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.’

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