"Picasso: The Cubist Portraits of Fernande Olivier," Oct. 1, 2003-Jan. 18, 2004, at the National Gallery of Art, 6th Street and Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20565
Seven years after the great "Picasso and Portraiture" show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, another exhibition of Picasso portraits is now on view, this time at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. While the MoMA show traced Picasso's complicated love life from start to finish, "Picasso: The Cubist Portraits of Fernande Olivier" focuses on one year, 1909, and on one character, Picasso's mistress Fernande Olivier, and on one theme, melancholy.
According to Jeffrey Weiss, the show's chief curator, the "affect and gravitas" observable in this moment of Cubism is due to Picasso's struggle with a difficult formal ambition -- to translate the unstable vision of Cézanne into a solid piece of sculpture. Seen in this light, he speculates, "Picasso's obsession with a single motif, Fernande's 'melancholy,' chiefly [is] an indicator -- a displacement or projection -- of Picasso's own." (p.46)
In the first room of the National Gallery, an extraordinary group of portraits and sketches provides evidence for a theme of melancholy. The second room features plaster and bronze versions of the famed though problematic Cubist head of Fernande. The third and last room is devoted to paintings of seated figures, whose facial expressions have mostly disappeared. The show comprises 77 pieces.
Overall, the curators have succeeded in bringing together an exceptional group of artworks. Some of the drawings of facial details that Picasso played with for their "affect" are juxtaposed with portraits based on them. These works are a revelation of Picasso's deconstructive and reconstructive process. The studies -- Study (Nose and Mouth), Study (Nose), Study (Ear Eye Nose) -- reveal new formal equivalences, such as an obelisk shape for the nose, a zigzagging-open-book-shape for the upper lip, diamond-shaped eye sockets, etc. And, when Picasso uses these quasi-abstract shapes in a portrait, their placement, torsion and tilt produce a powerful so-called "affect."
In Head of a Woman with a Mantilla (location unknown), the direction of the gaze, the tilt of the head vs. the tilt of the nose vs. the tilt of the upper lip curiously yield a pensive and melancholy "Madonna." In the three dimensional Head of a Woman (Fernande) that culminates the series of 1909 portraits, Picasso uses a similar process -- the deconstruction of facial signs -- in clay rather than in drawing to create a solid head that, in profile, looks like a man's. There is no question that a tortured look implying anxiety, sadness and melancholy emanates from the close-up Cubist portraits from 1909. And, there is no question that the sketches of isolated facial details convincingly reveal Picasso's efforts to find forms that were fluid yet solid enough to inspire sculptural portraiture in a Cubist mode.
But Picasso was no formalist, and no formal problem alone could possibly yield images so consumed with pathos, and so full of a mix of repulsion and attraction as the spring 1909 Portrait of a Woman from the Art Institute of Chicago (no. 10 in the D.C. exhibition), and the summer 1909 Head of a Woman from the Belgrade Narodni Muzei (no. 20). In the spring 1909 portrait, when the face of Fernande is observed from a distance, the hand that in close-up appeared to be merely folded under her chin is seen to cover her left eye as if she were wiping tears away. The melancholia of the summer 1909 portrait also increases in intensity as one moves away from the painting and views it from a distance.
So the question arises, whose melancholy is pictured, and what is its cause?
"Life is miserable. Pablo is morose and I can't look to him for any moral or physical support," Fernande wrote to Gertrude Stein during the summer at Horta de Ebro, when many of the works on view in D.C. were being painted (Loving Picasso, 243). In the photographs taken by Picasso outdoors that summer, elongated shadows, and an oblique light source from the West suggest day's end. Although Picasso was surely aware of the bleaching that occurs in photos made at midday, he also knew that the light at day's end has often signified melancholia and death. These photographs are thus in harmony with the melancholy mood of the paintings from Horta de Ebro, and they tend to confirm the view that young Picasso was undergoing some sort of crisis. Was it over Fernande, or did it reflect a depression that the artist could not himself understand?
