The trouble with Pere Lachaise is that it is so jam-packed with famous graves that you tend to flit from one to the other without much time to pause and contemplate each one. So it was with Modigliani – I was aware of the artist and his style of work, but I knew nothing of his life. I didn’t take much notice of his unremarkable stone slab – I just took a shot and moved on.
It was not until I later developed the film that I noticed that there was someone else buried with him. But who was this mysterious 22-year-old female who died the day after him? And how did they die? Did they both succumb to some contagious disease that claimed them both within a matter of hours?
The truth, it turned out, was far more tragic, and there are in fact 3 souls buried under that slab…
Amedeo Modigliani was born in Livorno, Italy in 1884 and moved to Paris in 1906 to pursue his artistic career. He settled in Montmartre which was the focal point of the avantgarde, and as a struggling artistic he soon became infamous for his drunken excesses if not for his artistic output.
In 1917 he met 19-year-old Jeanne Hébuterne, and soon they were living together, although not apparently in peace and harmony – their public scenes became a common occurrence in Montmartre. On one such occasion, an eye-witness reported – “He was dragging her along by an arm, gripping her frail wrist, tugging at one or another of her long braids of hair, and only letting go of her for a moment to send her crashing against the railings of the Luxembourg. He was like a madman, crazy with savage hatred”.
And yet Jeanne became his muse and his many portraits of her show real tenderness. When in 1918 she gave birth to a daughter, Modigliani got drunk on the way to register the child as his own and she remained officially fatherless (though she was later adopted by his family in Italy).
By now, Modigliani’s paintings were at last starting to fetch respectable prices. In the summer of 1919, some of his works were included in a show of French art at the Mansard Gallery in London. It was a success, and it was one of Modigliani’s works which fetched the highest price. In June 1919 Modigliani and Jeanne (now pregnant for the second time) were able to move into their first real home, an apartment in the rue de la Grande Chaumière, immediately above one which had once been occupied by Gauguin.
But Modigliani’s health was steadily deteriorating and his alcoholic collapses were becoming more frequent. In January 1920 he was stricken with pains in his kidneys and took to his bed. After some days his downstairs neighbour called in to see if anything was the matter. He found Modigliani delirious, complaining of a violent headache. Beside him sat Jeanne, who was nearly nine months pregnant; she had not thought of sending for a doctor. One was summoned immediately – and he diagnosed that Modigliani was suffering from tubercular meningitis. He died on 24 January 1920, without regaining consciousness. There was an enormous funeral, attended by the whole of Montmartre.
Jeanne, who had been taken to her parents’ house, threw herself out of a fifth floor window the following day, killing both herself and their unborn child…