1881 - 1968
In the autumn of 1924, Paul Alexandre wrote to Modigliani’s sister Margherita in Florence:
‘I knew your brother Amedeo very intimately between the years 1907 and 1912. From 1912 to 1914 our relationship was less close, but he still came to see me quite often. After July 1914 I never saw him again, as I spent all of the war in the army at the front. On returning in 1919 I had to re-establish my life and events were moving so fast that I did not see your brother.
It is the intimate conversations we had almost daily from 1907 to 1912 that will enable me to write the account of his ideas, his tastes and his artistic development. I should like this book to be based on the story of his life, and that is why I need your precious collaboration.
In short I do not want to create a brilliant work, but to write a profoundly truthful one, to be of service to all those who in future will, with more talent no doubt, write about your brother. For he has been one of the principal influences on French art.’
Noel Alexandre’s incomparable book ‘The Unknown Modigliani’ records, for the first time, his father’s memories of Modigliani during his first years in Paris when he made the drawings being exhibited. Below is an extract.
‘It was not entirely by chance that I met Modigliani. From the time I first had a little independence after leaving college I began to associate with artists. It was Doucet who first brought him to the Delta. I think it was in November or December 1907. Doucet had met him in the rue Saint Vincent at Frédéric’s ‘Lapin Agile’ which in those days was only frequented by poor people, poets and artists. Modigliani told Doucet that he had been thrown out of the small studio he had occupied in Place Jean-Baptiste Clement and that he did not know where to go. This was shortly after his arrival in Paris. He was earning nothing, he had exhausted the few resources he had brought from Italy and found himself penniless. Doucet offered to bring him to the Delta* where he could stay, if he wanted, and where he could keep his belongings. This was how my friendship with Modigliani began. I was twenty-six years old, Modigliani was twenty three. Modigliani arrived accompanied by a supremely elegant woman, Maud Abrantès, and followed by a push cart which contained, among other things, The Jewess (which would be his first painting to be exhibited), his sketchbooks, his books and a few old clothes. There was nothing particularly unusual about someone arriving like that, but he soon became the dominant personality in the group and an immediate sympathy bound him to several of the others. This was particularly strong, it should be said, with those who were not artists themselves. For the first time he sold a few canvasses and gave away a few drawings. He chose to take lodgings in a hotel in the rue Caualaincourt, behind the ‘Maquis’, but he came back every day to see me at the Delta. Modigliani charmed everybody immediately. He trusted any stranger we might introduce him to, and was completely open with no pretences, inhibitions or reserve. There was something proud in his attitude and he had a good firm handshake. Modigliani was more than an aristocrat, ‘une noblesse excédée’, to use an expression of Baudelaire’s which fits him perfectly.
I was struck straight away by his extraordinary talent and I wanted to do something for him. I bought his drawings and paintings but I was his only buyer, and I was not rich. I introduced him to my family. He already had a deep-rooted confidence in his own worth. He knew that he was an innovator rather than a follower, but he had not as yet received a single commission. I got him to paint a portrait of my father, one of my brother and several of me. His mother sent him small sums of money almost every month, but apart from that he wanted to live by his art alone. Other impoverished artists, like Brancusi, made money when they could by washing up in restaurants, unloading at the docks, or by forcing themselves to polish floors or make beds in hotels. There was no question of that for Modigliani. He was a born aristocrat. He had the style and all the tastes. It was one of the paradoxes of his life: loving wealth, luxury, fine clothes, generosity, he lived in poverty if not misery. It was just that he had an exclusive passion for his art. There was no question of turning aside even for a moment from his life’s work to undertake what were in his eyes menial tasks. He was very independent. He liked to be alone with me or with one or another of my friends: Czobel, de Souza Cardosa or even Max Jacob, the poet-alchemist, who stimulated his taste for magic and the occult, which came out in the cabalistic signs that appear in a few of his drawings. Like Max Jacob, Modigliani took a keen interest in the mystical connections between material and spiritual realms-mystical correspondences.
Modigliani had a taste for danger. He thought that one should not be afraid to risk one’s life in order to expand it. Utterly despising mediocrity, he had pretensions to royal privilege….All that was very attractive too. I understood that our Saturday night jokes in the Delta were not for him, that this was not his world. Yet he held a dominant position at the Delta. The walls were soon covered only with his works, and this provoked a certain amount of jealousy.
