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The art of being Modigliani's dealer
lart-detre-le-marchand-de-modigliani - ARTACTIF
November 2023 | Reading time: 19 Min | 0 Comment(s)

About the exhibition "Amedeo Modigliani. A painter and his dealer", on show from 20 September to 15 January 2024 at the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris.

Art dealers are in the limelight this autumn! And rightly so, given that artists often owe their success to them. The Musée de l'Orangerie is shining the spotlight on Paul Guillaume, who took Modigliani under his wing, while the Musée du Luxembourg is looking at the audacious Gertrude Stein... But the theme has been a recurring one for the last ten years or so. There was "L'aventure des Stein" at the Grand Palais in 2011, "Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler et ses peintres" at the LaM in 2013, and "Durand-Ruel, le pari de l'impressionisme" at the Musée du Luxembourg in 2014... How can works of art for sale be successful and find takers without any intermediary between art lovers and artists? Contemporary art galleries have their prestigious ancestors.

"Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1884-1979), an illustrious German writer, collector and art dealer who became a naturalised French citizen in 1937, modestly said: "Great painters make great dealers. To which Picasso replied: "What would have become of us if Kahnweiler hadn't had a head for business? Behind the "us", you can hear the Catalan master himself, but also Braque, Derain and Vlaminck... "And before them, what would have become of Monet, Renoir or Pissarro without Paul Durand-Ruel?" asks Aude-Claire de Parcevaux, editor-in-chief of L'Oeil magazine, in her editorial. Art and business have always worked together. Whatever the naysayers of the mercantile side of art: contemporary artists are human beings, so they need to earn money to live.

"Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Goupil, Tanguy, Bernheim, Vollard, Wildenstein, Maeght, Lambert, Templon and so many others played a crucial role in promoting emerging artists, not only by exhibiting their works, advising them and giving them the benefit of their networks, but also by providing them with direct financial support," writes the editor-in-chief. "Admittedly, times have changed, but it's hard to imagine today that an Ambroise Vollard or a Leo Stein, for example, would have paid their protégés, whether or not their paintings sold, to spare them any material worries and allow them to devote themselves to their art. It's a dream come true for today's artists!

And Aude-Claire de Parcevaux suggests in passing that museum authorities should also consider one day paying tribute to Jeanne Bucher, the gallery owner without whom Nicolas de Staël, currently on show at the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris, would never have found a studio and accommodation during the war. The French art dealer also organised his first solo exhibition at the Liberation, enabling us to admire his incomparable work today.

But it's "How Paul Guillaume launched Modigliani" that this month's "L'Oeil de l'amateur - 6 clés pour comprendre" section is devoted to, in the hands of journalist Isabelle Manca-Kunert.

First key: "A precious protector". It was on the invaluable advice of art dealer Paul Guillaume that Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) returned to painting, which he had completely abandoned in favour of sculpture. Aware that in the midst of the First World War it would be easier to buy colours and canvases rather than marble, and also to sell paintings embodying the quintessence of Parisian bohemia rather than heavy sculptures, the gallery owner rented a studio in Montmartre for his new protégé. The portraits, with their huge eyes and ovoid faces, proved to be a great success.

Second key: "A visionary of modern art". Paul Guillaume had just turned 23 when he crossed paths with Modigliani. A mutual friend, the poet Max Jacob (1876-1944) had put them in touch. The Italian artist had just lost his patron, Dr Paul Alexandre, who had gone to the front. He was in dire poverty, and saw in Paul Guillaume an angel fallen from heaven. A true visionary of modern art. In 1915, he depicted him in his finest suit, an inspired and committed dandy, and called his painting Novo Pilota, or "Pilot of Modernity". It has to be said that Paul Guillaume was trained by Guillaume Apollinaire, who enabled him to frequent the leading artistic and literary circles of Paris. The young gallery owner went on to found the magazine Les Arts à Paris.

Third key: "A keen sense of publicity". The young Paul Guillaume did not let his modest origins stop him from opening his first art gallery at the age of 23 in the prestigious Elysée district. He was one of the first to film reports on his contemporary art exhibitions and to use what was beginning to be called "advertising". A fine communicator, he did not hesitate to use the portraits that Modigliani, who had also become his friend, had made of him, to gain recognition as an avant-garde art dealer, as much as to publicise his protégé.

Fourth key: "Hundreds of portraits of the Tout-Paris". Impressed by the success of his gallery owner, Modigliani always followed his advice with good grace. As a result, he executed hundreds of paintings and drawings to portray young women and key figures on the Parisian scene. Success was guaranteed, especially after the exhibition of his nudes at the Berthe Weil art gallery in 1917, which caused a scandal and was censored.

Fifth key: "A patron with a head for business". The way Paul Guillaume managed Modigliani's works of art for sale reveals his exceptional business sense. More than a hundred paintings, around fifty drawings and a dozen sculptures by the Italian master are said to have passed through his hands. He sold the works directly from the studio, or bought them from collectors and from Modigliani's other dealer, Léopold Zborowski, thus maintaining his standing on the art market and ensuring his reputation both in France and abroad.

Sixth key: "A shared passion for primitive art". A photograph in the magazine L'Oeil of a nineteenth-century Ngon Ntang anthropomorphic mask on display at the Musée de l'Orangerie immediately reveals the influence of African and Oceanic statuettes on Modigliani's work. Paul Guillaume shared the avant-garde artists' passion for primitive art to such an extent that he went so far as to lend them his collections to inspire them. He was also the first to organise exhibitions that brought together contemporary painting and sculpture with non-Western art. An art dealer, certainly, but also a pioneer.

Illustration: Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920)
Elvire seated, leaning against a table, 1919
Saint Louis, Saint Louis Art Museum
Image Courtesy of the Saint Louis Art Museum

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