Quite Nice

Diana Souhami

  • Loving Picasso: The Private Journal of Fernande Olivier edited by Marilyn McCully, translated by Christine Baker
    Abrams, 296 pp, £24.00, May 2001, ISBN 0 8109 4251 8

Fernande Olivier, like Frank Wedekind’s Lulu, sexualised all her relationships with men and served their desires while lamenting that her own were unfulfilled. She lived through her lovers in order perhaps to gain a passing sense of who she was. As each of her affairs in turn went wrong, she moved to a different man. This was a pattern she repeated until late middle age. Then she made do on her own.

Angela Carter said of Lulu’s men: ‘Desire does not so much transcend its object as ignore it completely in favour of a fantastic recreation of it.’ Given Olivier’s declarations of frigidity and disgust, it’s odd that so many men wanted to fuck her: ‘What’s the pleasure in making love? I find it filthy and hateful . . . What’s the point in indulging in all that physical exertion? I can’t understand it . . . the act of love which nullifies all other feelings.’ ‘I think I’d like Pablo better if his feelings of real tenderness for me were not tainted by desire. Am I different from other people in my horror of the act of love?’

It is even odder that she felt so compelled to keep at it. But addicts can deplore their habit, there is no remedy for sex but more sex, and there is a logic to the troubled adult sex life of the abused and unloved child.

Olivier met Picasso in Paris in 1904 when they were both 22. He had moved from Spain to a ramshackle studio in Montmartre, the Bateau Lavoir. She was working as an artists’ model and was no longer interested in her current lover. Picasso was besotted with her and persuaded her to live with him in his ‘miserable studio’ in which there was no furniture, and a frying pan served as a chamber pot.

For eight years she was his lover and inspiration – the first of his women. He painted and drew her having sex with him, lying asleep while he watched her, standing naked with her hands clasped. In these images she seems by turns marmoreal, defensive, or as compliant as he would have her be. When you look at them with her difficulties in mind, you see not only his art, but evidence of his control and her submission.

Picasso was not the first of Olivier’s men. Far from it. She arrived at his bed and easel used, abused and in a sense lost. For most of their time together they were destitute. After they separated Picasso became very rich; Olivier remained hard up. She could not reconcile herself to this disparity. With the regrets of hindsight she addressed her journal to his deaf ears: ‘Now that time has whitened the hair you loved, wrinkled the hands you loved, tarnished the laugh you also loved . . . I want to tell you the story of my life. Perhaps then you will understand me better. You always doubted me, doubted my love, the deep emotion that made me give my whole self to you, only to you.’

In 1927, with money in mind, she began a memoir of their life together. It consisted largely of patchy diary entries (she would write these for a day or two then lapse: ‘It’s the same when I make up my mind to keep a record of our daily expenses’) and anecdotes about people who subsequently became famous – Rousseau, Max Jacob, Apollinaire, Gertrude Stein – held together by vanity, an idea of how she wanted to be perceived by readers.

In the summer of 1930 extracts were published in Le Soir. Though the tone was guarded and the content anodyne, Picasso was furious. She talked about smoking opium, about sex and about their poverty. As well as his reputation he had by then a ‘maniacally jealous, pathologically respectable wife, Olga’. Six instalments ran before his lawyers blocked the rest.

Olivier started writing him hate mail. ‘Every day I shall make a wish for you to be hurt in the things you love most, affection, money, your health.’ If she was to be silenced she wanted money from him, which she failed to get. So in 1933 she published Picasso et ses amis. Max Jacob called it ‘the best mirror of the cubist Acropolis’. Gertrude Stein said she would help find an American publisher for it. Instead, she came out with her own best-selling Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas which covered much of the same ground. Olivier felt doubly cheated. Her own book was not published in English until 1965.

She included little about her early life in Picasso et ses amis. Over the years, however, she worked on a second, more revealing memoir. In 1956, when she was 75, arthritic, deaf, alone, and as ever poor, she thought again of publication as a way of making money. Again her association with the great man was her justification and the reason a publisher might buy her manuscript. Without him, few copies would be sold. Picasso struck a deal. She could have a million francs provided her Souvenirs intimes were not published in his lifetime.

Olivier died in 1966. Her apartment was ransacked and personal papers stolen. Her godson, Gilbert Krill, retrieved what was left of her Souvenirs and pieced them together to make a book. In 1988, with Picasso long dead, it was published in France.

Loving Picasso is a retranslation, editing and amalgamation of the two memoirs. Were Picasso able, from beyond the grave, to ban it, he would do so. The idea was John Richardson’s. He provides a contextual epilogue, taken more or less verbatim from the second volume of his mammoth Life of Picasso. Marilyn McCully (who is working on the third volume with Richardson) provides a foreword and biographical notes. Letters from Olivier to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas are included, too.

So Loving Picasso is more complicated than the ‘private journal’ it purports to be. Though written in the first person and present tense it remains an amalgam of diary jottings, memories, reconstruction, reminiscence and letters. Despite the new translation and the editors’ efforts to make the source material cohere, there is an impenetrable haziness about what was written when, and what has been omitted, fabricated, stolen or suppressed.

