Those visiting England between now and October 15 will have the opportunity to visit an exhibition, at the Royal Academy, of works by the Italian-born artist Amedeo Modigliani. One of the prodigies of Eliot’s Wasteland generation, Modigliani died, as he had lived, in sordid squalor. Having wrecked himself on the rocks of sex, drugs, and alcohol, his final days were spent in a bed strewn with bottles of booze and empty sardine tins. He died, in Paris, in January 1920 at the age of thirty-five. Two days after his death, his mistress threw herself from a fifth-floor window. She was nine months’ pregnant with their second child.
As a horror story, the life and death of Modigliani and his mistress are distressingly real enough. But as an allegory of the times in which we live, the tragedy takes on even deeper symbolic significance. Reckless self-abuse, the abandonment of one child, the killing of the abandoned child’s unborn sibling, and the suicide of the mother: a catastrophic catalog of nihilistic destruction. As a representative of the philosophy he served, Modigliani is more than merely an example—he is a metaphor.