She’s a bit of an enigma – there’s so much we do not know. But transport Dita von Teese back to that era and that’ll give you a hint of her. It is difficult carrying her life story through in the ether. We are not even certain that what you, hopefully, are about to read is of the one woman, so lost in time are the facts. But below is what I’ve pieced together about Miss Fernande/Fernande Barrey from what there is on-line. She does intrigue and she had a profound effect on the men of her era. As Miss Fernande she tantalised the troops in the trenches during World War One. Then, an erotic postcard of her gave many a soldier a certain kind of warmth as the Hun’s bombs rained down from above. Each picture they surreptitiously passed from one to the other as they fixed bayonets and prepared to go over the top may have been the last glimpse of beauty these guys would see before they headed into the teeth of German machine guns. They probably would not have noted the JA signature in the bottom corner of the card, but JA gave the girl her start. Later, as Fernande Barrey, she rubbed shoulders with the greats of Paris when it ruled the artistic planet. Of course these days access to acres of bare flesh can be garnered with just a few clicks on the laptop, but before the digital age it was not so readily available. One had to go into a newsagent to attain a Playboy or Penthouse. Anything more extreme would be housed in a plastic bag. For something that actually moved on a home screen one had to send away to Canberra or the Northern Territory. But before Hefner, Guccione and the rest, what was the go?
The advent of the camera in the C19th changed the world of erotica forever. Illustrated likenesses gave way to real women in poses. It was quickly deduced that some real money could be made if a photographer could persuade a young maiden to dispense of her clothing. The likenesses could be printed off in their dozens and sold on the street. It was initially thought that it was mainly prostitutes who posed, but research has shown it was usually the ordinary working class girl who was being cajoled to make some easy money on the side. Then came the post card – and the industry boomed. And the French, including Fernand’s capturer JA, were marvels at it. They turned it into an art form that today’s collectors, with a taste for exotica, are prepared to pay far more than the few centimes the punters of the first decade or two of the century before last forked out for them.
So who was JA? It took a while for us to find out, from what I read, but eventually he emerged from obscurity. JA was Jean Agélou, whom we now know had already established himself in a studio on the Rue Armand Gauthier by 1908. Now that was the same year that the French Government, somewhat taken aback by the proliferation of images of naked female bodies openly available on the streets of France in postcard form, yielded even their reasonably liberal views on the subject and made life a little tougher for those engaged in selling that product. This is despite the fact that it was still legal for girls as young as fourteen to pose in the nude. Many photographers, just to be on the safe side, kept their identities closely guarded by signing just their initials to their work. This now became commonplace because of the new law. And it was the same year, or thereabouts, that Fernande, we presume Barrey, moved from Picady to the capital. If she was the Fernande of later in the story she may have been in dire straits on her arrival as it is recorded she quickly moved into prostitution to get by.
By the end of that year the girl of the night, aged 15, and the photographer, just turned 30, were lovers. It is not known how they came into contact – on the street as she pedalled her wares, in a house of ill-repute or in one of the many cafés for the bohemian set in which working girls circulated, attempting to find a ‘gentleman’ to attach themselves to as some form of security. Whatever, she was soon his bed partner and willing model. Those in the know state that she was with him long enough for them to chart the changes in her body as she moved from youthfulness to a fulsome, mature woman in the years leading up to the Great War.
Agélou had already made a name for himself with his pictures of beautiful women, tastefully arranged in the nude, with his photographs for the periodical ‘L’Étude académique’. Designed initially for artists, with a subscription of over 20,000, it obviously appealed to many more in the community.
But the laws of 1908 saw more explicit material, even if tastefully presented, go beneath the covers – akin to the plastic bags of our lifetimes. Magazines couldn’t carry nude depictions and genitalia had to be erased or covered.
