin de siècle aesthete, made a sharp distinction between the exaltation of art and the banality of ordinary life, and declared: “It is through art, and through art only, that we can realize our perfection; through art, and through art only, that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence.” This credo of art for art’s sake had a strong appeal for Modi, encouraging him to despise the ordinary claims of life, endure poverty and neglect his own health while devoting himself to painting.

Modi was also intrigued and influenced by the hothouse French poetry of Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud and the Comte de Lautréamont. Baudelaire, the high-priest of intoxication, did for hashish what Thomas De Quincey had done for opium. By describing its effects in highly charged poetic prose, he persuaded artists that hashish would heighten their imagination and strengthen their powers of creation. After taking the drug, attacks of irresistible hilarity and ceaseless mirth, of overwhelming languor and disturbing dreams, gave way to a feeling of well-being and plentitude of life. The rush of mental images and the intensity of colors that flowed into the brain, transporting the artist into unknown realms of experience, were particularly appealing to Modi, who was always searching for new sensations. As Baudelaire declared: “All surrounding objects are so many suggestions provoking in [the smoker] a world of thought, all more highly colored, more vivid and more subtle than ever before… . External objects acquire, gradually and one after the other, strange new appearances; they become distorted or transformed. . A new subtlety or acuity manifests itself in all the senses… . The eyes behold the Infinite.”

In his authoritative “Poem of Hashish” (1860), based on long experience with the drug, Baudelaire wrote that the unappetizing sweetmeat, the size of a nut, looks “like a yellow-greenish hair-oil and retains the disagreeable odor … of rancid butter.” He suggested strengthening the dose by melting it in a cup of black coffee. He also described the kind of artistic personality (exactly like Modi’s) that would be most responsive ccial, even insane artist to become “the great invalid, the great criminal, the great accursed” and to plunge into unknown, unheard of, unnamable spiritual visions. Under the malign influence of Rimbaud’s revolutionary ideas and intense hostility to bourgeois morality, Modi told a friend: “You must have that holy cult, the cult of everything that can exalt and excite the intelligence! Try to provoke and perpetuate these fertile stimulants, for they alone can lift the intelligence up to the highest creative levels. It is for them that we must fight. Can we allow them to be shut away from us behind a hedge of narrow-minded moralizing?”

Modi usually carried a copy of Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror in his pocket—sometimes torn into sections for portability. He would spontaneously erupt with passages of his favorite author, whether or not his companions wanted to hear his ranting. Isidore Ducasse, the self-styled Comte de Lautréamont, was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, of French parents in 1846. He came to France in 1860 and died there in 1870 at the age of twenty-four. The first part of his prose poem appeared in 1868, the second was published posthumously in 1890. Like Modi, he led a wretched existence, died miserably and achieved posthumous fame.

Lautréamont’s rapturous, hallucinatory, satanic monologue, which shares the cruelty and black humor of the Marquis de Sade and Antonin Artaud, resembles the musings of a maniac. Maldoror, the defiant and unconstrained anti-hero, a rapist and murderer, absolutely revels in the most disgusting and self-destructive behavior. He rejoices in the violation of virginal innocence and the infliction of suffering and degradation, and uses morbid imagery and sadistic fanaticism to exalt the principle of evil.

This almost unreadable book fascinated Modi and his contemporaries. André Gide, writing in 1905, described its extraordinary emotional impact: “Here is something that excites me to the point of delirium. He leaps from the detestable to the excellent.” It is hard to imagine how this repellent fantasy attracted readers as sensitive and intelligent as Modi and Gide. On the positive side, Lautréamont gave savage voice to the deep impulse of writers and artists to reject normal life and fulfill their own creative destiny. Yet Maldoror’s scorn for humanity is so great that he no longer cares what anyone else thinks or feels, an illogical and preposterous position for an artist. Ultimately, the book celebrates absolute power.

