Essay by Peter Webb
Leonor Fini, Corsica, 1965. (Leonor Fini Archives, Paris)Leonor Fini spent her formative years in the cosmopolitan Italian city of Trieste. She had no formal artistic training, but studied art in the museums of Northern Italy from an early age. One of her earliest paintings, Portrait de Triestine (Portrait of a Triestine Woman,c. 1927), shows an old beggar woman with long black braids seated in front of a symmetrical landscape with trees on either side forming a Gothic arch above her. She wears a white robe over a black gown with long sleeves that make her look like a priestess.The painting shows Fini's awareness of the contemporary Italian Metaphysical School, and its composition and extraordinarily meticulous technique bear the clear influence of Arturo Nathan, a well-known Trieste artist and close friend, especially his Self-Portrait of 1927, also a symmetrical image that shows him in a priest's robe under an arch, his hands crossed in front of him.
After a period spent working and exhibiting with Giorgio de Chirico and other Metaphysical artists in Milan, Fini moved to Paris in 1931 where she would live for the rest of her life. Her first artistic efforts were attempts to move away from the detailed naturalism of her early work.An example is La Gourmandise (The Greedy Girl) of 1932, which shows a woman with a bird on her head trying to prevent a girl from eating a tray of cakes.As a young, talented, and glamorous woman, Fini was soon in great demand at Parisian artistic parties and provided good copy for journalists.The couturier Elsa Schiaparelli lent her fashionable dresses for the publicity value. At a party given by the couturier Jacques Heim she met Max Ernst, and the two soon became lovers. Ernst took her to the Café de la Place Blanche, where André Breton held court, surrounded by his Surrealist disciples. There she met Paul Éluard and Salvador Dalí, who became her lifelong friends. Breton was impressed by her automatic drawings in the Surrealist manner, and excited by her habit of wearing pink silk cardinal's stockings which she had bought in a religious vestment shop in Rome. She discouraged erotic overtures from Joan Miró and Georges Bataille, and she was too independent a spirit to join Pablo Picasso's harem when he stroked her fur coat as she sat on his lap in a taxi.
During the thirties, Fini often exhibited with the Surrealist group in Paris, London, and New York. Paintings such as La terrasse (Figures on a Terrace) and De l'un jour à l'autre I & II (From One Day to Another I & II) of 1938, and Cérémonie (Ceremony) and Autoportrait avec chimère (Self-Portrait with Chimera) of 1939, testify to the lessons she learned from Surrealism but also her independence from the group. She described it to me this way: "I disliked the deference with which everyone treated Breton. I hated his misogyny. I felt that I was just as good as the men. I preferred to walk alone." These paintings depict erotic dream worlds in which women are in control. At a gallery opening around this time, she and Leonora Carrington wore beautiful coats of Siberian fur.When it was suggested that it was rather warm for such clothing, both simultaneously opened their coats to reveal that they were naked.
In this same period, Fini pioneered the association of Surrealism with the world of fashion. She drew designs by Schiaparelli and Balenciaga for Vogue and Harper's Bazaar and designed the famous bottle for Schiaparelli's Shocking perfume based on Mae West's hourglass figure. In 1939 Fini organized an exhibition for Leo Castelli's Galerie Drouin, which included work by Meret Oppenheim, Eugene Berman, and Max Ernst. Her own contributions included an extraordinary Anthropomorphic Armoire in the shape of two female angels with long, flowing hair and feathery wings, also known as woman-swans, two panels (intended for doors) featuring dominant Arcimboldesque women representing La Peinture et L'Architecture (Painting and Architecture), and a chair in the shape of a woman's corset in ebony and mother-of-pearl in a wrought iron framework.
Fini left Paris at the outbreak of the war and reached Monte Carlo in 1940 where she lived for three years. It was here that her work entered its truly mature stage. Paintings such as La bergère des sphinxes (The Shepherdess of the Sphinxes; 1941), Sphinx Amalburga (1942), and Europa (1942) depict women who epitomize both female sexuality and female power.The interplay between the dominant female and the passive male becomes a definitive theme.However, opportunities for exhibiting and selling work were rare during the war, and so she concentrated on portraiture. Monte Carlo was home to many rich people, and there was no shortage of clients. She produced a painstaking likeness of her friend Thelma,Viscountess Furness, and this led to many commissions from European aristocracy from France, England, Poland, Italy, and Russia.This was not fully satisfying and whenever possible she produced more imaginative results. In 1942 she painted Portrait of Mrs. Hasellter, an English former tennis champion and a friend of Lady Furness. She is shown nude, her hair stuffed with feathers and her body covered with plants so that she seems to become a plant herself. In the same year she painted the portrait of Stanislao Lepri, shown head and shoulders, nude, covered with ivy on which can be seen many colorful beetles. Ivy is a symbol of immortality and fidelity, and Lepri was to become one of the great loves of Leonor's life.They moved to Rome together in 1943. It was there she painted two spirited portraits of her close friend Cesare Pavani (1945), one head and shoulders and the other a nude study. Pavani was a theater set designer and the lover of the film director Luchino Visconti, whom Leonor also painted.
