Jeanne Hébuterne: Loving Modigliani – a new novel by Linda Lappin
min Read24 May 2021
With her dark hair, pale skin, and light blue eyes, affectionately called “noix-de-coco” (coconut) by friends, Jeanne Hèbuterne (1898-1920) is most known for her intense and tragic relationship with Amedeo Modigliani. Yet she was also a budding artist, with her life and work cut short at only 21 years old when she committed suicide. At the time she was 8 months pregnant, and she died just two days after Modigliani’s death from tuberculosis in January 1920. With so few works left behind, her family kept them hidden for decades. Even her only daughter was unaware of details of her parents’ lives, so much was lost or inaccessible.
Loving Modigliani: The Afterlife of Jeanne Hèbuterne by Linda Lappin is a touching and insightful historical fiction. It brings new life and a different take on Jeanne’s experience, and is extremely interesting in that the focus is on her instead of Modigliani. Part love story and part ghost story, it’s told in the first person from the perspective of Jeanne traveling through the limbo of the afterlife directly following her plunge from the 5th floor of her family’s home.
The story feels very personal and a lot of personal detail is woven into the narrative. Modi, as Jeanne calls Modigliani, was 14 years her senior and from the beginning vexed her strict Catholic family. They were disdainful of his bohemian lifestyle of women, alcohol, and drugs. She met him in 1917 while studying art at the Acadèmie Colarossi and defied religious and societal conventions by living with him, becoming his muse and model, and eventually his common-law wife. A year later, their daughter, Jeanne Modigliani was born.
Vivid depictions of early 20th century Paris create a rich atmosphere and transport the reader into the setting. The detail and compassion with which Linda writes, brings out the intensity and passion of Jeanne and Modi’s relationship. Like Modigliani, Jeanne utilizes elongated necks and exaggerated forms, and almond-like eyes. They often drew each other and influenced one another’s art.
Linda Lappin kindly agreed to an interview with DailyArt and provided us with a wonderful background and the development of her interest in Jeanne’s life.
Was there anything that specifically drew you to Jeanne and Modi’s story or was it an organic and natural interest?
Modigliani was always one of my favorite painters, but I didn’t know much about his life or about Jeanne H, except through the films I had seen which don’t really give a good picture of Jeanne. I only knew that she had been Modigliani’s partner and model for many portraits and had committed suicide after he died. I had no idea she was an artist.
My first encounter with Jeanne Hébuterne the artist was quite serendipitous.
One evening in Rome, I spotted a poster advertising an art show in Venice, “Modigliani e i suoi”…The star of that show was Jeanne Hébuterne – whose eye-popping nude self-portraits and poignant sketches of Modigliani on his deathbed were an explosive discovery… This was the first time, since her death, eighty years earlier, that they were being viewed by the public…I learned that Jeanne Modigliani, the daughter of Jeanne and Amedeo, had painstakingly researched her parents’ lives and had come to an agreement with the Hébuterne family to make these drawings and other documents publicly available as of the year 2000. Several photographic portraits of Jeanne… showed a young woman of extraordinary beauty with a haunted gaze and magnificent hair. A pre-Raphaelite comes to life.
I was instantly captivated and began researching her life and work—although not much material was available back then, as Jeanne played a minimal role in most biographies dedicated to Modigliani until quite recently… This may be because Jeanne was very reticent and taciturn. She also had many rivals who were jealous of her role as Modigliani’s chosen partner. Moreover, her family closed themselves in a shield of silence to protect their privacy and did not readily collaborate with scholars and biographers in the decade after her demise.
Throughout the book I could feel your compassion for Jeanne, how much you gave voice to her experience and feelings. What intrigued you about her?
Reading through period memoirs, we catch glimpses of Jeanne in different settings: she was seen at the fabled performance of Parade which had brought together the creative efforts of Satie, Picasso, and Cocteau. She was among the guests at Kisling’s riotous wedding celebration. She frequented the cafes, art academies, and art studios of Montparnasse –and she lived –halfway- with Modigliani and studied painting at his side. She gravitated near the center of a cultural revolution in contact with the people who would change the future of art. From photographs and memoirs by her friends, we know that she designed her own clothes and jewelry, and loved wearing unusual ponchos, turbans, etc. She aspired to a full creative life. She wanted her life to be art and art her life. I think the values of that era were similar to the 1970s when I came of age – and that draws me to Jeanne. From her artwork and friends’ memoirs, we know she was also the affectionate daughter of a very bourgeois family and adored her brother. She struggled to fit all the pieces of her life together –devoted daughter, sensual lover, dedicated artist, in the midst of great difficulties. Her family’s rejection of her lifestyle and of her partner distressed her greatly. She didn’t live long enough to develop her potential as an artist, but with her dreams, aspirations, and accomplishments, she was truly representative of her times. Motherhood also came extremely early to Jeanne. She became pregnant with Jeanne/Giovanna at the age of 20.