Two literary historians give some idea of its bizarre tone and shocking content. The perverse hero has strange tastes, expressed in disturbing shifts of style and mood: “Maldoror, a demonic figure, expresses his hatred of mankind and of God, and his love of the Ocean (a famous passage), blood, octopuses, toads, etc. There are nightmarish encounters with vampires and with mysterious beings on the seashore. The work is an amazing profusion of apostrophe and imagery, at once delirious, erotic, blasphemous, grandiose and horrific.” In the 1920s, Lautréamont’s deliberate cruelty appealed to the Surrealists and Dadaists. The prose poems “express his loathing of humanity through a Byronesque figure called Maldoror. His sadism, his voluntary self-abandonment to torments from the depths of his mind, his adoration of the sea as the cradle of thoughtless cruelty, led to his being acclaimed later by the surrealists as a forerunner. In a famous passage Maldoror watches shipwrecked sailors torn to pieces by sharks and then mates with the most dreadful shark of all.” Describing this sexual encounter, Lautréamont exclaims that “their throats and breasts soon fuse into one glaucous mass exhaling the odors of sea-wrack.” Maldoror gleefully boils kittens in a tub full of alcohol, and convulsively confesses: “I am filthy. Lice gnaw me. Swine, when they gaze upon me, vomit. Scabs and scars of leprosy have scaled off my skin, which exudes a yellowish pus.”

Modi’s lover Beatrice Hastings, in a clear-eyed judgment that opposed his own, called Lautréamont “a poor, self-tormented creature for whom, had he lived, no earthly refuge was possible but an asylum.” Modi, who could never quite tear himself away from this vampiric book, frankly admitted it “had ruined his life.” He may have been particularly thinking of a bombastic, suicidal passage in which Maldoror defiantly confronts the world with no more than the strength of his artistic genius: “Whether I gain a disastrous victory or whether I succumb, the battle will be good: I alone, against humanity. I shall not employ weapons made of wood or iron; I shall kick aside the strata of minerals extracted from the earth: the powerful and seraphic sonority of the harp will become beneath my fingers a formidable talisman.” Lautréamont–like Nietzsche, D’Annunzio and Rimbaud–believed the defiant law breakers were the real creators. Modi absorbed their explosive intellectual cocktail into his bloodstream and chose, as they had urged, to live dangerously.

Modi belonged to the tradition of the artiste maudit, which seemed a pun on his name. This lineage went back to the medieval poet François Villon and included many nineteenth-century French poets from Baudelaire to Rimbaud and Modi’s beloved Lautréamont. As the artist Maurice Vlaminck wrote, emphasizing the cursed fate of his contemporaries: “One is born a painter, as one is born a hunchback. It is a gift or an infirmity.” In 1884 Verlaine published Les Poétes maudits. Modi and his friends Maurice Utrillo, Chaim Soutine and Jules Pascin—“grouped together as though violence of temper and proneness to trouble constituted a school of art”—were later called les peintres maudits. Modi’s self-destructive drinking gave him a double personality. When sober he was gentle, charming and intelligent; when drunk he would suddenly become nasty, aggressive and violent.

Modi had an idyllic affair with a great poet when both were intoxicated by art, when poetry brought them together and intensified their love. In May 1910—in an intellectually exciting atmosphere when Russians conveyed an attractive mystery—Modi met the young Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Both had studios in the same building, which housed many young, struggling artists. When they met he was twenty-six; she was twenty-one, just married and on her first trip to Paris. They were immediately attracted to each other, and though she soon returned home, they corresponded all that winter.

Born in 1889 in Odessa, in the Crimea, the daughter of a naval officer, Akhmatova grew up near St. Petersburg. Tall, elegant and attractive, with a striking Dantean profile, she wore dark bangs and exotic shawls. The English historian Isaiah Berlin, who met her in Leningrad (formerly St. Petersburg) in 1945, remembered her as “immensely dignified, with unhurried gestures, a noble head, beautiful, somewhat severe features, and an expression of immense sadness.” Joseph Brodsky, her poetic protégé, described her as “five feet eleven, dark-haired, fair-skinned, with pale gray-green eyes like those of snow leopards, slim and incredibly lithe, she was for half a century sketched, painted, cast, carved, and photographed by a multitude of artists starting with Amedeo Modigliani.”

Anna wrote dramatically powerful love lyrics and clear, intense evocations of the Russian countryside. In one of her poems, “White Flocks,” she rhapsodically declared:


Everything is for you: my daily prayer

And the thrilling fever of the insomniac,

And the blue fire of my eyes,

And my poems, that white flock.


The cultural historian Orlando Figis observed that Anna “returned to the classic poetic principles of clarity, concision and the precise expression of emotional experience.” He quoted her “Prayer, May 1915, Pentecost,” written five years after she met Modi and during the Great War, when she was prepared to sacrifice everything for the patriotic cause:


Give me bitter years of sickness,

Suffocation, insomnia, fever,

Take my child and my lover,

And my mysterious gift of song–

This I pray at your liturgy

After so many tormented days,

So that the stormcloud over darkened Russia

Might become a cloud of glorious rays.


