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Portrait of an artist consumed by creative freedom

It would be hard to read Jeffrey Meyers's new biography of the painter Amedeo Modigliani as anything but an object lesson in how an artist, if determined enough, can destroy himself in the name of intensity for the sake of creative freedom.

The shift in modern art from external reality to psychological insight was broadly liberating for writers, painters, and composers, who seemed to accept at face value Rimbaud's call for ``derangement of the senses." Creative freedom encouraged an urge toward a self-destructiveness in the hope that liberating oneself from convention would be a creative stimulus. It can also mean an early death.

A heedless life, of course, is no more a recipe for success than for failure. A strong constitution, freedom from serious illness, and good business sense make many artists able to create without ruining themselves. Yet a systematic derangement of the senses is probably a dead end more often than it is the road to the palace of wisdom.

Though not a first-rate painter, among the artists of the School of Paris Modigliani was high in the second rank, just below Picasso, Braque, and Matisse. His peers were Maurice Utrillo, Andre Derain, and Chaim Soutine, all considerable artists, and on the evidence of Meyers's biography he might have been a sculptor the equal of Constantin Brancusi or Ossip Zadkine. But even among his peers, Modigliani is a tragic figure.

He never made anything close to enough money to survive. The mystery of his career is that he didn't find the support of collectors and dealers who made the crucial difference for other artists, and it is sad to read of his last years, with people beginning to sit on his work while they waited for him to die, only to sell it at a great profit as soon as he was gone.

Meyers puts most of the blame on Modigliani himself, saying he could have become a society portrait painter like the slick Giovanni Boldini if only he'd been willing to compromise. But, in reality, Modigliani compromised himself, burning up rather than making sacrifices for his art.

He arrived in Paris in 1906 from Italy, a handsome, elegant youth with good artistic training and a charismatic personality. Something of a mother's boy, he was enormously attractive to women, with whom his relations were passionate and violent: He once threw his lover, Beatrice Hastings, through a window, and on another occasion tore to shreds the dress she was wearing. After his death, his last mistress, Jeanne Hebuterne, crazed by grief and desperation, stepped backward out of a fifth-floor window (to avoid looking down before she leaped) and crushed her skull.

What Meyers's book does best, and what makes it more than a grim obituary, is to place Modigliani in the context of artistic life in the Paris of his day. It sounds like a wild time, with plenty of sexual freedom, tolerance of sexual diversity, and general craziness.

The high life of the artists of Paris before World War I was not seen again until art went pop in the '60s, when the Warhol gang ruled the back room of Max's Kansas City and Studio 54 was the setting of cocaine-fueled bad behavior. Both wild scenes were ended by catastrophe -- the war in the first case, AIDS in the second.

Liberation from convention, sustained and systematic derangement of the senses, and eager experimentation seem to go along with the production of innovative and exciting art, and who can say if such excesses always lead to catastrophe? But effect is not cause.

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