Had the idea for this story been brewing for a while or did it appear rather quickly? I’m always curious about a writer’s process and how they develop their ideas.
I wrote an essay from my early research, “Missing Person in Montparnasse: The Case of Jeanne Hébuterne” which was published in 2002 and was very well received. I think it was then that I first got the idea of writing a novel about her life, but I was at the very beginning of my career as a novelist and wasn’t quite ready for that.
I wanted to write a historical novel about Jeanne and Modi, but I didn’t have that kind of detailed textual material for Jeanne Hébuterne, as Jeanne left only her artwork, and not much else, that we know – so the research took many years and many forms as more documentation came to light.
What inspired this tale of Jeanne’s afterlife, as opposed to a lot of historical fiction which focuses on a time period during their life? It was also interesting how you made the focus on her instead of Modigliani.
When I first began writing Loving Modigliani – it was going to be a first person narrative – a diary from adolescence to womanhood. But I soon ran into three problems. The first was that the protagonist, the writer of the diary, dies of suicide – so that I couldn’t write the whole story – I couldn’t write the ending. The second problem was that her relationship with Modigliani seems to deteriorate near the end, as Modigliani’s health worsened, and I did not want to write a story in which Jeanne appeared to be a victim, and lastly, their short-lived love story ( five years max) was tragic and I didn’t want to write a tragedy with a bloody ending, because I strongly felt, that despite all, there was joy in this story and in their love.
Then I saw a photo of Jeanne looking a bit vampirish and I thought: Suppose I start the story with the suicide already over, and take it from there, and have Jeanne tell her tale as a ghost?
And I began writing what is now Part 1. It was a big departure for me, especially including characters like Theo, the cat! (Modigliani does seem to have kept a cat, by the way…) Also combining the mythic prologue with more realistic sections that follow was another departure in style, but it just came together once I started the prologue.
In recreating Paris in that era, I researched photography archives, as well as letters and memoirs by lesser-known denizens of Montparnasse, art students and travelers to Paris, as well as authors living in Paris at that time – Carco, Jean Rhys, Anais Nin, and many others. The “Other Paris” instead is based on descriptions of the Underworld found in mythology from around the world.
The other thing that intrigued me was Jeanne’s change in status over the years, her afterlife – her artworks now bring hefty sums at auctions, when before she was just a nobody. I wanted to write about her afterlife as much as about her life. So I added a character sort of based on myself – the researcher who goes to France in the 1980s and stumbles upon Jeanne and her diary….
Your background is as a writer, yet your works gravitate toward artists and history – where does this interesting combination stem from?
When I was in college, I lived in Florence with an artist boyfriend who was connected to a well known print studio there. We were poor students, living in a bare flat, but surrounded by his friends, all of whom were visual artists working in different media, in an international environment. I found it all very exciting, and I envied artists because their work is so much an “external manifestation” which others can share – simply by looking. But writing is solitary, and so much is in your head, and your connection is always with a solitary reader. There is just something so immediate about a painting or a sculpture or performance. When you experience a work of visual art, you don’t have to filter it the same way you do a text. As for history – I think it was coming to Europe at a young age and falling in love with old things – old buildings, etc.
Another aspect I noticed was how the background and cities, especially Paris, feature prominently in the book. Your descriptions are so vivid and easily allow the reader to experience early 20th century Paris sites and sounds, do you see these locations as characters themselves?
I LOVE THIS QUESTION. Yes, indeed, I do see setting as a character, as an intelligent energy interacting with characters and readers. I am fascinated by place-writing… My novels all started with a strong connection to a place. Loving Modigliani started with a photo I took outside Modigliani’s studio, through a grate looking inside. There was something haunting in that picture – and my novel sprang from that seed… I believe that places inhabit us as we inhabit them. An important part of my research was of course just wandering the streets of Montparnasse, and guessing at what took place hidden within those walls, and behind those closed doors, seeking sparks of their past presence in hopes of rekindling their lives. And that is all bound up with how places whisper to us when we open our ears.
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