In last week’s post I talked about the highly anomalous portrait of Bibi la Purée painted by Victoria painter Sophie Pemberton back in 1900 or thereabouts. It was an anomaly for a couple of reasons. I’ve already mentioned one: the high society types that graced Pemberton’s other portraits wouldn’t have wanted Bibi la Purée in the same room with them.
But it’s anomalous for another reason; one I want to spend some time on this week. It doesn’t just stand out in Pemberton’s work, it stands out among all the other depictions of Bibi la Purée I’ve seen. It stands out because it’s the only one that depicts him as a human being, rather than as type, that being the disreputable bohemian thumbing his nose at bourgeois convention.
Bohemia was very much of the moment in the latter half of the 19th century. Thanks to Murger’s Scènes de la Vie de Bohème and the Puccini opera it inspired, the whole concept of bohemia (the romantic, outsider kind) came to the attention of fashionable society. And when a work of fiction really captures the public imagination, it tends to colour the popular perception of the world.
It was to this tendency to fictionalize reality Bibi la Purée owed whatever fame he possessed. He came to be seen as an embodiment of “a life free from all conventionalities … untrammeled by public censure or the petty views of prudish or narrow minds.” There is no question he played it up. Maybe he exaggerated his eccentricity for his public; maybe he really was that eccentric. We’ll never know, since the “real” Bibi la Purée is inaccessible except through various one-sided representations of him.
But whatever the truth, it came to pass that the bona fide eccentric, umbrella thief and former friend of Verlaine, eventually gained wider notoriety as a “character,” a real-life “bohemian” who could be hauled onstage to add a bit of local colour to the to a memoir, travelogue, or painting. A case in point being his one-sentence walk-on in Victor Plarr’s description of Ernest Dowson’s last days, the sole point of which is to highlight the depths to which the poet had sunk, Bibi la Purée being by that time his “chief admiration and associate.”
Visual representations of Bibi la Purée were for the most part equally superficial, a case in point being the illustration that leads off this post, showing him swaggering along in his funny clothes, a ratty feather in his outsized hat, leaning on an umbrella, no doubt not his own. Or a contemporary postcard, a photograph this time, showing him with an umbrella tucked under one arm, and a bag of … something … held in the other.
Picasso’s portrait largely continues the popular tradition, it seems to me. True, it does without the umbrella, and under Picasso’s rough post-impressionist handling Bibi’s mask-like, leering mug becomes less a symbol of bohemian triumph than one of the depredations of modern urban life at the margins. But it’s still a picture of a symbol.
I’m not going to say that Pemberton’s portrait is the “real” Bibi la Purée. But in presenting him not as a bohemian, but simply as an unhappy man, she causes me to reflect that behind the romantic curtain of Murger and Puccini lay an altogether more painful reality. That no one really ever sets out to be a “character” in the sense Bibi la Purée was one; no one aspires to have one’s crowning achievement in life be stealing umbrellas. His life may have had its comic elements, but it was fundamentally a tragedy, not a triumph.
Bibi la Purée died of tuberculosis at the age of 56. Pemberton wrote “I finished my portrait. It was hung on the line in the salon and was often surrounded by the students,
who knew Bibi. I never saw him again. He died soon afterwards – alone and in misery. But his memory will long live in the Latin Quartier and let us hope that an angel has pressed down the scale for his gentle and unknown deeds.”