When Anna returned alone to Paris in May 1911, after her marriage to Nikolay Gumylov had fallen apart, she and Modi began their love affair. She embodied his aesthetic ideal and he drew her in the attire of an Egyptian queen. She often modeled for him and recalled: “You see, it was not likeness that interested him. It was the pose. He made some twenty drawings of me,” portraying her slender, graceful body and her handsome face with its aquiline profile, short fringe and hair done up in a knot. A critic noted that her memoir, which emphasizes their intuitive understanding, reflects her own character as well as his: “in describing Modigliani she describes what she herself was like—with her ability to guess other people’s thoughts, have other people’s dreams, to hold conversations that had little or no connection with events of the ordinary day-to-day world.”

With her poet’s eye, Anna perceived that Modi, despite his circle of friends, suffered the melancholy and loneliness of a foreigner in Paris, and had sacrificed everything for his art. But he believed in himself and, despite many failures, had the courage to keep on working: “I knew him when he was poor, and I did not understand how he survived—he didn’t possess even a shadow of recognition as an artist… . All that was divine in Modigliani only sparkled through a sort of gloom.” Modi, who wanted to keep Anna all to himself, avoided his friends but also revealed his isolation: “He seemed surrounded by a dense ring of solitude. I don’t recall that he exchanged greetings with anyone in the Luxembourg Gardens or the Latin Quarter, where everyone more or less knew one another. I didn’t hear him mention the name of any acquaintance, friend, or artist, nor did I hear him tell a single joke… . He was courteous, but this was not the result of his upbringing, but of his exalted spirit.”

They visited the Louvre, where Modi, then a young sculptor, talked passionately about Egyptian art. As the horse-cabs clattered by in the moonlight, he took her to see the old Paris in the streets of the Latin Quarter. She remembered that “we would sit under his umbrella on a bench in the Luxembourg Gardens, a warm summer rain would be falling, and nearby slumbered le vieux palais à la Italienne [the old Luxemburg palace, built in the Italian style]. Together we would recite Verlaine, whom we knew well by heart, and we were glad that we could remember the same things.” Their mutual love of Paul Verlaine’s poetry sealed their love for each other. They seemed to look at the world in the same way and with the same belief in their destiny as artists. Verlaine’s poems, with their heady mixture of nostalgia and torment, their images of statues, moonlight and rain, were just the sort of thing Modi might have written if he had been a poet. His affair with Anna was romantic, poetic and intensely literary, and he recited Verlaine as he’d once recited Dante and D’Annunzio.

Verlaine’s “My Recurring Dream,” with its opposition of hot fever and tears to cool hands and stone, suggested their own guilt-ridden, bittersweet passion:


She does understand …

and the fever of my pale brow

Only by her can be cooled, as she weeps… .

Her gaze is like the gaze of statues,

And her voice, distant, calm, and low,

Has the inflection of dear voices that are stilled.


“Moonlight,” mixing dreams and passion, also conveys the melancholy mood of their ephemeral love:


With the calm moonlight, beautiful and sad,

That brings dreams to the birds in the trees

And the sobs of ecstasy to the fountains,

To the tall fountains slender among the statuary.


Sitting under his enormous old black umbrella, they remembered Verlaine’s famously heart-wrenching “Tears Flow in My Heart,” with its doleful vowels and persistent rhyme of “pleure” and “coeur” (weep and heart):


Tears flow in my heart

As rain falls on the town;

What languor is this

That creeps into my heart?


Gentle sound of the rain

On earth and roofs!

For an aching heart

Is the song of the rain!


Verlaine transformed the pity and sadness, the sobs, tears and heartbreak of love into poignant lyrics. His poetry connected art with grief (“les sanglots longs / Des violons” –the long sobs of violins) and made Modi’s poverty and melancholy seem beautiful, even dignified. For Modi, the poems recalled his wasted youth; for Anna, they suggested the willing self-sacrifice (for art and for others) that she would endure throughout her life.

Anna recalled an incident that symbolized their magical understanding and intimacy, even when apart:

Once, when I went to call on Modigliani, he was out; we had apparently misunderstood one another, so I decided to wait several minutes. I was clutching an armful of red roses. A window above the locked gates of the studio was open. Having nothing better to do, I began to toss the flowers in through the window.

Then, without waiting any longer, I left.