Picasso may have found Fernande beautiful, but the Horta de Ebro portraits hardly do justice to her looks. "Much of the work Picasso produced at Horta is, to put it bluntly, quite ugly," concedes Kathryn Tuma in her contribution to the catalogue of the National Gallery show (p. 140). One might observe that when Picasso is in love, he flatters the looks of his subject. Portrait d'Olga Khokhlova (1917), the dancer with whom Picasso fell in love in 1917, currently on view in "Picasso, The Classical Period" at C&M Gallery in Manhattan is a case in point. On the other hand, when Picasso is falling out of love, he tends to exaggerate his mistress' less attractive features. His portraits of Dora Maar during World War II often feature a distorted bulbous nose.
By 1909, Picasso and Fernande had known each other for five years. In 1907, they had already parted ways. They resumed living together after this first separation, but by 1909, there were again signs of their msentente. Gertrude Stein reports in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (pp. 129-30): "Fernande got angry and shook him [Picasso] and said you think you are witty, but you are only stupid. He ruefully showed that she had shaken off a button and she very angrily said and you, your only claim to distinction is that you are a precocious child. Things were not in those days going too well between them." She dates this state of affairs to the time when they were moving to the Boulevard de Clichy, which happened in the fall of 1909, after the summer at Horta de Ebro.
To the extent that the portraits of 1909 are portraits of Fernande, their pathetic ugliness might have to do with a mutual feeling that their affair was indeed coming to an end. Fernande was in bad physical and emotional shape that summer. "I am so miserable, so lonely in spite of the fact that I do believe he really loves me. Pablo would let me die without noticing the condition I'm in, except that when I'm in pain he stops for a bit to take care of me. He doesn't understand or care at all about what might make my condition worse," she writes to Gertrude Stein in mid July 1909 (Loving Picasso, 243-44). Fernande probably rejected his sexual demands, though she took them to be an expression of his love. She was in pain from a kidney infection, worried that she might also be pregnant and was sure she would be dead before the end of the summer.
In light of Picasso's notorious fear of death, the drawing entitled Head of Fernande, Casket and Apple (fall 1909) suggests that he might have dark forebodings about Fernande's physical condition. But lacking a syntactic link connecting the individual parts of the drawing, one can only conjecture on the meaning of the co-presence of Fernande, an apple and a coffin on a sheet of paper. Perhaps it was Picasso's way of signifying that after the summer in Horta de Ebro, he thought of "burying" his feelings for Fernande-the-temptress. Picasso would tell Gertrude Stein after he broke up with Fernande that "her beauty always held him but he could not stand any of her little ways" (Autobiography, p. 130).
Another question arises, however. Are these portraits, many of them entitled Portrait of a Woman (Fernande), portraits of Fernande? In the most melancholy paintings, the face looks too mature to be Fernande's and, overall, their resemblance to Fernande seems only "parenthetical," especially if one compares them to Picasso's photographs of Fernande at that time. The frontal photograph of her by Picasso dated 1908 reveals a face with a youthful complexion, a Mona Lisa smile lingering on pretty lips, a direct though questioning glance emerging from the almond-shaped eyes, and a hairdo that is quite unique: she wears a chignon, and has heavy rolled up bangs over her forehead. They even cover her eyebrows. The same hairstyle appears in Picasso's Horta de Ebro photograph of her standing next to a child, taken a year later (Picasso Photographe 1901-1916, p. 163).
In the series of Cubist portraits said to be of Fernande, the chignon with a bun on top of her head is the recurring sign of "Fernande." But the heavy rolled-up bangs, another characteristic of her coiffure, are not there. On the contrary, Fernande's forehead, hairline and eyebrows are clearly delineated in the paintings. In fact, the bare forehead is often split vertically in the middle, revealing twin sets of faces joined at the nose (Woman with a Vase of Fowers, Sprengel Museum, Hanover, no.31 in the show). In that painting, the right hand-side coiffed in a dark braid spells woman, while the left hand side of the face is open to gender interpretation.
