André Aaron Bilis was born in 1893 in Odessa (current Ukraine) in a Jewish family.
He started his painting studies very young at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts of Odessa and then at the School of Fine Arts of Paris where he was Cormon’s student.
He volunteered in the Army in 1914 but was discharged because of a disability in his right arm (he was only drawing with his left arm). He then left to Argentina in 1915 and took the Argentinean citizenship, which he kept all his life.
He remained in South America from 1915 to 1929, living mostly in Buenos Aires where he was among others, an Artistic Advisor in the newspaper ‘La Nación’ and the Artistic Ornamentation Director in the Colon theatre. He participated in the ‘Album de la victoire’ in 1920, which was a considerable success in the whole Latin America.
He seems to have had an important reputation in the art of miniature as shown in Argentinean newspapers articles at the time. But above all he painted large impressionist paintings, drew and exhibited a lot during all these years: in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile…
He crossed the Andes Cordillera on horseback, which was a true expedition at that time, in order to meet the Araucanes tribes at the Chilean border; he brought back some impressive portraits of Indigenous people of which we can find copies in many South American newspapers articles of the time. We still own a few of these wonderful paintings.
My favourite paintings of that time remain the great impressionist landscape paintings of the Andes and the great painting of ‘The Holy Russia’ dating from 1918.
It is difficult to perfectly reconstruct all these years; we still have some newspapers articles, photos and mails exchanged during years with the señora Margarita de Manem, a woman who meant a lot to him.
And then… he came back to Paris where a part of his family was living, and he rejoined the centre of the artistic life of Montparnasse. He met and drew Chagall, Fujita, Vlaminck, associated with Modigliani, Zadkine, Mane-Katz…
A. Bilis collaborated on the centenary of the magazine ‘revue des Deux-Mondes’ in 1929. The following year he realised his first Parisian exhibit in the Charpentier gallery with 40 portraits (including Paul Valery’s one) and 10 studies. He then exhibited at the ‘salon d’automne’, the ‘salon des Indépendants’, at the ‘galerie du Journal’, at Bernheim’s, at the St Raymond Museum in Toulouse and in several towns in France.
He organised important artistic and cultural exhibitions in Spain, Portugal and Morocco, showing the portraits of some of our great contemporary figures as well as personalities of the host country. He received in Spain in 1960 the Cross of Commander of the Order of Isabella the Catholic.
His series of portraits – all charcoal drawings – constitutes an extraordinary testimonial of the iconography of our time and covers half a century of cultural, political and scientific life. He drew more than 2 000 French as well as foreign personalities in the most diverse fields of notoriety, such as inventors or scholars like Branly, Louis Lumiere, Francis Perrin, François Jacob, André Lwoff, Jacques Monod; politicians or servicemen like Lyautey, Leclerc or Coty; painters and sculptors like Vlaminck, Dunoyez de Segonzac ,Janniot; writers like Jean Rostand, Paul Valery, Paul Claudel, André Malraux, François Mauriac; musicians like Richard Strauss, Prokofieff; variety artists like Fernandel, Jacques Brel,Amalia Rodriguez.
He was the official draughtsman of the ‘Comédie Française’ and a part of his work can be found in the Comédie Française library and in the College de France library, in the ‘Cabinet des Estampes’ of the Louvres.
In order to present his series of portraits, A. Bilis published the ‘Album du Palais’ in 1931, followed by the ‘Médecins de Paris’ in 1936 and later the ‘Figures médicales de France’.
Fascinated by the picturesque quality of old towns and villages, he also left many Indian ink drawings, sometimes enhanced with watercolour and pastel. He practised as well the refined art of miniature, which seems to have contributed a lot to his reputation in South America.
A. Bilis was Chevalier de la légion d’honneur, Médaille d’Argent de la ville de Paris, Officier des palmes académiques, Médaille d’or du salon.
He met in 1931 his wife-to-be Suzanne Caraud and they raised their son Pierre, my father. My grandmother, his partner of all time, accompanied him to every exhibition and in all his travels. Between their life in Paris and the long periods of work abroad, they spent a lot of time in their house in Arièges (where Bilis took refuge during the Second World War, fleeing from anti-Semitic persecutions) in Garrigou, a hamlet between Foix and Pamiers. He drew and painted a lot the Ariège and Pyrénées landscapes as well as their monuments (Montségur, Foix, Mirepoix).
He died in April 1971 in Porto, Portugal while in full production, in between two exhibitions in Porto and Sevilla, in full possession of his talent. He lies in the Montmorency cemetery where his wife Suzanne joined him later.