When we met again, he was perplexed at how I had gotten into the locked room, because he had the key. I explained what had happened. “But that’s impossible—they were lying there so beautifully.”

She used those few minutes very well; she left the studio and put the flowers in her place. The red roses in this fable not only flew over the gate and through the window, but also—like two embracing lovers—fell into an exquisite pose.

Completely absorbed in his sculpture, Modi did not paint Anna, who would have been a ravishing subject, but he made many sketches of her. “I didn’t pose [or did she?] for his drawings of me,” she recalled, “he did them at home and gave them to me later. There were sixteen [or twenty] in all, and he asked me to mount and hang them in my room at [her family estate] Tsarskoe Selo. They vanished in that house during the first years of the Revolution.” Anna’s biographer Roberta Reeder reproduces two slight sketches of her, with thick dark hair and a thin elongated body. In one, she’s standing and seen from behind; in the other, she’s seated with extended arms and seen from the front.

Four other drawings are now in Paris and Rouen. Two of them, more finished versions of the earlier sketches, have shaded outlines that give depth to the form of her figure. The first shows the strands of her high black hair, the delicate features of her face and, in profile, her distinctive, unmistakable nose. The second portrays her bent head, fingers, navel and up-tilted breasts, and shows, framed on the back wall, a childlike sketch of a little house. The other two drawings, cut off beneath the buttocks, are more interesting. In one, Anna lies on her belly, her arm tucked under her cheek, apparently asleep. In the fourth drawing her reclining body is unnaturally elongated. A dark, curtained, slightly menacing window appears in the background and a headless man, with muscular left arm, stands over her as protector—or voyeur. Modi’s cool, objective drawings contrast with the intensity of his love.

Reeder connects Modi to one of Anna’s early poems, which shows that she decided to end the affair by returning to her husband and to Russia, the anguished source of her poetic inspiration: “When you’re drunk,” written in 1911 when Anna was close to Modi, juxtaposes “images that convey how the everyday world was transformed in the mind of the poet through her guilty love” (she was still married to Gumylov):


When you’re drunk it’s so much fun—

Your stories don’t make sense.

And early fall has stung

The elms with yellow flags.


We’ve strayed into the land of deceit

And we’re repenting bitterly,

Why then are we smiling these

Strange and frozen smiles?


We wanted piercing anguish

Instead of placid happiness.

I won’t abandon my comrade,

So dissolute and mild.


“The poem shifts suddenly,” Reeder adds, “from the speaker talking to her lover to the metaphor of yellow autumn leaves resembling flags fluttering in the wind—then abruptly returns to the speaker’s feelings of guilt and joy.” In this poem the transient moment of drunken pleasure–Modi needed alcohol to shake him out of his somber mood–is immediately undercut by the guilt and regret that makes the lovers awkward and frozen. Anna must have had her share of “piercing anguish” with Modigliani, who seemed doomed to suffer and could not possibly provide “placid happiness.” The poem ends with her decision to extinguish their future for the sake of her dissolute husband.

After returning to Russia in 1911, Anna joined the circle of Acmeist poets and became the brightest star of the pre-revolutionary avant-garde. She was cut off from the West by the Great War, the Russian Revolution and the Soviet dictatorship. But she learned of Modi’s death from an obituary that compared him to Botticelli, and discussed him with Ilya Ehrenburg and read about him in a book by the French writer Francis Carco. She later recalled, with some exaggeration and nostalgia: “ I was lucky. I met him before everyone else. Everyone who remembers Modigliani now made friends with him in 1914, 1915. Whereas I knew him in 1910 and 1911.”

A legendary seductress, Anna had deep romantic attachments with many talented men and three husbands. But her life, like Modi’s, was tragic. Under Stalin, her work was suppressed, two husbands and her son were sent to prison camps in the Soviet Gulag, and Gumylov was executed on a false charge. She was expelled from the Writers Union, had her books pulped and was completely silenced for more than thirty years. Deprived of her food rations, she eked out a living as a translator. Nevertheless, she memorized her poems until they could finally be published after Stalin’s death, bravely bore witness to the horrors of twentieth-century Russia and became the wintry conscience of her country. “Requiem,” her major poem, preserved in poetic memory the torments of a generation.

