Art Market: Mystery of the Modiglianis: A cache of secret drawings has been discovered in Paris, shedding new light on the artist seen by many as the definitive doomed Bohemian

Geraldine Norman
Saturday 03 April 1993 23:02

MORE than 440 previously unknown drawings by Modigliani have just turned up in Paris, leaving scholars who have attempted to assess his work stuttering with indignation. Why have they been kept secret this long?

All belonged to Dr Paul Alexandre, Modigliani's first great patron and friend. From 1907 to 1914, the two saw each other almost every day - apart from the periods when Modigliani left Paris to visit his family in Italy. Alexandre bought most of his paintings and squirrelled away every drawing he could lay his hands on.

He was a young medical doctor, three years older than Modigliani, and when war broke out he was immediately sent to the front. His demobilisation was delayed at the end of the war so he never saw Modigliani again. The artist died of tuberculosis in January 1920, at the age of 35.

Modigliani was quickly reinvented by the press as the definitive, doomed Bohemian artist. His mistress, Jeanne Hebuterne, nine months pregnant, had thrown herself from a third-floor window the day after he died. The penniless artist - the only one-man show in his lifetime was a failure - was depicted as struggling on his way to death through clouds of hashish and alcoholic debauchery, coughing blood as the tuberculosis reinforced its hold on his slight frame.

In 1924, says Alexandre's son Noel, his father determined that he would write a book exploding this colourful myth and depicted the 'remarkably cultivated and educated man' Modigliani really was. '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,' Noel Alexandre told the Art Newspaper recently.

From 1924 onwards, Paul Alexandre refused permission for his drawings to be reproduced, since he intended to publish them himself along with his account of the artist's life. Only scholars he personally approved of were allowed to see any of the drawings; no one was shown them all. Some 10 years before his death in 1968, Alexandre realised that he was never going to write the book. Noel, who taught history at a teacher training college, agreed to take over responsibility for it. He made an inventory of all the drawings and painstakingly noted down his father's anecdotes.

The book will be published in September to coincide with an exhibition of a large group of the drawings at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice; in January, the exhibition is to come to the Royal Academy in London as the second venue in a world tour that will last at least two years.

The revelation of the existence of the drawings has been orchestrated by a Belgian publisher, Jan Martens. He runs Fonds Mercator, which publishes art and history books. It was when he was preparing a book on the Rouen museum in 1988 that he first came across the Alexandre family. Two of Paul Alexandre's 11 children had given the Rouen museum two Modigliani paintings that year. Martens was stunned by the pictures, a 1913 portrait of Paul Alexandre and a 1909 portrait of his father, Jean-Baptiste Alexandre. The latter was one of a large group of family portraits commissioned by Paul in 1909 in an attempt to solve Modigliani's financial problems.

The director of Musee des Beaux- Arts in Rouen, Francois Bergot, told Martens of the remarkable book about the drawings that was in preparation and Martens set off in pursuit. The book might never have seen the light of day if he had not put his editors and photographers behind it. He has also organised the touring exhibition. The Alexandre family is making every effort to avoid the press and has appointed Martens to act as its representative.

The task of concealing the ownership of the the drawings has also been left to Martens. He told me that when Paul Alexandre gave away drawings in his lifetime, either to friends or to members of the family, he always extracted an undertaking that their existence would not be revealed until his book was published.

Martens has also said that there is no question of the drawings going on the market. What he means, I suspect, is that it is no use trying to buy them for the duration of the travelling exhibition. If ownership is now spread around the large Alexandre family, as Martens suggests, it seems unlikely that all family members will feel permanently inhibited from turning their inheritance into cash.

Paul Alexandre had no such qualms. Heinz Berggruen, the Paris dealer who has lent his own distinguished modern art collection to the London National Gallery, tells me that he knew Alexandre well in the 1960s and bought a lot of drawings and a few paintings from him: 'He was a real character. In general he despised art dealers. But, for some reason, there were two of us who did find favour, me and Frank Perls, from California.'

The dealing fraternity generally has chosen to express doubt over the importance of the drawings - though dealers have not yet seen them. 'I expect most of them are just studio scraps,' Desmond Corcoran of the Lefevre Gallery says, 'not really worth getting worked up about.'

Klaus Perls, Frank's younger brother and a world expert on Modigliani, stresses that Modigliani did not develop his own style until 1915-16. 'All the Alexandre drawings are before that. He came into his own in 1916,' he told me. ' Those last four years; that's really all that Modigliani is.'

Martens strenuously contradicts this. The new drawings prove that Modigliani was already a mature artist in 1907, he says. 'Having no information on this period, art historians regarded it as a period of preparation. That is untrue. What he wanted to be, above all, was a sculptor. There is a strong relationship between his drawings and the 17 or 18 sculptures that he made. He could not become a sculptor because of his health; he finally admitted this after a period he spent recuperating in Livorno in 1913.'

The new cache roughly doubles the number of known Modigliani drawings and quadruples the number of drawings known from the period 1907-14. In addition to the drawings, Noel Alexandre's book will contain letters, contemporary photographs and eye- witness accounts gathered by his father - including a 10-page account of Modigliani's childhood written by his mother. After it bursts on the world in September, Martens claims, the world's view of Modigliani will be radically changed.-

(Photograph omitted)

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