“Lean against railings, describing the colors and the smells of our homelands, acting like lovers”
Black Panel Press brings us Jeanne & Modigliani: Paris in the Dark by Nadine Van der Straeten, which is translated by Renou Aaron Benteau, because as usual, all the best comics aren’t published in English!
If you know anything about Modigliani, it’s probably that he painted figures with weird proportions, usually elongating their necks and torsos, but that’s not all he did. He was, in many ways, a stereotypical artist, drinking and using opium to excess, suffering from tuberculosis (which killed him at 35 in 1920), and making very little money during his lifetime because his art was too avant-garde even for the Parisians until he wasn’t around to enjoy it. Such is the life of an artist! You might also know Modigliani because after he died, his lover and mother of one of his children, Jeanne Hébuterne, threw herself out of a fifth-floor window while pregnant with her second child because she couldn’t live without him. Jeanne, as you might expect from her placement in the title of this comic, is more the subject than the artist, which is probably a smart idea, as her life was perhaps just as stereotypical as Modigliani’s but a bit more tragic and also less stereotypical simply because most of the time, we’re reading about the male artists, and they’re not defenestrating themselves when their lovers die, they’re just moving on to the next young woman they can abuse.
Van der Straeten writes in the back of the book that Modigliani, in contrast to her beliefs about him going into the project, was “whole and generous, having esteem and respect for women in general and Jeanne in particular,” but the Modigliani in the book, while certainly not a monster, does not seem like a paragon, either. So this becomes something different for me than I think it was for Van der Straeten, who doesn’t view Modigliani – at least this fictionalized version of the artist – as unfavorably as I do. So naturally, this comic, perhaps without meaning to, brings up a whole host of ideas about authorial intent and differing viewpoints and what art means once it leaves the creator’s hands. Just like good art ought to do, right?
We begin with Jeanne throwing herself out of the window. That is, unfortunately, what she is most famous for, and Van der Straeten wastes no time in getting to it. We see it from a true “first-person” point of view, as the panels show what Jeanne might have seen as she plummeted to her death. Van der Straeten does a neat thing with it, as we move from the concrete to the abstract as she dies, and the third page is in negative, with black dominating and scratches of white forming the images. It gets us into the mind of the character, and it also gives us an idea of the blurring of art and reality that always occurs with tortured artists, which both characters certainly were. Then we get a more traditional narrative, as we go back a few years to the latter years of World War I, when Parisians were still feeling anxious about the presence of German troops so close to the city (the German Emperor had been crowned in Versailles not even 50 years earlier, after all), and Jeanne is an art student living with her strict but seemingly loving parents. She was 18/19 around this time, and well sunk into the art scene of the city. We meet several historical figures (Van der Straeten helpfully provides footnotes identifying them), and she gets the sense of Paris during and right after the war quite nicely, as far as I can tell (as I was, in fact, not alive at that time). There’s a sense of manic creation among the artists and others in Paris, stemming presumably from the horrors of war that they have either experienced themselves or know about through close relatives or friends. (I read a brilliant book by Modris Eksteins some years ago that gets into how artists and society responded to the Great War, and this seems to line up with his conclusions.) Obviously, the idea of artists rejecting societal norms and living a bohemian lifestyle is a cliché, but Van der Straeten does a nice job implying the sadness and fear below the partying, as these people have become unmoored from the world, unable to fit into the pre-war society because it’s been shattered, but unable to build a new society yet. They’re also somewhat postmodern some years before that became a thing, as they’re annoyingly self-referential as only the best postmodernists can be, quoting Baudelaire and other poets to express their feelings and deliberately becoming parodies of themselves as they navigate this uncertain landscape. It’s a clever way for Van der Straeten to imply that they’re building on a tradition even as they try to reject that tradition, as Modigliani does when he visits Renoir and goes away angry at the old master for actually enjoying painting and the fact that it helps him get laid. Van der Straeten does a nice thing here – she shows Modigliani indignant that Renoir sees his models as sex objects, claiming he respects them, but then, on the next page, he gets angry at Jeanne because she cut her hair. Modigliani claims to want to break free of the artist stereotype, but he can’t seem to help embodying it.
