The history of art rarely sees such an important discovery as this group of works presented here (see pp.16-18). They are exceptional in their quality, their number and the personality of the artist who executed them. At a stroke our artistic patrimony has been increased by a treasure which is about to go on display after being unseen for seventy years. It seems providential at a time when good news and dreams are in short supply: 430 unknown drawings by Amedeo Modigliani from his eight crucial years in Paris (1906-14), which will be published by Noël Alexandre in September.
The art history books mention, but under-estimate, the role of the person who was daily by the side of the artist while he was in France: the doctor Paul Alexandre. This physician, friend of art and artists, established and maintained a close and trusting relationship with the painter, visited him every day, bought his drawings as soon as they were finished, shared his daily life, his friendships, his moods and experiences. He also collected documents which now give us information and eye witness accounts of the artist that transform the traditional view of him.
Dr Paul Alexandre died in 1968 without having been able to write the book he would have liked to dedicate to Modigliani. One of his sons, Noël, a retired university lecturer, decided to sort out and study all the documents, including the stories which had been confided to him by his father, to whom he was very close. He also gathered toparis.
Monsieur Alexandre, can you explain in what way your work on Modigliani is original?
I have not tried to write an original book. I am by training and profession an historian; my role has been to collect these documents, to present and elucidate them, to attempt to show their meaning and limitations, according to traditional historical methods. The interest and value of the documents themselves constitute the interest and value of my work.
What are these documents?
They are documents of all sorts which were given to me by my father or which I found among his papers after his death in 1968. There are letters, drawings, contemporary photographs, eye witness accounts. You see Modigliani among other artists who were also friends of my father. Some of them were to become famous, like Brancusi, Gleizes, le Fauconnier, but most are now completely forgotten, such as Drouard, Doucet, Centore, Coustillier, Guiraud-Rivière and so on because they were nearly all killed in World War I. In my book I show some of their works because they were Modigliani’s everyday companions.
My father’s clinic was on the rue Pigalle in Montmartre. Not far from there, at 7 rue Delta, he had hired a pavilion due for demolition for these artists (it has long since gone and been replaced by a house). Many of the documents are about the life of these young artists “au Delta”. But other documents also are amazing. For example, I have found an account dated 10 December1924 by Modigliani’s mother: ten pages closely typed on a poor typewriter which give information of the utmost importance about Modigliani’s life in Leghorn, from his birth in 1884 to his arrival in Paris in 1906. From 1924 my father intended to write a major work about his friend and that is why he had asked Modigliani’s mother to supply him with all possible information about his childhood and adolescence. But my father never realised his plan...
Why did he not?
I can’t give you a good answer. For the whole of his life my father was preoccupied by the duty he felt in some way to bear witness to his friend and his works. He knew that he had been the only really close friend and confidant of Modigliani from 1907 to 1914, until they were separated by the war. He wanted to write something which would be profoundly true and he would have liked to have corrected the image of Modigliani which developed very early on in a number of dubious publications. In 1951, he could still write to an author who wanted to publish some works in his collection: “I have not given you my permission because I do not know what will be in the book you are writing. I want to reserve the publication of these works for a book which will give a view of Modigliani which is much closer to reality, and very different from that which you might get at present from what has been published so far in France and abroad”.
My father had a very busy career and was enthusiastic about other artists such as Mère Genevieve Gallois (all just as unknown as Modigliani in his day), so he continually postponed the project, counting on his excellent memory. But at the end of his life his memory abandoned him and he died without having written the book.
Have you therefore written the book your father wanted to write?
Not exactly. No one can know what he would have written because he was a direct witness and he had an exceptional personality—a deep artistic sensibility and great erudition. Furthermore, he never asked me to write it in his place. I think that at the end of his life he thought that what he knew was lost for ever.
It was to prevent that happening that I wanted to act, in homage to Modigliani and to my father, and out of a sense of duty to their memory. My training as an historian would allow me to save what could be saved and is why I got to work many years ago. Already when my father was still alive and under his instructions, I inventoried his complete collection of drawings, carefully noting down memories aroused in him by the sight of these works dating from his life before 1914 in the company of Modigliani. From when I was very young, my father had nurtured a love of art in me; I shared a great deal with him (he took me nearly every Sunday to the Louvre) and was close to him until his death. But it is about ten years ago that I really got to work. For a long time I did not know whether the notes I was accumulating would be published one day, but that did not deter me. Three years ago, I gave the manuscript to another historian to read, François Bergot, inspecteur general des Musées de France, director of the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rouen, and a friend. He was fired by it. Immediately he lent me his support, his judgement and helped me find a publisher, putting me in touch with Jan Martens and the Fonds Mercator which publish admirable art books. It was François Bergot and Jan Martens who both suggested taking advantage of the gathering together of all the drawings for the book to present as many of them as possible to the public in a splendid exhibition.
What did this drawings collection of your father consist of? How was it made up? How important was it?