How was it possible to help him? Living only by his art, when no one showed interest in his works, meant that Modigliani suffered real privations, which were made much worse because he was both generous and totally improvident. As soon as he had any money he would spend it. And so there were difficult times. Crippled by debts, having nothing to eat, paying neither his rent, his restaurant bills nor for his paints, he would try unsuccessfully to pay with his drawings and he was supported by his mistresses. Although short (he was under 5 foot 3 inches tall), he was very handsome and had great success with women. In spite of times of great poverty, he led an independent life and was seldom ill. He always believed that the day would come when he would be appreciated for his true worth and when his art would be recognised. With Modigliani it is, of course, not just a matter of painting but also of poetry, of literature, of everything. It is about the philosophical meaning of life. He often spoke to me of his native Italy, which was in some way a part of every fibre of his being and of his culture. He was very attached to his mother, who had taught him French, and he always carried a photograph of her. He was scarcely interested in politics and was never a socialist. He loved d’Annunzio and gave me his copy of his poems that he had brought from Italy. He was truly cultured. It was in a copy that he lent me that I first read Les Chants de Maldoror by Lautréamont. We used to discuss Bergson, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Oscar Wilde. He had a copy of Nietsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, and I have an erotic drawing by him unfortunately almost obliterated, in an edition of Zarathustra.
When I wasn’t working, I would go and collect him from his studio and we would go out together, going from exhibition to exhibition. At Bernheim’s we saw the Cézanne exhibition and went back everyday. In connection with this, I remember an anecdote about his visual memory, which was extraordinary: once, to my great astonishment, he drew from memory and at a single attempt Cezanne’s Boy with a Red Waistcoat. It was in the middle of the night……
At Vollard’s in his shop in the rue Lafitte, I remember our silently examining a series of ‘blue’ Picassos. We would also go to Kahnweiller’s in rue Vignon: I can see Modi there, completely absorbed in front of a small, strange watercolour of Picasso’s representing a young fir tree turning green in the middle of transparent blocks of ice. After dinner we would go up to Montparnasse to visit old Douanier Rousseau. There were crowds there when we talked about his 'Tiger in the Jungle' shown at the Salon, and Modi tugged at my sleeve to make me look at his painting 'The Wedding', which enchanted him.
Modigliani took an interest in everything and understood everything: the Impressionists for instance, even though his own artistic goals were quite different. He was truly generous, with no trace of envy or disparagement of his contemporaries, even if they themselves would not bother to look at his work. Modigliani loved the theatre, which presents life in a way that blends dream and reality. At the theatre it seemed to us that we were living through a waking dream. A whole series of his drawings was inspired by the theatre.
Modigliani’s art is a re-creation but always stems from a direct view of nature. There is nothing, or virtually nothing in his work that does not take as its point of departure an intense visual sensation. The resemblance is remarkable and immediate. In his life studies he ‘caught’ the model with miraculous precision and perfection. His constant aim was to simplify while grasping the basic essentials. Unlike most contemporary artists, he was interested in the inner being, and his portraits were real characters.
All his life he was pursuing the same goal, as his drawings show. An idea that one might have thought dated from the end of his life can be seen in embryo in drawings executed ten years earlier. Modigliani personifies the pursuit of a single idea which has to attain a high degree of intensity in order to enter into the life of art. He never gave up the struggle to demonstrate this idea fully.
In his drawings there is invention, simplification and purification of form. This is why African art appealed to him. Modigliani had reconstructed the lines of a human face in his own way by fitting them into primitive patterns. He enjoyed any attempt to simplify and was interested in it for his personal development. I remember that he would stop with me in the Place Clichy, to admire those naïve coloured pictures that were sold by the Arabs, always showing the same landscape: a small bridge between two mountains. This search for simplification in drawing also delighted him in certain paintings by Douanier Rousseau and in Czobel’s figures from fairground stalls.
His major works of the pre-war period developed after a long period of gestation, which was necessary for him to be able to paint a masterpiece. The intensity of his attention to forms and colours was extraordinary. When a figure haunted his mind, he would draw feverishly with unbelievable speed, never retouching, starting the same drawing ten times in an evening by the light of a candle, until he obtained the contour he wanted in a sketch that satisfied him. This is what gives his most beautiful drawings their purity and extraordinary freshness. Often he would add a detail or two to create an atmosphere: a chandelier, a candle in a candlestick, a cat. Sometimes the object was only vaguely suggested: a picture frame hanging on a wall to provide a horizontal axis.
The true character of Modigliani is found not in all the stories that have been told about him but in his work. Anybody who knows how to look at his portraits of women, of young men, of friends, and all the others, will discover a man of exquisite sensibility, tenderness, pride, passion for truth, purity. Modigliani’s style might seem easy to imitate, but this is a false impression. Each portrait is the result of deep meditation in front of the sitter. The fakes, however clever, are too empty or too crude, which ought to give them away at first glance. Modigliani never painted without meaning.’
From The Unknown Modigliani by Noël Alexandre.
*The building in rue Delta which Paul Alexandre rented and where his artist friends could stay and work.
Modigliani Paul Alexandre 1909
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