These lines by Paul Alexandre reveal the decisive role the young doctor played in the ascendance of Amedeo Modigliani’s career and reflect his deep admiration for his artist friend. Paul Alexandre was completing his internship at the hospital Lariboisière in November 1907 when he met Modigliani, the bohemian Italian artist with dandyish style who had arrived in Paris the previous year. Thus began an important friendship that would last until August 1914 when the young doctor was conscripted and left for the front. Alexandre was in effect Modigliani’s first patron and perhaps the most important. It was only after his death in 1968 and especially upon the occasion of the exhibition Modigliani inconnu organised by his youngest son Noël Alexandre at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen in 1993, that the public were able to discover his incredible collection, comprising no less than twenty-five paintings and a hundred or so drawings (including over a dozen studies depicting himself). The impeccable provenance of these works enabled a new understanding of the early Parisian work of this artist who destroyed so much of his own output. This friendly association that sheltered Modigliani from financial need would prove to be unprecedented in the artist’s career since his subsequent protectors, Paul Guillaume in late 1914, and then Leopold Zborowski from 1916, were dealers first and foremost.
Paul Alexandre, on the other hand, was a true art lover. He and his brother Jean had a group of artist friends from a young age and were instrumental in the creation of a commune known as the Delta that centred around the sculptor Maurice Drouart and the artists Henri Doucet and Albert Gleizes, later joined by the Romanian Constantin Brancusi. At the initiative of Paul Alexandre, in 1907 the circle that had been gathering weekly near the École des Beaux-Arts moved to 7 Rue du Delta in an abandoned municipal building located opposite a spare plot of land. For modest rent, Alexandre transformed the building into a “sort of guardian angel hostel”, a place of reciprocal help and hospitality but above all a site of dialogue for artists, sometimes also the scene of lively festivities and experiments such as the "hashish sessions" organised by the doctor. Alexandre recounted to his son Noël that it was at the Delta that he met Modigliani: “It was Doucet who brought him to the Delta for the first time […] Doucet had met him on Rue Saint-Vincent at Frédéric’s place ‘Au Lapin Agile’, that at the time was only frequented by the poor, by poets and artists … Modigliani told Doucet that he had been evicted from his small studio on Place Jean-Baptiste Clément and didn’t know where to go … Doucet suggested he come to the Delta where he could stay if he wished, and where he could store his belongings. This is how my friendship with Modigliani began. I was 26, he was 23 and my brother Jean was 21.” (Modigliani inconnu, p. 53-54). In his book on Modigliani, Jean-Paul Crespelle relates how the doctor, of limited fortune, deprived himself in order to pay for canvases, and that after opening his clinic at 62 Rue Pigalle, he would have Modigliani drop by on consultation days in order to share the day’s news. He wanted to help his friend but above all desired to own his pictures and admired his immense talent. He preciously conserved most of his collection until his death, almost systematically refusing any exhibition loan requests and even reproduction requests, leading Jeanne Modigliani to comment in her biography of her father: “he was the that increasingly rare breed of collector, a collector who was in love with art in the true sense of the word, to the joy and despair of academics: joy because he pristinely conserved works of indisputable provenance dating from Modigliani’s formative period; despair because he jealously guarded the works and no-one could boast of having seen the entirety of his collection” (Jeanne Modigliani, Modigliani, Une Biographie, Paris, 1990, p. 64).