Even so a self-portrait takes shape from this collage. Olivier was unwanted, ‘born to a young girl and a married man, taken in by an aunt who taunted her, and groped by a lascivious old uncle who made dominoes from old bones and, as she slept, kissed her breasts, pressed his hand over her mouth and tried to get into bed with her.’

‘Fernande Olivier’ was an assumed name. Amélie Lang was on her birth certificate – her mother was Clara Lang, her father’s name unknown. For a time she called herself Fernande Belvallé. It was not clear when she became Fernande Olivier – perhaps when she left her husband, Paul-Emile Percheron, in 1900.

She had met him the previous year when she was 17. She disliked his swarthy looks and bloodshot eyes, but he kept telling her how much he loved her. ‘In the end I found this quite nice.’ He took her for a carriage ride in the Bois de Boulogne, plied her with tea and cakes and ‘glued his mouth to mine, giving me the most disgusting kisses, which almost suffocated me’. After chicken casserole, foie gras, cherry brandy and the rest, she went back to his place, where he repeatedly raped her. He then kept her locked in his flat all day. She read back issues of Gil Blas while he was out, and felt like dying when he got back. ‘But it’s strange, I don’t miss home at all. What are they going to do? I haven’t heard a thing.’

After a week her aunt turned up with the police and insisted Olivier marry Percheron. Which she did, on 8 August 1899, in tears of despair. By September she had miscarried and he was beating her for not doing the housework. Soon after, she was having sex with Percheron’s sister-in-law (‘I find all that rather horrifying and quite repulsive’) and oysters and white wine with Monsieur L.G. (‘then I found myself naked and his lips ran all over me’).

In April 1900 she ran away from Percheron and, not long after, was living in the Bateau Lavoir with a sculptor, Laurent Debienne, and working as an artists’ model. Part of her sanitised memoir is of the men for whom she posed, a sort of Who’s Who of Montmartre.

She modelled by day, had bad sex by day and night, and kept bumping into ‘the Spanish painter who is young and penniless and adores me’. She was not immediately taken with him. He was badly dressed, his hair was too long, he wrote her endless letters in bad French and he was grubby. ‘I don’t mind untidiness but I’m horrified by lack of personal cleanliness.’ One day in July or August 1904 she ‘yielded to a stroke of madness’. ‘It was a Sunday, I’ve never liked Sundays’; there was a storm – ‘storms have always made me lose control of myself’ – so she packed her belongings into a trunk and moved from Debienne’s studio to Picasso’s.

Loving Picasso began. He treated her with macho respect, kept a shrine to her by the bed, refused to let her model for other men and was so jealous he would not let her go out alone. She had nothing to do all day and no one to see. She slept a lot. She wanted to paint, but he scorned her efforts. He was ‘very Spanish’ and believed women should not ‘trespass on men’s preserve’.

He worked all night so as not to be disturbed, then went to bed at six in the morning. ‘Pablo is working’ was Olivier’s familiar refrain. She hated the ‘abject poverty’ of their life and his ‘morbid jealousy’. In winter the studio was freezing cold, in summer baking hot.

As Gertrude and Leo Stein and the art dealers Ambroise Vollard and Daniel Henry Kahnweiler started buying his work, Picasso got richer. In 1909 he moved with Olivier to a large studio and apartment near the place Pigalle. Their removal men thought they had won the lottery. Olivier took to calling herself Madame Picasso. A maid in a white apron served meals.

Picasso worked incessantly. ‘It seemed as if he was uncomfortable unless he was in the particular atmosphere he had created for himself.’ He became uncommunicative and seemed to resent her. To Alice B. Toklas he confided that he had never liked Olivier’s ‘little ways’. By 1911 the relationship was at an end. Picasso was 30, morose and hypochondriacal. When they ate alone together he would remain silent throughout the meal. She started an affair with Ubaldo Oppi, a 22-year-old painter from Bologna. Eva Gouel became Picasso’s lover. She was pert, pretty and bourgeois. They ‘eloped’ together to Céret in French Catalonia.

Picasso left Olivier without a penny and hid from her when she pursued him. She drifted to new affairs – a poet, Jean Pellerin, the actor Roger Karl, who drank and was a philanderer. She tried countless jobs: French lessons, a cashier in a butcher’s shop, running a cabaret, looking after children. And then as time passed and Picasso became so successful without her, she turned to her diary notes and memories in the vain hope that praise, recognition and money might come her way, too.

Hearing the voice, however checked, of la Belle Fernande, informs how we see Picasso’s pictures of her. She was his Standing Nude (1906), his Nude with Clasped Hands, Woman with Mustard Pot, Woman with a Fan, Woman with Pears. For eight years she was his ‘fantastic re-creation’, his Cubist reconstruction. The way he portrayed the slope of her shoulders, the clasp of her hands, the set of her breasts, elevated her to museum walls. His images of her transcended her life and are worth a fortune. In private he did what he could to shut her up. Beyond the use he made of her in his work was the problem – which Loving Picasso reveals but does not resolve – of her worth as a person, her value in her own right.