INTERVISTA DI ALEXANDER
"DIRECTOR DI SOTHEBY' S LONDRA E NEW YORK IMPRESSIONIST AND
MODERN ART DEPARTMENT"
MICHELINE ROQUEBRUNE CONNERY
You describe yourself as a self-taught artist. When, why and
where did you begin?
I lived in Tunisia as a child, there were always painters
and sculptors at my parents' house. One of them, a Russian,
Alexandre Roubtzof, was staying with us almost permanently.
I posed for him often and hated it. His work is shown in many
museums and in the Orientalist Art books. From the age of
seven to fourteen, I was in a convent where no Art was taught.
Then, until the Baccalaureat, I was at the Lycee in Tunis
where Art was optional.
I avoided it completely. But I always visited museums and
At 23 I went one day to La Galerie Charpentier in Paris and
I was appalled by what I thought and judged as very poor quality
pieces of so called "Art".
My reaction was, "Why don't I try....must not be that difficult",
At the time I had two children, and was living in Casablanca,
Morocco. I had not a clue about mediums to paint.
I decided to paint a self-portrait, I sat in front of a mirror,
looking at myself at a three quarter angle. And I did it in
one session of five hours almost uninterrupted.
The result was surprising. It was me, looking very nasty,
mouth tightly closed.
The three quarter pose was exhausting. (I had a terrible headache
afterward) I had chosen oil paint for the making of the portrait.
Being aware of my total ignorance, I asked the director of
the Academy des Beaux Art, friend of a friend and quite a
known painter, if he would come to my house to show me how
to paint. I would provide the paint, the canvas, and a model.
I would just look at him working.
He kindly accepted.
First session three hours. I did not see much result. Second
session....not either. Between the second and third session
I decided to paint the head of my gardener, black old man
with his white turban of "Hadj". I finished the portrait in
The painter come for the third time, he saw the gardener and
the portrait, looked at it for a long time, took a piece of
cloth some turpentine and erasing his whole canvas, said,
"You know much more about portrait than me, just continue".
That was my first and last lesson in painting or drawing.
I began to paint and draw like crazy night and day. It has
been the devouring passion of my life, I realized quickly
that when I look at people I draw them in my head. I don't
see them, I see the features. I can draw with my right or
my left hand the same way.
AA. Why did you first embark on portraiture and why
was portraiture such a predominating theme in your painting,
particularly in the early years? MRC. Because I began with
my portrait, I think I was interested in people, in features.
AA. Are you particularly interested in people?
I am particularly interested in expression an I thought if
I was very humbly copying features that I saw with shade and
light because, after all, it is only a question of shade and
light, then the person would be exactly as they are.
AA. You say you were interested in expression. What
artistic liberties do you take to accentuate the expression
MRC. Well, I think I do it without
knowing. I am very interested in eyes and I generally do them
quite well. The eyes, as we say in France, are the mirror
if the soul. If the eyes are expressive then it gives life
to the individual.
AA. So tell me about a typical sitting, are they long?
Do you go through any preliminary studies?
No, I begin immediately. I begin to study the shape of the
face. I can begin by the nostril or the line of an ear. I
am extremely interested by line and suddenly there is something,
the nostril, for example, I try and try, it's not his or hers,
then suddenly it is and from there it's, for me, like a puzzle.
One thing guides to the other and it's like that I make a
portrait. I don't make a line for the eyes a line for the
nose, not at all, I never did that. I never tried. I just
begin the portrait by any feature. Then it flows it's own
AA. Line is clearly of great interest to you. If
you look, for example, at the portrait you did of John Houston
you can see that you have a great talent as a draftsman. However,
it seems that as your work has progressed over the years and
later in the 80s and the 90s your painting has become more
painterly. Line is less apparent.
MRC. That's true because in the beginning my ideal
draftsman was Durer the line was extremely important for me.
By the way, I don't think I have made any progress in drawing
since the first time I began to draw. About painting I have
always been mesmerized by colours. I need colour like people
need air to breathe. I became much more free in colour than
I was in the beginning.