When Isaiah Berlin visited Anna, she spoke of her friendship with Modi and still had one of his drawings hanging over the fireplace. The others, along with his love letters (none of Modi’s words about her has survived) were lost during the terrible three-year-siege of Leningrad. Berlin admired “her intellect, critical power and ironical humour [which] seemed to exist side by side with a dramatic, at times visionary and prophetic, sense of reality.” He concluded that “her entire life was one … uninterrupted indictment of Russian reality.” Anna died after a lifetime of suffering, forty-six years after Modi, in 1966.

Modi and Anna met at the height of their physical beauty and creative powers, and at the threshold of their careers. Her return to Russia averted the inevitable disaster that would have occurred if they had remained together. Young, gifted and full of hope, they couldn’t imagine the tragedies that would soon overwhelm them, though she later wrote that “the future, which as we know casts its shadow long before it appears … cut through our dreams.” Anna was, along with Picasso, the only real genius in Modi’s life. She was his ideal love—never again to be realized—the only woman with whom, despite the undertones of sadness, he had a joyful and harmonious attachment.

Modi’s great friend Max Jacob (1876-1944) was born in Quimper, Brittany, the son of a Jewish tailor. The art dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, said that Jacob’s strange, piercing, “admirable eyes, with their extraordinarily tender quality, seemed to contain all the sadness of Israel.” Jacob had been severely beaten as a child and as an adult suffered from overwhelming anxieties. At the age of eighteen he entered the Ecole Coloniale, but his training for a post abroad was interrupted by military service—also interrupted when he was discharged six weeks later as a hopelessly incompetent soldier.

To sustain his precarious existence, Jacob took on a series of humiliating jobs. He was a sweeper in a department store, carpenter’s helper and lawyer’s clerk; tutor, piano teacher, singer and secretary; art critic for the newspaper Le Gaulois. He dabbled in painting and had once shared a room with the impoverished Picasso. They even shared a bed: Jacob slept in it at night, Picasso during the day. He also had a sideline in magic and mysticism, in fetishes and cabalistic signs as well as in astrology, horoscopes, palmistry, fortune-telling, divination and clairvoyance, and encouraged Modi’s fascination with these arcane subjects. Modi’s drawing of Jacob included astrological and cabalistic allusions: a crescent moon, a six-pointed Star of David and a French inscription that read: “To my brother very tenderly the night of 7 March the moon grows larger.” The hopelessly unworldly and high-minded Jacob inevitably failed in all these ventures. One critic called him an “unemployed artist, unreadable poet, exile from the coteries of Parisian life.”

Short, puny, unprepossessing, and an abject coward, Jacob was a bent-over, sharp-nosed, craggy-faced, gnome-like man, who in 1906 looked much older than thirty. Picasso’s lover Fernande Olivier wrote that “he was already bald, with a nervous, evasive expression, high colour and a pretty, elegantly curved mouth, which gave a suggestion of delicacy and wit and malice as well.” He wore a long raincoat with a bright red lining; and his tiny room always had a peculiarly musty odor, compounded by the overflowing garbage cans just beneath his window. His room was, the critic Charles Douglas recalled, “a mixture of smoke, paraffin, incense, old furniture, and ether. He received [guests] once a week, quite as a man of the world, a curious collection, not of friends only, but sometimes utter strangers.”

Francis Carco captured the multifarious aspects of Jacob’s paradoxical character, which so intrigued Modi: “He was gossipy and sublime, obliging, eager, bantering, profound, coquettish, ironical, sophisticated… . Max’s kindness, his distinguished manners, his readiness to help others and his clever talk inclined people to put up with him.” Other friends noted Jacob’s baffling “mixture of genius and ridiculousness, love and hate, sweetness and rage, kindness and cruelty… . [He] could be mischievous, dirty, bitter, arrogant, perfidious, thoughtless, insolent and much else, but he also had enormous charm and a sporadically saintly nature.”

Picasso’s biographer John Richardson emphasized Jacob’s liveliness, learning, and elfish humor: “He was always ready to share the treasures of his well-stocked mind, his poetic imagination, his mystical obsessions and his high camp sense of fun… . He was infinitely perceptive about art as well as literature and an encyclopedia of erudition—as at home in the arcane aspects of mysticism as in the shallows of l’art populaire. He was also very, very funny.” To amuse his companions Max would roll up his trousers, expose his hairy legs and do an animated dance accompanied by an absurd little song. The artist Gino Severini, enchanted like Modi and all of Jacob’s friends, offered a balanced view of his elusive personality: “Jacob is often considered a sort of clown or juggler by some, by others a magician or mystic, and yet others see predominantly his vices and excesses… . But what a refined and elegant man!” Jacob believed that drugs heightened his poetic imagination and ability to predict the future. In pharmacies he could buy his favorite flasks of ether for only thirty centimes and Modi sniffed the readily available liquid under the expert guidance of the addict.