This portrait of Paul Alexandre from 1911-12 has remained in the family collection for over a century. A rare work, it was only exhibited once during its owner’s lifetime, in 1950-51 in the United States and although the picture is mentioned in this exhibition catalogue, it is not illustrated. It is the fourth portrait of a series of five, completed between 1909 and 1913, and it is by far the most powerful, the one that heralds that inimitable Modigliani style that bestows its models with unparalleled melancholia and sensitivity but that here also reveals an additional modernity that make it a pivotal work. According to Paul Alexandre’s daughter, this portrait was painted just after the death of the sitter’s mother. The burden of his grief infuses this painting with an intimacy and depth that radically set it apart from the other portraits that Modigliani painted of his patron and make it one of his most moving portraits of this period. Paul Alexandre seems to have posed for this portrait, just as he did for the three preceding ones, since we know that only 1913’s Paul Alexandre devant un vitrage (donated by the family to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen) was painted from memory – Modigliani gave the painting to his friend as a surprise. The three first depictions, that are more conventional, were painted in 1909 when the doctor introduced Modigliani to his family, and are contemporaneous with the portrait of his father Jean-Baptiste Alexandre au crucifix (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen) and that of his brother Jean (Fondation Gianadda, Martigny). These commissions enabled Modigliani to earn a living and one can imagine that the head of this bourgeois family, who had allowed himself to be persuaded by his son, preferred classical depictions. These portraits of Paul Alexandre are in keeping with the photograph of the young doctor dating from 1909 with this suit, white collar and black tie. The first is a study, while the second, painted against a brown background and the last with a green background present the same scene: the young man turns three-quarters facing the viewer, his right hand in his pocket or on his hip. We sometimes find signs of complicity in the background, such as the painting La Juive from 1907-08 hanging on the wall, one of the very first purchased by Paul Alexandre from Modigliani. Though our portrait, painted a few years later, was probably another commission requested by the patron, its style is strikingly different and more in line with the avant-garde experimentation pursued by his peers Picasso and Matisse and their mentor, Cézanne. The doctor is still recognisable but the composition has been geometrised, as seen by its perfect proportions, characterised by frontality, a vertical axis and economy of colour that clearly show the influence of Cézanne: a detailed, light face contrasting with a dark, dry background at times left unfinished. As Paul Alexandre explained: “He painted by first drawing (often in blue) the outline after contemplating it for a long time. Then he spread his colours diluted in a large quantity of turpentine. He varnished by very carefully spreading a thin layer of polish. Then he rubbed after drying with a chamois or flannel.” (Amedeo Modigliani, Peintures du don Philippe et Blaise Alexandre, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen, 2002). This portrait, fused with undeniable modernity, is very different from the final version in front of a window painted in 1913 when the artist was beginning to paint again, which elongates the model’s face and evokes the influence of Cubism and Futurism.
Our portrait of Paul Alexandre was in fact painted when Modigliani was turning towards sculpture. From 1910 to 1913, the artist focussed almost exclusively on stone sculpture and created multiple studies for sculpted heads and caryatid motifs – today twenty-five sculptures (all stone except for one in wood and one in marble) have been attributed to him. In April 1909, he left the Delta colony and moved to the Cité Falguière in Montparnasse, around the time that he met Brancusi. After a trip to Livorno and Carrara in summer 1909, the Italian developed his sculpture, considering it to be the pinnacle of art, and wanted to learn the technique of direct carving. Once again Paul Alexandre was the catalyst, for as the doctor explained in his notebooks, as it was he who introduced Modigliani to Brancusi: “Though he was so different from Brancusi, I had an intuition that they would find a mutual understanding through their art. Later it was Brancusi who found him a studio on the Rue Falguière and helped him to prepare his exhibition. They never worked in the same studio, due to their independence and also due to lack of space, but they saw each other frequently and broke bread together […] It would be wrong to believe that either one was the other’s teacher. They were very different but were united in their selfless and perseverant approach to their research” (Modigliani inconnu, p.59). Though few direct accounts exist, the intertwined correspondence between Brancusi, Modigliani and Alexandre reveals that the two artists saw each other very regularly from 1909 onwards, as seen from the Brancusi portrait on the reverse of the painting Le Violoncelliste, 1909. A letter from Brancusi to Alexandre dated 4th March 1911 also indicates that the Romanian helped his friend to set up an exhibition of 25 sculpted heads in the studio of Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso that had been provided for the event. Five archive photographs exist showing the setting up of the exhibition; precious documents since only a few of these stone heads survive today, the others having been either lost or destroyed. The portrait of Paul Alexandre is one of the rare paintings created in this formal context, and if we view the work in juxtaposition with the photographs of these stone heads the visual analogies are striking.
Just like Brancusi, Modigliani refined his technique by simplifying facial features such as the thin nose and almond eyes that characterise his sculpted heads, obtaining an archaic effect that combines diverse influences: Greek and Egyptian sculpture along with the Khmer and Indian art he had discovered at the Musée Guimet with Brancusi and Souza-Cardoso, but also the tribal art of Africa that was very much in vogue in avant-garde circles at the time. Contrary to received opinion, Paul Alexandre recounted that “it was Modigliani who introduced me to African art and not the other way around. He took me to the Musée du Trocadéro where he was passionate about the Angkor exhibition in the west wing” (Modigliani inconnu, p. 67); while one of his mistresses, the Russian poet Anna Akhmotova revealed that in 1911: “Modigliani dreamed of Egypt. He invited me to the Louvre, so that I could visit the Department of Egyptian Antiquities; he said that all the rest wasn’t worthy of our attention” (Christian Parisot, Modigliani, Paris, 2005, p. 173). The influence of primitive art in the widest sense of the term – the art of non-western cultures – was a vehicle for the extreme simplification of volumes in Modigliani’s sculptures that would be translated into expanses of colour in his paintings. In the portrait of Paul Alexandre, Modigliani uses the same radical approach and with very few lines, manages to breathe life into the personality of his model.