The relationship between the two is the heart of the book, of course, and through it Van der Straeten gets to her secondary ideas about art and the artist. Jeanne is an artist in her own right, and she meets Modigliani and agrees to sit for him. She’s smitten with him immediately, it seems, but she still stays reticent due to his reputation as a “skirt-chaser,” and he seems interested only in her as a model. She sees his dark side before becoming romantically involved with him, and Van der Straten gives us one page that sums up her confusion over this new man:
As she begins her relationship with him, Van der Straeten does a nice job showing both his good side and bad side, without making it too obvious. He won’t paint her nude because he wants to keep his body to himself. The claim of ownership of a woman isn’t uncommon, even today, among men, and it’s not necessarily evil, but it does feel a bit uncomfortable. Jeanne realizes early on that Modigliani drinks too much, but he, of course, won’t stop, and she, like many a lovestruck person, thinks she can change him. They discuss art, and it’s clear that Jeanne has her own ideas about art, which Modigliani completes dismisses. It’s unclear if it’s because she’s a woman or because she disagrees with him, but it’s still not a good look for him. Van der Straeten does an excellent job showing this tortured romance – Amedeo gets angry at her if she tries to support him, because he claims he wants a “real” woman, but if she goes against him too much, he dismisses her. It’s clear she’s attracted to him not because he’s necessarily a good man (he tries and often fails to be), but because of his talent, and he exploits that. Jeanne is extremely talented in her own right, but because she paints landscapes and backgrounds (which Modigliani disparages), he belittles her. The tragedy is, of course, that she’s still living during a time when even the most bohemian artists were still locked into a misogynistic world, so while Amedeo can act how he does and nobody bats an eye, Jeanne is ostracized by her parents (for a time, until she gives birth and her mother assists her) and by society in general. She is unable to break out and live her own life, so she stays in Modigliani’s shadow for her entire life. Her death is puzzling because there’s no reason for it, but Van der Straeten does a good job digging into her psyche so that it becomes less – but not completely – comprehensible. By the time Modigliani dies, she’s subsumed herself into him, and the tragedy of the book is not her death, but that her life didn’t give her any other outlet. What’s tragic is that the characters in the book and the readers can see that Modigliani is not good for her (again, not really because he’s a bad dude, but because he’s not able to see her as a person, despite his protestations to Renoir) and she didn’t necessarily need him. Jeanne Hébuterne should not be known as the woman who threw herself out of a window because her self-centered lover died, but that is how she’s known. And that sucks.
Van der Straeten’s art is magnificent, precise and detailed, yet occasionally beautifully abstract to show a bit more of the characters’ emotional states. She creates a beautiful Paris and a sensual Nice, the two main places in the narrative. Her Paris feels ancient and a bit claustrophobic, while her Riviera is languid and open, reflecting the shift as Jeanne becomes fecund and more engaged with her own body. Her characters are terrific – she gives them a bit of angularity, which makes Jeanne rounding into pregnancy a bit more of an impact (in real life, Jeanne was not quite as sharp-faced as Van der Straeten makes her). She uses blacks exceptionally well, especially to darken Modigliani a bit when he’s acting churlishly, which, while a bit obvious, is still gripping. As I noted, she moves into abstract just occasionally, but very beautifully, as when Jeanne is depressed about Amedeo’s death and Van der Straeten shows her almost as a woodcut. When she uses black as a background, she etches white lines onto the page, creating a dazzling yet harsh photo-negative image, and it’s very well done. She also does a good job replicating some of the art by both artists, showing their differences and why Amedeo, in particular, caused such a stir when his work was exhibited (pubic hair plays a role, as it often does when the Morality Police come out). This is a gorgeous comic, and it helps bring this world to stellar fruition.
I’m not sure if Van der Straeten really wanted to show a bad relationship, because, as I noted, she thinks higher of Modigliani than I do. But she shows a fascinating one, nevertheless, and one that’s important in the history of art and one that’s difficult to read about not only because we know how it ends but because it’s so emblematic of the problems with society, even one supposedly so “liberated” as an artistic community. This book is very good, as it gets into so many different themes without being obnoxious about them, and it allows us to move slowly through this relationship and see all the little things that make it work and not work. Van der Straeten doesn’t condemn either participant, despite the fact that both of them make horrible mistakes, and it becomes a book about a doomed romance, sure, but also why these people choose to stay in a doomed romance and whether they could have broken free from it. It asks what we get out of art, what we get out of love, and what we get out of life. Those aren’t bad questions to ask, after all.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