When Jacob was still an atheist, “he would throw himself on his knees when passing [the cathedral of] Notre Dame and implore: ‘God, if by chance you exist, see to it that I am not too unhappy.’ ” But on October 7, 1909, three years after meeting Modi, Jacob had a vision of Christ (or, according to some dubious friends, a drug-induced prank) and rapturously wrote: “There was something on the red wallpaper. My flesh fell to the floor. I was stripped by lightning… . The celestial body is on the wall of my poor room… . He is wearing a robe of yellow silk with blue cuffs. He turns and I see that peaceful shining face.” Jacob converted to Catholicism, was received into the Church in February 1915 and took the name of Cyprien, a saint associated with magic. Picasso, his sceptical godfather, jokingly gave the new Christian a copy of Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ with the inscription: “To my brother Cyprien Max Jacob. In memory of his baptism.” In about 1921 Jacob dedicated a poem, “To Monsieur Modigliani to prove to him that I am a poet,” in which he described, in light-hearted fashion, his Catholic conversion and what God meant to him.

Jacob’s inability to resolve the conflict between his religious beliefs and his homosexuality and drug addiction deepened his misery and intensified his sense of sin. His homosexual friend Jean Cocteau observed that “Max was unlucky in his love affairs, always getting involved with people who didn’t give a damn about him… . Max dreamed of chastity, and he was always punishing himself because he could never attain it.” A friend, who’d been shocked by Jacob’s lascivious behavior at an artists’ ball, wrote of her sense of shame when he publicly made love to an attractive boy in the studio of the artist Moise Kisling: “ ‘ He’s cracked, you know,’ Kisling said to me, with a laugh. ‘He’s turned Catholic, but look how he acts, the swine. And yet, if I asked him for his best coat, he’d give it to me for nothing. He takes drugs, you know. He says he saw Christ in his room, very handsome and smart. Sounds likely! If I were Christ I wouldn’t go into Max’s room, never fear.’ ”

The major themes of Jacob’s poetry are the pleasures and sadness of rural and urban life, and the consolations of Catholicism. His poems—racy, colloquial, ironic—avoid profound emotion and combine the quotidian with the macabre. One critic wrote that “his work is a paradoxical mixture of fantastic humour and mysticism. While writing poems which combine parody, pun, burlesque and verbal acrobatics of every kind, he lived a life of fervent piety… . His most influential work was Le cornet à dés [The Dice-Box] (1917), autobiographical prose poems on apparently gratuitous subjects (a pointless anecdote, a nightmarish vision, a sharp visual perception) in a brilliant style and masterly rhythms which inspired later innovators, particularly the Surrealists.”

Two of Jacob’s aesthetic ideas influenced Modi’s art. Jacob’s essay on style, first published in 1916 as a Preface to Le cornet à dés—whose title alludes to Stéphane Mallarmé’s volume of poems, Un coup de dés (1897)—advocated the use of a classical style in order to place one’s work in a richer thematic tradition. Following this idea Modi modeled his elongated nudes on the great tradition of nude paintings from Titian and Velázquez to Goya and Ingres. In the same Preface, Jacob, who discussed these ideas with Modi, also insisted on the modern idea that “a work of art exists in its own right and not in relation to reality.” This aesthetic principle seemed to justify Modi’s divergence from realism and his intensely idiosyncratic vision.

Modi’s three portraits of Jacob, one of his favorite models, are quite different from Picasso’s two pencil drawings (1915 and 1919) of him. Picasso’s realistic, incisive works show the vulnerability, pain and sadness in Jacob’s character. In Modi’s bust-length portrait, painted in 1916, the gray-haired Jacob wears a curved-brim top hat (cut off at the top but covering his bald dome), black jacket, white shirt and blue tie flecked with white dots. One eye, under high-arched eyebrows, is cross-hatched over blue; the other is blank gray. Modi gives him a ruddy complexion, and captures the long, aquiline blade of his nose, the sly evasive expression of his small, thin-lipped mouth, and his charming dandified air. The affectionate portrait makes Jacob more fashionable and self-assured than he really was, but reveals his intelligence, sophistication and wit.

