The Unknown Modigliani

by Noel Alexandre. Abrams, 464 pages. $75.00 until 111/94, $95.00 thereafter.
Amedeo Modigliani arrived in Paris in 1906. determined on a career as an artist and undeterred by a history of tuberculosis. He was twenty-two. In a year or so he became a friend of Paul Alexandre, a young doctor (he was twenty-six) with a great enthusiasm for painting and sculpture. In fact, Alexandre rented a house where his artist friends were always welcome as casual, or at times permanent, guests. Modigliani joined the circle, and Alexandre was for some years his only buyer, a patron whose admiration led him to beg Modigliani “not to destroy a single sketchbook or a single study.”As a result of that arrangement Noel Alexandre inherited from his father, who never did get around to writing the tribute to Modigliand that he intended, a mass of sketches. letters, and related information concerning Modigliani’s early days in Paris. This material has been in storage for more than half a century, and its emergence will greatly benefit students of Modigliani’s work. Mr. Alexandre himself believes that many people imagine the artist to have been a dissipated irresponsible who knocked off tine paintings between orgies. If any such ideas do exist, this text should correct them, for the letters Mr. Alexandre quotes reveal a hardworking painter and sculptor who took his art seriously and took life with grace and humor despite minimal sales and precarious health. The text does have one deficiency. The author, having quoted a letter, proceeds to paraphrase its entire contents instead of merely explaining the points that demand clarification. This is a trivial annoyance given the illustrations, which occupy the better part of the volume and show how Modigliani worked out ideas—simplifying here, elaborating there, distorting and correcting—making dozens of versions of a single basic figure. Anyone interested in the process of creating a picture or an image will find the book fascinating. It is not a pretty ornament for the coffee table.