This is a post about a photograph. A photograph that isn’t often published and, I believe, up to now hasn’t identified all of the main people sitting around a table outside a Montmartre cabaret in the early years of the twentieth century. But before we get to that, we need some context.
The artists Ludwig Meidner (1884-1966) and Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) both arrived in Paris in 1906. Meidner, writing nearly forty years later, remembers their first meeting:
We met in the autumn of 1906 in the semi-darkness of a bohemian restaurant on the Butte de Montmartre – the unforgettable “Lapin Agile”…for four sous one could sit here drinking strong coffee, and hotly discuss art subjects until the morning broke.
Meidner seems to have been ambivalent about Paris. In a letter to Franz Landsberger in January 1907 he complains:
“I live here in Montmartre (a place world-renowned for its sloppiness and lack of cleanliness), but this decaying “cultural” milieu I find in my heart to be distasteful…Paris (like France in general) borders on sickliness. What makes Paris important are the monuments to the past. Today the French are no longer productive…Berlin – how different! Berlin is a struggling, earnest, burgeoning city…Berlin has become the world’s intellectual and moral capital.”
He would later call the nightlife of Paris the world “of artists, mystics, criminals, dope-addicts and poets”. It isn’t clear if that was meant to be a compliment or criticism.
Meidner was disappointed by the routine of the Corman and Julien Academies which he had gone to Paris to attend. But not everything in Paris was a disappointment. The paintings of the Louvre left him awe-struck. The Impressionists, Post-Impressionists and Fauves all excited him. Later in life he would consign most French art to hell but even as late as 1919 he would, in his memoir “Mein Leben”, refer to Manet as “the greatest of the great” and to Paris as his “true homeland”.
Meidner’s friendship with Modigliani may seem surprising since stylistically the two artists have very little in common. But Meidner and Modigliani were more similar than appears at first glance. They were the same age, they were both Jewish, both committed to a life in art and both seeking to become artists in Paris.
Meidner was a privileged friend of Modigliani, he was one of the few that Modigliani allowed in his studio while he painted. (In the second post I’ll talk about Modigliani’s portrait of Meidner.)
Their friendship was however short-lived. In the summer of 1907 Meidner was ordered to return to Berlin to take his physical exam for military service (which he fails). As a favour he took with him a number of small portraits by Modi hoping to sell them in Berlin. None were sold. There are some surviving postcards from Modigliani from this time:
And so we return to that photograph. Here it is:
This photograph occasionally appears in books about art in Montmartre although it is never credited. It isn’t clear who took the photograph or when. It shows a group of men sitting around a table outside the Montmartre cabaret “The Lapin Agile”. The small venue was a popular spot with artists and writers at the time including Picasso, Utrillo and Apollinaire.
There are two men standing behind the table. On the left is a 22 year old Modigliani and on the right is white bearded “Pere Frede”. Frede was the well-known manager of the Lapin Agile; you can see him playing guitar in Picasso’s picture of the interior of the club.
None of the other people around the table have been identified, but for me, there is another significant artist in that group. The man in the hat with the moustache sitting on the bench to the right of the photograph may not look familiar.
He doesn’t look much like an artist but that, I’m sure, is the young Ludwig Meidner. I suspect most people miss this identification because those looking at photographs of Paris in 1907 tend not to be interested in German Expressionist painters. Even if they are, they are unlikely to recognise the young Meidner who looks very little like the more familiar round-faced, bald man of his later years. A comparison with early photographs and self-portraits (see part 2) leaves little doubt that this is Meidner.
This is a photograph then, the only one in existence, that captures a fleeting friendship of two artists about to go on very divergent courses. It is why I have a particular fascination with this photograph and that bench outside the Lapin Agile.
The Lapin Agile is still there, on the corner of the Rue St Vincent pretty much as it was in 1906, and so is the bench…