Jacob and Modi were both Jewish, talented, obscure, generous and desperately poor. Jacob valued Modi’s extraordinary understanding of and ability to recite French poetry; and the critic André Salmon hinted that Jacob (like so many others) was actually in love with Modi. The poet described the painter as a “broad-shouldered man, with a vaguely Dantesque profile, but short nose. It was Jewish. His laugh was lively, clear and quick. He was usually discontented, indignant and grumbling. His face and body were beautiful and very dark. He had the bearing of a gentleman in rags.”

Deeply sympathetic, Jacob connected Modi’s negative qualities to his pursuit of an aesthetic ideal: “His unbearable pride, grim ingratitude, arrogance; all of these expressed nothing else but his longing for crystalline purity.” He praised Modi’s character and lamented his early death: “Modigliani, your work … is savagely cut in two by a ghost… . Death came and our sorrows with it! Your life of simple grandeur was lived by an aristocrat, and we loved you. We’re left with mourning and you remain sadly close to us.”

Max Jacob had the saddest story of all Modi’s self-destructive friends. The last photo of him shows a stooped, shabby and self-effacing figure. Though a Catholic convert, he was forced during the Nazi Occupation to wear the yellow star that stigmatized the Jews. He lived in an abbey with monks, but they were unable to hide or protect him. In February 1944, only six months before the liberation of France, he was arrested and sent to the prison camp at Drancy (north of Paris) to await transport to Auschwitz. In Drancy poor Max apologized to the other Jewish prisoners for offering prayers to a Christian God, and died of pneumonia before he could be sent to certain death in the gas chambers of Poland. Had Modi lived, he would have suffered the same tragic fate as Max Jacob.

There is a great contrast between Jacob, a weak and cowardly failure, and Blaise Cendrars, a heroic and adventurous warrior. Cendrars had met Modi just after the artist arrived in Paris in 1906 and was struck by how well dressed he was, how rich he seemed. Since then, Cendrars had traveled the world and fought in the war. He was a spectacular character, a fascinating liar who created legends about himself. But the facts were colorful enough. Born Frédéric Sauser in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, between Neuchâtel and the French border, he came from an Anabaptist family that had fled the French Jura. Soon after his birth his father, a professor of mathematics, moved the family to Egypt and started a hotel. Cendrars, constantly on the move, was educated in Naples, spent his late teens as a Swiss watch salesman in St. Petersburg, and studied philosophy and medicine at the University of Berne. In 1911 he took the newly completed Trans-Siberian railroad across Russia, which inspired his first major work, La Prose du Transsibérien (1913). He was in New York in 1912, moved to Paris that year, became a friend of Guillaume Apollinaire and Marc Chagall, married a Polish woman and had two sons.

When the Great War broke out he joined the French Foreign Legion and had his right arm blown off by a shell burst. His military citation, testifying to his courage under fire, reported that “although severely wounded at the beginning of the attack on September 28, 1915 and weakened by loss of blood he continued to lead his squadron and remained with them until the end of the battle.” Severini, struck by his insouciance, wrote that he took the loss of his arm “in stride with such high spirits, ease, and sense of humor. It was incredible to watch the gestural effects that Cendrars managed to express with that empty sleeve.” After the war, the multi-talented Cendrars worked for the director Abel Gance on J’accuse, a film based on Zola’s defense of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, wrote the scenario for Darius Milhaud’s ballet The Creation of the World and made five trips to South America. In World War Two, he saw combat as a correspondent for French newspapers.

Several English and American artists and writers were impressed by Cendrars’ thirst for escape and adventure, his savage melancholy and violent temperament. The English painter Frank Budgen declared that “Cendrars seemed to have been everywhere: Russia. America. New York. St. Petersburg. Forests of the Amazon. He knew them all.” John Dos Passos exclaimed of Cendrars, who loved fast cars, that “it was hairraising to spin with him around the mountain roads. He steered with one hand and changed the gears on his little French car with his hook … took every curve on two wheels.” Ernest Hemingway, who hung out with Cendrars at the Closerie des Lilas, recalled an empty sleeve rather than a hook. In Hemingway’s account, he was (like Hemingway himself) an entertaining, heavy drinking fantasist: “[I saw] Blaise Cendrars, with his broken boxer’s face and his pinned up empty sleeve, rolling a cigarette with his one good hand. He was a good companion until he drank too much and, at that time, when he was lying, he was more interesting than many men telling a story truly.”

