Nadine Van der Straeten’s Jeanne & Modigliani accomplishes something quite remarkable for a graphic novel. It proves that real-life stories can be just as captivating as stories about heroes who save the universe while wearing their underwear outside their trousers, and because it’s an artistic representation of the romance between two artists whose own work altered the way many of us look at the ways artists look at the world, it’s also a fascinating example of how art from one period of history can reflect and refract the art from another period of history, like mirrors endlessly gazing in upon one another.
On the surface, this could simply be a compelling dissection of Jeanne Hebuterne and Amedeo Modigliani’s often frighteningly intense personal life, and yet another Camille Claudel-like study of the torment it takes to produce great art. And, on that basis, it would still succeed. But Van der Straeten’s disturbing and heart-wrenching graphic novel is much more than that. It’s about how love always has its own darkness, and how two artists with very different approaches to their craft can be drawn forcefully together, be rendered almost indivisible by their unreasoning passion, and ultimately be destroyed by their own tragic co-dependency.
So, if bad guys being thrown through walls and unicorns with magical powers are more your thing, this is probably one to avoid. Although it would be a shame if you did, because Jeanne & Modigliani really pushes the envelope of what the graphic novel art form can do.
There’s no point going into a synopsis because even a cursory web search will tell you all you need to know about the doomed artists’ real-life relationship. But, in filling in all the details of their world, Van der Straeten takes us on a universal emotional journey through the first thrills of romance to the blinkers one partner puts on when it’s obvious that their relationship is taking a dangerous and abusive turn, to the obsession that is created when one personality so dominates another that they can’t even exist for themselves anymore (for the longest time, the only subject Jeanne can sketch is Modigliani sleeping), to the tragedy of losing the person you love so deeply that you can no longer endure belonging in this world. It’s a rollercoaster of a biography with a consummate script and exquisitely sensuous black-and-white artwork (Van der Straeten’s not-quite-portraiture/not-quite-caricature renderings of her characters is especially praiseworthy), and small touches like the brief explanatory footnotes Van der Straeten adds to the bottom of some pages ensure that a prior knowledge of Jeanne and Modigliani’s life and early 20th century art is not required to appreciate this.
In all respects, Jeanne & Modigliani is a fantastic accomplishment. Just be prepared that, if you let it, it has the power to strike right to the core of you.
JEANNE & MODIGLIANI / WRITER & ARTIST: NADINE VAN DER STRATEN / PUBLISHER: BLACK PANEL PRESS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW (DIGITAL), APRIL 26TH (HARD COPY)