In Picasso's photographic portrait of Fernande holding a little girl's hand, Fernande's face is also split down the middle in this case by a shadow. The guitarist photographed by Picasso that same summer (Picasso Photographe, 1901-1916, p. 156), whose hairline seems to be that of several portraits, also has half of his face in darkness. This recurring vertical split in the photographed and painted portraits from the Horta de Ebro summer might not mean anything special, were there not other instances of bodies vertically split in half in Picasso's art from around that time. The most obvious example is found in Picasso's 1910 illustrations for the epic poem St. Matorel, written by Picasso's close friend, the gay poet Max Jacob. Resembling playing cards, the depicted bodies are not only vertically split, but one half has broad shoulders and no breasts, the other half has breasts and tiny shoulders (Max Jacob et Picasso, p. 78-79) So one can ask, in light of Picasso's secretive nature and love of private codes, whether the anxiety expressed through the portraits might have something to do with Picasso's unease with Fernande's bisexual orientation and, by projection, with his own.
Picasso's mistress during the key moments of the development of Cubism was born Amlie Lang, went by the name of Fernande Olivier, and signed her letters to Gertrude Stein, Fernande Belvalet, or Belvall. Just as Picasso faceted appearances, she apparently multiplied her identity. Forced to marry very young so as not to remain a burden for her unloving adoptive parents, then abused by her new husband, she had fled the married nest without a sou, and searched for work. Pretty as she was yet alone in the world, she had found herself aggressively pursued by men who took her for a prostitute, and by women who offered her the tenderness that she had been deprived of as a child.
Fernande fended off some suitors, and cozied up to others, but discovered that her road to independence was posing for artists. That was her occupation when Picasso met her in 1904, invited her to move in with him at the Bateau Lavoir, which she did after much soul searching. Picasso's jealousy was so intense that in the first phase of their relationship he did not let Fernande go out without him, and apparently locked her inside when he went out alone (until a fire broke out, and she had to jump out a window to escape). He apparently changed his ways after the lesbian couple Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas entered their life and he allowed Fernande to go to Alice's hotel to give her French lessons "twice a week for three hours." Chaperoned by Alice, Fernande saw "her women friends," went to art galleries, and shopped, or so Toklas reports in her memoirs (What Is Remembered, pp. 29, 35).
Fernande wrote long and loving letters to Alice and Gertrude during the summer of 1909 but, after her affair with Picasso broke up, Fernande tactfully excluded herself from the Stein's milieu, allegedly saying in her letter of adieux to Gertrude Stein that she realized their friends would have to choose, and of course they would choose Picasso. "She [Fernande] said that she would always remember their intercourse with pleasure and that she would permit herself, if ever she were in need, to throw herself upon Gertrude's generosity" (Autobiography, p. 151). In these few lines, Stein has made her own portrait of Fernande. It reveals more than Fernande's awkward and archaic use of English words ("she would always remember their intercourse with pleasure") and subtly reenacts Fernande's graceful way of abandoning herself ("she would permit herself, if ever she were in need, to throw herself upon Gertrude's generosity"). Poor Fernande.
This review is dedicated to Jean Clair at the Picasso Museum in Paris, who encouraged me to examine the Picasso illustrations for St. Matorel.
Works cited: Picasso and Portraiture (New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1996)
Picasso, The Cubist Portraits of Fernande Olivier (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2003) Picasso Photographe, 1901-1916 (Paris, Renunion des Musees Nationaux, 1994)
Fernande Olivier, Loving Picasso, The Private Journal of Fernande Olivier (New York, Abrams, 2000)
Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (New York, Modern Library, 1993)
Alice B. Toklas, What is Remembered (Holt Rinehart & Winston, 1963)
MICHLE C. CONE is a New-York based critic and historian and a regular contributor to Artnet Magazine. Her latest book is French Modernisms: Perspectives on Art before during and after Vichy (Cambridge 2001).