Cendrars’ disciple and imitator, Henry Miller, was rapturous about his tough guy persona, irresistible to women. He told Anaïs Nin: “Cendrars looks rough, like a sailor—he is one at bottom—and he speaks rather loudly, but very well. He has only one arm, the empty one, or half-arm slung affectionately around my neck.” In Montmartre, there were “whores hanging on to us, and Cendrars hugging them like a sailor, and urging me to take one, take two, take as many as you want.” Miller wrote that Cendrars, also passionate about Les Chants de Maldoror, looked like the broken-nosed boxer and actor Victor McLaglen and “emanates health, joy, vitality.” He praised Cendrars for consorting “with all types, including bandits, murderers, revolutionaries and other varieties of fanatics,” and for being a “roustabout, tramp, bum, panhandler, mixer, bruiser, adventurer, sailor, soldier, tough guy.” In short, Miller believed that he uniquely “restores to contemporary life the elements of the heroic, the imaginative and the fabulous.”

Blaise Cendrars said that Modigliani expressed his emotions even while painting: “His shoulders heaved. He panted. He had grimaces and cried out. You couldn’t come near.” Like Miller, Modi admired Cendrar’s zest and creativity and idealized him as a heroic version of himself. Cendrars took his pen name from the French words “braise” and “cendres,” which mean “glowing embers” and “ashes,” and saw art as a form of arson. His books, a literary historian has observed, “are attempts to isolate the ego he incessantly contemplated in his multifarious activities—businessman, film-director, jewel-peddler, journalist… . His characters live and move on an epic scale and he has been praised for the resulting ‘life-like’ quality of his work (in fact due to skillful narrative art), which breaks with the French analytic tradition.” Given his energetic volubility in life, it’s not surprising that Cendrars conceived “the poem as a Dionysian act, the poet inspired by a [kind of Nietzschean] creative frenzy… . His output became a flood, diffuse in structure, torrential in composition and bewildering in its variety.”

Capitalizing on Modigliani’s notoriety after his death, Cendrars liked to tell a dubious story about their days of drinking. His account, embellished by nostalgia, emphasized their swaggering male friendship and his superiority to Modi. Sitting together on the banks of the Seine with partly emptied bottles of wine and watching the legions of laundresses floating on the bateaux lavoir, they drunkenly toasted the washerwomen, who replied with obscene gestures. Modi offered to give the ugliest old hag the remaining bottle if she allowed him to kiss her on the mouth. She refused, he stripped off his clothes, fished the cooling bottle out of the river and walked toward her barge without the benefit of a plank. Since he couldn’t swim, he quickly sank and was bravely rescued by his one-armed copain . They celebrated the absurd incident by finishing off the last bottle of wine.

Cendrars’ minor poem, “On a Portrait by Modigliani,” which compares a beating heart to a Swiss ticking watch, vaguely indicated the emotional impact of Modi’s paintings. It was printed as an introduction to the catalogue of his one-man show at Berthe Weill’s gallery in December 1917:


The interior world

The human heart with

its 17 movements

in the spirit

And the to and fro of passion.


Modi did a 1917 sketch of Cendrars with his head tilted back and a cigarette dangling from his lips. He also, Cendrars wrote, “painted my portrait as if he were sketching, very quickly. It took him about three hours, and between brush-strokes he recited poetry by Dante and Baudelaire.” In this portrait, he gave Cendrars a prim little mouth and a broad but not broken nose, and made him look more sensitive than tough.

Modi, shamefully neglected in his lifetime, never made more than a total of $1,000. But after a spectacular posthumous revival, his idiosyncratic portraits and luscious nudes now make millions for dealers and collectors. One of his paintings fetched an astronomical $26.9 million in 2003, $31.3 million in 2004, $68.9 million in 2010, $70.7 million in 2014 and $170.4 million to a Shanghai collector in 2015. His physical beauty, glamour and charm, his great talent and frenzied work, his self-destruction and early death made him a legend, which added to the commercial value of his paintings. His life was tragic, but he had great courage as an artist and the strength of character to forge his own individual style. He could not entirely fulfill his artistic destiny but, wounded and inspired by great poetry, left us some of the most beautiful and original paintings of the twentieth century.

JEFFREY MEYERS is author of biographies of Hemingway, Edgar Alan Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Samuel Johnson, Gary Cooper, Modigliani, T.E. Lawrence, Robert Frost and many others. His most recent studies include Robert Lowell in Love and Resurrections: Authors, Heroes—and a Spy.