Modigliani, the Artists Not the Economist

Modigliani - Self PortraitTomorrow will be the economist Dean Baker’s 56th birthday. Last year I wrote about that. And I sent him an email telling him. I also noted that he should consider it a great honor because it had been Modigliani the day before. He wrote back and talked about how much he admired his work. It was clear he wasn’t talking about the painter and I thought he was putting me on. But sure enough, he thought I meant Franco Modigliani, the Nobel Prize winning economist. Talk to an economist and see what you get.

But this year, just like last year, I must tell you that on this day in 1884, the great artist Amedeo Modigliani was born. He is one of the artists that I would classify as not terribly creative. That is to say that his style was remarkably consistent. But I might have said the same thing of Picasso had he only lived to be 35. At the same time, I love his work—far more than anything Picasso did.

The story of Modigliani is the stuff of romance. It’s absolutely awful but it is the kind of thing that even I find beautiful in its way. He mostly bartered with his paintings. He lived and died in poverty. He only had a single solo art show, that was shut down by the police within hours because of his “scandalous” nudes. Three years before his death, he met Jeanne Hebuterne, who became his constant companion. Here is one of his many paintings of her:

Jeanne Hebuterne - Modigliani

They had a daughter the following year. But Modigliani was suffering from tubercular meningitis. In January of 1920, after his downstairs neighbors had not heard from him for days, they entered the flat and found him in bed, almost dead holding onto Hebuterne, who was nine months pregnant with their second child. Modigliani was taken to the hospital but there was nothing that could be done. He died on 24 January 1920. Hebuterne was so distraught that she killed herself and her unborn baby the following day.

Modigliani - Elmyr de HoryMany years later, Elmyr de Hory made something of a living forging Modigliani. He did a lot of other people’s work too, but I think his Modiglianis are his best. He was very good. Here’s the only one I could easily find, but you can well see how de Hory fooled so many people for so long—he was good.

With my recent experience at the Antiques Roadhow, it makes me all the more angry. I don’t know exactly what I think of Elmyr de Hory. He was an incredibly talented guy and also a charlatan. But that’s not it. The problem is the whole business of art that is just shameful. This painting would sell for tens of millions of dollars if everyone believed that Modigliani had painted it. But instead, it isn’t. It’s still doubtless worth a lot of money because now Elmyr de Hory is famous. But the professional art world is a pox on society.

Happy birthday Amedeo Modigliani!

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