The former collection of Dr Paul Alexandre consisted of about 500 drawings. Of its kind it was unique because of its importance and because it covered the period from 1906 to 1914, from Modigliani’s arrival in France until the general call-up in 1914. It is the least known and most obscure phase of the painter’s life because, despite all my father’s efforts to promote Modigliani and to make the quality of his works known, he was his only real friend and protector, his only admirer and buyer at that time. From the day of their first meeting, Paul Alexandre was struck by his prodigious artistic talents and begged him not to destroy any of his studies, offering him what little money a young doctor could spare. And until they were separated by the war, he followed his friend’s artistic production step by step with the intention of saving an exceptional body of masterpieces. That collection by itself was more important than all the authentic Modigliani drawings published during my father’s life-time. It included academic studies, theatrical studies, caryatids, sculptural heads, nudes, portraits, studies for paintings. It was not completely unknown because my father had let a few art lovers see it, and, later on, some researchers into Modigliani. In addition, he occasionally lent this or that drawing to exhibitions. But he wanted to save their publication for the book he was always going to write and which was to follow “line for line” the artistic development of his friend during those decisive years.
That series of drawings shows that from 1906 the quality of authentic drawings by Modigliani is truly exceptional. Faced with the ridiculous fakes which my father always found even in the best books, he thought that the publication of his collection would be the best defence and illustration of his friend’s genius.
Have you been able to gather together the whole of your father’s former collection?
No, but the greater part. For example, I have not tried to find forty or so drawings which belonged to him—and which will, therefore, not be illustrated in my book—because they are already well known and have been published elsewhere.
Altogether I have assembled 391 drawings and fifty studies which are part of an album dating from 1906 or early1907, before Modigliani and Paul Alexandre had met. That makes a total of 441. They are all accurately reproduced in my book, but, of course, it will not be possible to exhibit them all. In fact, we don’t know yet how many will be exhibited, but the main thing is to give a balanced view of the whole.
In this book, which will also serve as the catalogue for the exhibitions, has it been you who has written about the unpublished drawings?
Of course. I am the sole author of this book, although Monsieur François Bergot has agreed to write the introduction. Around forty of these drawings have been known for years from books and exhibitions, but as things are, I am the only person in the world at the moment to have complete knowledge of what that collection was in its entirety. In the circumstances it is obvious that it was up to me to present them first. But I expect many others to work on them after me and analyse them in their turn.
I think this book and these exhibitions cannot fail to give a new direction to Modigliani studies. More than seventy years after his death and after all the books and shows which have been dedicated to him, one might expect that nothing of any importance would appear now to improve the idea we have of his life and his work. But nothing could be further from the truth. All of Modigliani’s formative years will become a new area of study. We will discover that he was master of his technique and of his style very early on. Very early on he knew exactly what he meant to do in art. In these drawings one sees experiments and achievements that until now one thought came much later in his career.
How will your book give a different image of Modigliani from the usual one in already published works?
I cannot sum up in a few sentences what will be the substance itself of my book. Besides, I have not wanted to play the redresser of wrongs, the polemicist who denounces the work of whoever it might be. There is no doubt that some very serious and remarkable studies have been devoted to Modigliani. But the scholars agree that reliable sources are missing for the period from his arrival in Paris in 1906 until the war, and that what there is is superficial and contradictory. Very rapidly Modigliani fell victim to what you might call “the myth of bohemia”, from which he never emerged. My book shows that Modigliani was not that gloomy pessimist of morbid temperament who “destroyed himself with as much care as he put into constructing his talent”, but that he never doubted his worth nor the imminence of success. Despite natural hardships and TB (which he resisted remarkably for twenty years), he loved life passionately. He looked for fulfilment in the complete dedication of his being to the vocation which pushed him irresistibly towards painting and painting with joy. I believe that when we shall have heard the testimony of Paul Alexandre and seen Modigliani’s magnificent drawings dating from this time, a truth much more beautiful than the legend will assert itself on its own.
What did your father appreciate most in the work of Modigliani?
The deep friendship between my father and Modigliani derived from the fact that both believed life to have a meaning and that the artist’s duty was to say something essential to mankind. That vision of man is particularly apparent in his drawings. He ennobled everything he touched with his brush or his pencil. He showed the almost divine side of human nature. For that matter, Brancusi saw things the same way at this time. Brancusi was almost a peasant when he arrived in Paris but he looked behind appearances at a more profound reality, which one might call the eternal reality in things. All this profoundly attracted my father. In their dialogues, the meaning of art and the meaning of life were almost inextricably entwined. He talked to Modigliani, for example, of Bergson, the Jewish philosopher who nearly converted to Catholicism at the end of his life; and through Bergson, of the concept of conscience and the relationship between morality and religion. All this deeply interested Modigliani who was a remarkably cultivated and educated man, as Paul Alexandre proves.
Have you thought what changes the publication of this book may bring to your life?
I have not really thought about it. Like my father I love books and solitude and I flee from publicity, the brutality of the media, interviews where they try to get the interviewee to say things he doesn’t really think, as though to catch him out. Frankly, none of that interests me in the slightest. I am also a musician and music occupies a great deal of my time.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as '430 unknown drawings by Modigliani brought to light'