If Brancusi played a decisive role in Modigliani’s mastery of direct carving, it is also possible that this emulation was reciprocal. The decorative motif in the background of the present portrait has fascinating similarities with Brancusi’s masterpiece, La Colonne sans fin. The precise date of this wooden tower’s conception has never been determined by historians; however it appears to be between 1916 and 1918, thus several years after this picture was painted. The work of Sidney Geist, a Brancusi specialist, points to a common source for this vertical band constructed from lozenge shapes. When in 1968 Geist questioned Madame Brefort, Paul Alexandre’s daughter, regarding the iconography of her father’s portrait, she replied that it was highly likely that Modigliani had taken inspiration from a Moroccan or African wall-hanging that was in Paul Alexandre’s home at the time. Even though this wall-hanging has not been found, the doctor’s daughter remained convinced that it was not invented by the artist. (Sidney Geist, "Le devenir de la colonne sans fin" in Les carnets de l’Atelier Brancusi, Paris, 1998, p. 16). Given the bond between Paul Alexandre, Modigliani and Brancusi, the Romanian sculptor must have also known of this wall-hanging either through his fellow artist or by his own visits to the doctor’s home. This type of textile, generally originating from central Africa, for instance the Kuba textiles of the Democratic Republic of Congo, was in fashion at the time among avant-garde artists and African art connoisseurs; Matisse was a passionate collector of fabrics and owned a large panel by the 1920s, if not before.
When Modigliani arrived in Paris, the art of Sub-Saharan Africa was just being discovered by the artists he met such as Picasso, Matisse, Derain and Vlaminck, who all collected tribal art. Matisse recounted that he had purchased his first wooden statue of African origin in an exotic curiosity shop as early as 1906 while the Hungarian antique dealer Joseph Brummer expanded his business into Pre-Columbian and African art from 1908. Modigliani spent time in this milieu and saw these African statues, notably at the homes of his friends the sculptors Jacques Lipchitz and Jacob Epstein and in the studio of the painter Frank Burty Haviland. However as Alan G. Wilkinson explains in the catalogue for the exhibition Le Primitivisme dans l’art du 20e siècle (1987), Modigliani took a different approach from his peers who mixed difference tribal influences. For the creation of his sculpted heads and later his portraits he essentially took inspiration from the masks of Ivory Coast baoulé dancers and ceremonial Fang and Punu masks from central Africa – such as the one visible on the wall of Picasso’s studio behind Frank Haviland in 1910.
The 1911-12 portrait of Paul Alexandre is in keeping with this primitive style that was a total break from conventional art, reflected in in the fine features of the face with the contours of the eyes outlined by the eyebrows, as the sitter himself recalled: “In his drawings there is an invention, a simplification and a purification of form. This is why he was so seduced by African art. Modigliani reconstructed the lines of the human face in his own fashion by positioning them within the context of African art. He took pleasure in attempting to simplify lines and applying this to his personal research.” (Amedeo Modigliani, Peintures du don Philippe et Blaise Alexandre).
Whether in his incredible stone sculptures or in his paintings, Modigliani was above all a great portraitist who, following in the footsteps of his peers Matisse and Picasso, was able to free himself entirely of the classical portraiture genre in order to express a new sensitivity. Taking inspiration from diverse primitive sources, he dispenses with all that is superfluous, transcending the model in order better to represent him. The finest tribute would come from his first admirer, Paul Alexandre himself: “Whosoever looks at his portraits of women, youths, friends and others, will find a man a man of exquisite sensitivity, tenderness, pride, passion for the truth and purity” (Modigliani inconnu, p. 67). The 1911-12 portrait of the man who was like a brother to the artist until the outbreak of war in 1914 (the two men would never see each other again after Alexandre returned from the front, as the Italian was by then associated with the young dealer Paul Guillaume whom the doctor disliked) is the most powerful from a stylistic point of view, and the most radical of the series. It foreshadows the portrait of the collector Roger Dutilleul, painted in 1919, but above all takes its place in the canon of portraits of artists’ protectors that have become icons of modern art, such as the portraits of Ambroise Vollard painted by Cézanne in 1899, of Gertrude Stein by Picasso in 1906, or later Auguste Pellerin by Matisse in 1916.
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