By the war’s end the photographer had moved on to landscapes. His brother, formerly behind the scenes doing the accounts as Jean recruited the girls and photographed them, took over behind the lens. It had all changed. Why? Was there greater money to be made in more family-friendly fare? Did Jean have a change of heart about the nudes now that distribution was effectively underground? Or was there a marked change in his personal life? Fernande continued to step out of her garments for brother George’s camera, so JA was replaced by GA – or was this just another cover? We can speculate, but it’s doubtful we’ll ever know. The brothers did not last long after the armistice in any case. They died, together, in a road accident in 1921.
But we do know that, assuming Miss Fernande is indeed Miss Barrey, that in 1917 she took a new lover. It was a whirlwind romance. She and he met in one those aforementioned boho cafés and married after thirteen days of infatuation. As we are now coming at it from this new fellow’s angle, we do not seem to be certain that this was the same woman who posed for the brothers.
But we’ll assume that it is. Fernande and her lover were decidedly out of step with their times, but certainly not with their clique. Europe of La Belle Époque was most taken by Japan. It was opening up to the West and the West was definitely besotted with it. That is reflected in the art and popular culture of the time. So what could be more with-it than to take a Japanese lover? And Tsuguharu Foujita could paint as well. He was not one who achieved fame after his death. He was no archetype living in a garret. He had it all then and there. His forte of applying Japanese techniques to Western style works caught on – so much so that he could afford to bankroll trips to the South of France for all his mates. There they could paint and earn a pretty centime or two from the burgeoning tourist trade. He associated with all the to be greats – Modigliani, Soutine, Gris, Picasso, Léger and Matisse. Isadora Duncan taught him how to dance. He’d painted Man Ray’s lover, Kiki, in the nude – posing brazenly for him in his courtyard in Montparnasse. The result was a sensation. He was made. Why, he could even afford to install a bath with hot running water, so no wonder lesser lights flocked to be around him. With such largess, he was a catch.
Initially, at that café, she didn’t see much in him. She, on the other hand, left such an impression that he asked for her address. She obviously gave it as he was there on her doorstep the next morning bearing flowers. Fernande invited him in for tea – and in the bat of an eye they were hitched.
But convention wasn’t their thing. The Tokyo-trained dauber and his new muse had what we would term today an open marriage. Both were free to cuckold the other. And they did.
She was still posing for the artists in her set. She did so for Amedeo Modigliani and became close to the Italian’s wife, Jeanne Hébuterne. When her common law husband died prematurely Jeanne was distraught. It was Fernande who did the most to try and comfort her; to attempt to get her through her grief. She was shattered when the young woman committed suicide soon after.
Shadows were gathering over her own relationship. Fernande overstepped the mark when she commenced an affair with her hubby’s cousin, Koyanahi. Taking an unknown new bed partner was one thing, family was another. Foujita fled from her in response like the wind to his own current squeeze, Youki. Knowing nothing of this and fearing the worst, his wife scoured the morgues of Paris for his body. His body was in another not-so-cold place entirely. When he re-emerged, both parties realised it was over. She shacked up with her new Japanese beau; one who turned out to be a stayer, supporting her for the rest of her life. She, too, began dabbling in artistic pursuits, even doing a little exhibiting. Her former husband went on to more fame and adventures around the world, best known these days for his ‘Book of Cats’. Check it out. It’s one of the world’s most expensive tomes to own. A copy will set you back around $80,000.
For the later years with Miss Barrey we draw a blank. We can only assume, perhaps with her looks fading, that she withdrew to a quieter, less flamboyant existence. Her days of posing nude were over, but for her time she was the epitome of the liberated free spirit..
She gloriously lives on in the paintings and the Brothers Agélou images of her. Just as those WW1 soldiers secreted the latter away close to their hearts, we too can view them, if we desire, with a simple Google search. They are charming and of their time – but delectable all the same. With the other women, like Kiki (Alice Prin) and Youki (Lucie Badoul); ones who moved in her orb, there are probably other fascinating stories to be had of lives well led; lives refusing to conform. Then along came wars, power-crazed dictators and hard times to blow it all away.