SHOW PEOPLE: Sex'n'drugs'n' Modigliani

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EVERY Montmartre bar has its Modigliani story. There was the Gauloise smoke that made the eyes water, the absinthe which did not make the heart grow fonder, and then there was the small but perfectly formed Jewish-Italian artist with his grey corduroy suit, black hat and melty matinee-idol face.

In the Lapin Agile he'd drink the jilted lovers of his girlfriends into stupefied submission; the morning after he'd flog his drawings for a few francs at Rosalie's and the Rotonde; and later on, at Vassileva's, with his daily cocktail of stimulants under his belt, 'Modi' would entertain the regulars by dropping his trousers, lifting up his shirt and shouting, 'Don't I look like a god?'

A great many, it seems, thought that he did. Everyone loves a tormented artist and Modigliani provided the blueprint. Even before his death at 35 of tuberculosis aggravated by alcohol and drug abuse, Modigliani's reputation as the bad boy of the quartier was assured. Augustus John, no slouch himself when it came to excess, was impressed by Modi's capacity for self-destruction and his love of mood-inducing symbolist poetry, and Nina Hamnett, the doyenne of Parisian and London low-life, remembered him as having 'curly black hair, brown eyes - he was like a faun'. So smitten was his hapless mistress, Jeanne Hebuterne, that on the day after Modigliani died she committed suicide by flinging herself, aged 22 and nearly nine months pregnant with their second child, from a fifth-storey window.

Fitting perfectly into this formula is the work. 'They were very curious and interesting,' said Hamnett of his drawings, 'long heads with pupil-less eyes. I thought them very beautiful. Some were in red and blue chalk. I gave him five francs and chose one of a head in blue pencil.' Many of his favourite models - especially the pale, long-necked Jeanne - already looked like ready-made Modiglianis, and his willowy, melancholy figures with their piercing but vacant eyes provide hallucinogenic alter-egos for this doomed, druggy figure. 'He sees his mistresses through the neck of an absinthe bottle,' was the verdict of a less charitable contemporary, and the Paris police also disapproved of Modi's viewpoint: they closed his first and only one-man show at Berthe Weil's gallery in December 1917 on grounds of obscenity. 'They have hair]' was the police chief's only explanation.

Since then, Modigliani's reputation as an artist has remained problematic. He is easy to recognise but difficult to document: the promiscuous way that he disposed of many of his works has made him a forger's dream and an art historian's nightmare. Dying young may have done his mythic status no end of good, but it put the lid on his artistic career - the art world tends not to be too charitable to those it can't categorise, and 'erratic', 'eclectic', 'uneven', 'idiosyncratic', are the kind of fingerwaving adjectives that have attached themselves to his small but distinctive output.

But now Modigliani is back in the spotlight. A cache of more than 400 drawings, from 1906 - the year he arrived in Paris from art school in Venice - to 1914, is being promoted as Modigliani's missing link, the key to his thought processes, and categoric proof that he was a serious artist who worked as hard on refining his forms as he did on stimulating his senses.

The drawings, 240 of which go on show at the Royal Academy this week, are undoubtedly genuine. They are from the collection of Paul Alexandre, a young doctor who met the artist in 1907 and invited him to stay in the small dilapidated house at 7 rue du Delta, which he had put at the disposal of his artist friends - 'Struck by his remarkable artistic gifts, I begged him not to destroy a single sketchbook or a single study, putting the meagre resources I could spare at his disposal.'

Until Alexandre went to the front in 1914, he saw Modigliani on a daily basis, and was virtually his only patron. But Alexandre's support of his artist friends extended beyond a roof over their heads and a few francs in their pockets. The current exhibition catalogue, written by Alexandre's youngest son Noel, omits to mention that Dr Alexandre ran the Delta house as one of Montmartre's leading opium dens and Modigliani, already hooked on hash while he was still in Italy, was an eager participant.

There's no shortage of drooping eyelids and languid poses in these drawings, but Modigliani's track record as a bohemian delinquent covers up his dogged determination to be an artist. The fourth child of middle-class merchants, Amedeo Clemente Modigliani was born in Livorno, on the north-west coast of Italy, on 12 July 1884. 'Precociously intelligent and pensive,' according to his mother, the sickly 'Dedo' was kept at home rather than being sent to primary school. After he had suffered a near-fatal attack of typhoid fever, his family indulged his desire to study painting and sent the 14-year-old to the studio of local Livorno painter Guglielmo Micheli.

Two years later Modigliani suffered his first bout of tuberculosis. While convalescing in the milder but more cosmopolitan climate of Naples, he resolved to widen his horizons. In 1902 he enrolled at the Accademia di Belle Arte in Florence, but it was in Venice that Modigliani found his artistic feet. In March 1903 he joined the Institute of Fine Arts and met up with young Futurist artist Umberto Boccioni. After three years of hectic study, hashish consumption and dabbling in the occult, Modigliani turned towards the art-world mecca of Paris.

'Happiness is an angel with a grave face,' he wrote in 1913, seven years before he died and already racked with tuberculosis; although he was survived by his year-old daughter, Giovanna, it is Modigliani's drawn, painted and carved angels which ultimately gave him the greatest joy and are his lasting legacy.

'The Unknown Modigliani': Royal Academy (071-439 7438), Fri to 14 Apr. Tim Hilton will review it next week.