Fini and Lepri finally moved back to Paris in 1946. Her imaginative work developed with powerful images such as Divinité chtonienne guettant le sommeil d'un jeune homme (Chthonian Deity Watching over the Sleep of a Young Man; 1946), Stryges Amaouri (1947), and Petit sphinx ermite (Little Hermit Sphinx; 1948, now in the collection of the Tate Museum, London), continuing her exploration of the relationship between the sexes by means of mythological evocations. In Paris, as in Monte Carlo, the aristocracy were happy to be painted by the now famous artist. Leonor would easily move from straightforward imagery like Helène Rochas and Her Children, François and Sophie of 1947 to a more idiosyncratic approach such Comtesse Mita Corti, Née Mita Colonna di Cesaro of 1948, in which the beautifully coiffed society lady wears colorful flowing silk garments yet reclines on the floor of a dilapidated room surrounded by torn rags and discarded building material. Leonor always sought the sun during the summer, and in 1950 she was in Spain. In Malaga she painted two meticulous portraits of siblings standing in the corner of a room. La fille du maçon (The Mason's Daughter) pictures a girl dressed in working clothes with a scarf around her head standing among tiles and building materials. Le fils du maçon (The Mason's Son) wears a torn singlet and shorts and is placed beside what appears to be a bag of cement.These two works show Fini's sustained interest in the beauty of these spare, entropic architectural settings.
Fini made many theater designs around this time, and her work for Roland Petit's The Young Ladies of the Night (1948) led to her friendship with ballerina Margot Fonteyn. Her painting Elles aimes se déguiser (They Love to Dress Up, Portrait of Joy Williams and Margot Fonteyn) of the same year is one of her most imaginative portraits.The women are exotically costumed in and surrounded by totemlike objects from nature.A work of the same period, L'homme aux masques (Man with Masks, 1949), shows an unidentified nude young man seated against a backdrop of masks and no doubt also relates to the world of the theater.
By the early 1950s, Fini had reached her full maturity with paintings such as Le bout du monde (The Ends of the Earth, 1948), L'ange de l'anatomie (The Angel of Anatomy, 1949), and La vie idéale (The Ideal Life, 1950), and had established herself as one of the best-known artists working in Paris. Jean Cocteau wrote: "In her unreal realism, Leonor Fini epitomizes the whole recent period characterized by that which is more real than the truth." In 1952 she met Constantin Jelenski, known as "Kot," with whom she would begin a relationship. Leonor, Stanislao, and Kot would live together, more or less, for the rest of their lives. Fini's work now, too, underwent a profound change.The extraordinary naturalism was replaced with a move towards near abstraction. Métamorphoses equivoques (Ambiguous Metamorphosis, 1953) is a transitional work which shows three figures that appear human to the waist and take on animal-like forms below. Lieu de naissance (Place of Birth, 1958) recalls the magic effects of Gustave Moreau in its image of half-human figures taking part in mysterious rituals, painted in glowing colors on a jewel-like surface, giving the effect of coral or fossils. In La victime est reine (The Victim Is Queen, 1960), figures of indeterminate parentage emerge from the surface of the canvas, surrounded by otherworldly figures in some bizarre ritual event that seems to inspire fear rather than respect. Max Ernst wrote of these paintings: "Here is the abyss which at first appears pernicious, peopled with corpses in decomposition....This abyss, which seemed so dark and gloomy, is peopled with the most astonishing museum of fantastic beings."
The 1960s saw another change of direction in Leonor's work toward more precise figuration and bright color, harkening back to her early love of the work of artists like Gustav Klimt and Franz van Stuck. Beautiful works like La serrure (The Lock, 1965) and Heliodora (1964) feature nude women emerging from doorway-like spaces surrounded by explosions of flowers. Such images were made into lithographs and became very popular as emblems of the "Flower Power" movement. Fini also created a number of works of women on trains in this ornamented style. Leonor told me:"Train journeys seem boring nowadays, but in the past I found them dramatic.They could be scenes of adventures, of unexpected meetings.They seemed to me the perfect setting for erotic situations to develop." In Voyage (The Journey, 1965) two women in a train compartment sit opposite each other, their eyes closed and wearing elaborate hats, in a symmetric yet tension-filled composition. In Trois voyageuses (Three Travelers, study for L'autre côté, c. 1964) brightly dressed young ladies stand in stark opposition to the dark, anonymous shadows outside the train windows.