AA. It seems to me that the earlier works were somewhat
more gothic in feeling and sterner and the later works are
much more optimistic; is that a reflection of perhaps more
optimism later on in life or is it purely one where you're
really looking at more modern work as opposed to the old masters?
No, no, I think it's just that I let myself go more. In the
beginning I was a little tight in the way that I wanted to
respect things much more than I do now about painting and
drawing, the line is less important and the painting is predominant
no doubt about that.
AA. I see that in the early works the portraits are
all studied in a classical way which, presumably, is done
from a human form, the later ones have more of a flow and
you have more interest in the composition and the colours
This was not premeditated. Before I begin a painting I fear
I will never be able to draw or paint again. That's exactly
the feeling I have. I have no memory of what I have done before,
I suppose it is a subconscious memory. I have no recipe for
painting whatsoever. I start from scratch each time.
AA. What artists would you say influenced you?
I adore Gauguin, Egon Schiele.
AA. It is interesting, you say Gauguin, Egon Schiele
as those are two artists who are in a way at the opposite
end of the spectrum because you have a great colourist and
cloisonist in Gauguin and an extraordinary draftsman in Schiele.
That obviously ran a tremendous gamut and I expect that this
somewhat reflects your interest in the different yet complimenting
disciplines of colouring and line.
Yes, absolutely, there is no doubt.....! never thought about
AA. Let me ask you where do you get your inspiration
from in terms of your subjects that you decide to paint?
For example I begin to paint a reflection of a boat in water.
That is unexpected - the line does mean anything and yet when
it's painted the water is shimmering with light.
AA. Would you be out there studying the water or are
you more inclined - what are your preliminary steps in every
painting, is it from photography? From sketching? What are
It depends, some times it's from a picture. Photography is
very important because it gives you an idea but then I go
to the harbour and I look at the shimmering of the light in
the water, I see the colour there and I repeat it. I don't
like to paint people from a photo but very often I have to
because for a composition of more than one person in motion
it is practically impossible to do without. I love to have
a model, it is much easier for me than painting from a photo.
If I take a photo of a boat in the water I will finish by
transforming completely and the reflection and the colour
of the boat. I cannot explain why.
AA. I presume from looking at your work that photography
was less important to you earlier on?
Yes , certainly because photography gives me more freedom
in one way because I have a view of an ensemble available
for a long time.
AA. Your elective
medium is oil and I see you paint on panels as well as canvas.
First of all, why do you like oil and secondly what is the
difference between painting on panels and painting on canvas.
MRC. I love the very smooth surface of panels and
also I paint on wood panel without any preparation. I am told
you must always prepare a panel or canvas but I'm sorry, when
I paint on canvas that has been prepared sometimes the painting
peels over time. In panel it never happens. People think that
on panel the colour is not as bright as on canvas, I don't
think this is at all true. Many think I'm painting with acrylic.
I never touch acrylic it's only oil, but my colours are very
vivid. Well, as Rubens said, "Give me mud and I will make
the flesh of Venus" because it depends on the colour you put
beside the mud.
AA. Tell me why you have only chosen to paint with
I began with oil. I like the medium - I tried pastel - I do
drawing - I use charcoal - I never tried acrylic - I'm not
tempted at all.
AA. You have never been a great self promoter - You
have only just started to exhibit your paintings, can you
tell us a little bit about your professional life as an artist
before the recent exhibitions at the National Museum of Women
in the Arts in Washington, D.C. and the Alliance Francaise
It's true I never had any physical time to promote my paintings.
Thank God, the paintings are not like tomatoes, they don't
rot. I have accumulated a large amount of paintings. I have
about 130 of them. I didn't feel like making any publicity
for myself I just wanted to paint. In 1994 one of my paintings,
"Women coming out of the mosque" was chosen by the NMWA to
be part of their permanent collection. Ai that time they invited
me to make exhibition of my work but I only decided to give
life to this proposition in April 2000. I am very pleased
I did I because I was offered another exhibition in Chicago.
And now I'm thrilled to be invited to have a show in Athens.