The charmingly sensuous atmosphere of the paintings from the first half of the 1960s evolves into something more overt and powerful in Phoebus endormi (Phoebus Asleep) and L'entre deux (The Intimate Couple), both of 1967, in which two androgynous figures in varying degrees of undress play sexual games among the brightly colored cushions of a luxurious chaise longue. Leonor often referred to her concept of eroticism in conversations with me. Rather than nudity, she preferred beautiful and suggestive clothing, veils, silks and satins, desire expressed through understatement. Perhaps her most extreme expression of sexual passion is Les aveugles (The Blind Ones, 1968), which depicts two women, naked save for some loose drapery, making love on the floor, eyes closed, mouths open, in a paroxysm of desire.The person underneath, who seems older, holds her partner in a tight grip.The pallor of the two figures suggests a medieval scene of death and the maiden.
Parallel to these images, Fini was also painting some subjects which had rather more serious content. In La peine capitale (Capital Punishment) of 1969, a naked woman looks provocatively at a goose with its long neck hanging down, held by another woman.A third woman wields a sharp knife. Feminist authors would later see in such paintings an expression on Fini's part of revenge for men's subjection of women in a patriarchal society.Although disliking the idea of being included in a "school of feminism," she sympathized with this viewpoint. She explained to me that in this painting, "The neck of the goose is the phallus of the man.The woman with the knife will cut the neck and so will castrate the man." Not all her paintings of this "political" period were so violent. Rasch, Rasch, Rasch, meine Puppen werten (Hurry, Hurry, Hurry, My Dolls Are Waiting) of 1975 shows five beautiful women, nude or partly clothed, displaying themselves to a rather androgynous young person who looks at them through a window while being held by an older woman. Leonor told me that this title comes from the phrase she used as a child when trying to get away from her German governess. Here, the dolls have become women waiting for sexual pleasure, and it is clear from their expressions that the pleasure will be on their own terms.Although aware of the brothel images of Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas, Fini is here attempting the difficult task of exploring the world of brothels from the point of a woman who is proud and sure of her own sexuality, rather than from a political or misogynistic point of view.
In her seventies, Leonor had become the grande dame of the Paris art world, revered by some as one of the last of the Surrealists, and hounded by journalists and photographers. At this time she published three novels in which certain of her own paintings played a part. For Rogomelec ("he who stones the king") of 1979, a dream-like fantasy involving rituals and sacrifices, she created a painting of the hero Rogomelec (1978) wearing a cloak of feathers and a silver crown. Many of the paintings of her last years, such as Les jumeaux ingrats (The Ungrateful Twins, 1982), Une grande curiosité (A Great Curiosity, 1983), and Mémoire de fragments passés (Memory of Past Moments, 1984), seem to suggest a literary inspiration, a scene from a published or unpublished text. Stanislao had died in 1980, and after the death of Kot in 1987, Leonor's work tended to become darker in both color and content. La nuit des soupçons (The Night of Suspicions) of 1987 involves four distressed women who seem caught in a subterranean vault. In Ex voto of 1994, a woman displays a giant white cat to frightened people emerging from a pool of water. Vice Versa, a work painted just two years before her death in 1996, depicts two masked figures bound together feet to feet for eternity.
By 1938 Leonor Fini's dreamlike, often seductive painting was becoming highly sought-after, and she was meeting people from all over the world who had come, like her, to the reigning art and fashion capital of Paris. But it was her encounter with Leo Castelli, a family friend from Trieste, that perhaps had the most impact on the trajectory of the art world at large.
Castelli and furniture designer René Drouin had just rented a gallery space in the fashionable Place Vendôme.They invited Fini to organize their first major exhibition. She chose the theme of art and design, and invited her Surrealist friends to participate.The show opened in May 1939 and featured works by Salvador Dalí, Meret Oppenheim, Eugene Berman, and Max Ernst, among others. Ernst showed his prescient painting of the coming war, Fireside Angel. Berman created a large wardrobe with a trompe l'oeil painting of a brick wall with holes blown out.This piece was an apt complement to Fini's own Anthropomorphic Armoire, shown on page 13 and in the image above with a model posing in front of it for a Harper's Bazaar photo shoot. Fini also exhibited a chair in the design of a corset and two panels intended as doors featuring personifications of the ideals of Painting and Architecture.
This exhibition, featuring Surrealistic imagery paired with functional objects, on the surface seemed to be a departure from Surrealism's roots. But Fini's intention, no doubt, was to eliminate the conventional boundaries between art and life and to comment on the patriarchy of that separation. By exquisitely painting graceful yet powerful swan-women on the front of a wardrobe she suggests the dual roles that women are expected to fulfill, as mythical creature and functional corporeal presence, to powerful effect. In La Peinture et L'Architecture, a double self-portrait, her grisaille paintings mimic medieval carved doors and yet subvert that allusion because they feature sumptuous women in these traditionally male roles. Fini, clearly and with out self-consciousness, positions herself as both woman and artist.