Posted on 23 November 2015.
Fini in Corscia, 1967. Photo: Eddie Broffiero
No female artist operating in mid-20th century Paris did so with as much verve as Leonor Fini (1907-96). A painter, stage designer and self-styled dandy, Fini achieved fame and celebrity by translating her dreams into paintings that combined elements of German Romanticism, Pre-Raphaelite painting, Venetian Mannerism and New Objectivity. Her camped-up fusion of these styles, rendered in smooth, flat paint, and with faces radiating an almost Frau Angelico glow, depicted scenes of sex, fantasy and transgression infused with mythological overtones.
Not long after arriving in Paris at age 24, the Argentina-born, Trieste-raised artist became a magnet for major figures of the inter-war and post-WWII years, including, among the surrealists, Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, Dorothea Tanning, Hans Bellmer, Max Ernst, Meret Oppenheim, Man Ray, Giorgio de Chirico, Leonora Carrington and others. All, apart from Breton who she disliked
for his sexism, homophobia and bullying, considered her a close friend. So did authors (de Sade, Bataille, Genet), designers (Elsa Schiaparelli), choreographers (Balanchine) and filmmakers (Fellini, John Huston) with whom she collaborated. They found her intellect and unconventional beauty irresistible.
Julian Levy, her New York dealer, famously wrote: “Her parts did not fit well together: head of a lioness, mind of a man, bust of a woman, torso of a child, grace of an angel, discourse of the Devil…Her allure was an ability to dominate her mis-fitted parts so that they merged into whatever shape her fantasy wished to present from one moment to the next.” At a 1947 gala cited by her biographer, Peter Webb
, Fini wore “an elaborate
Femme en armure I, 1938, oil on canvas
headdress made up of plants, strings of pearls and bursts of tulle with a fox skull as the centerpiece. At her home – which at one point included 23 cats — she created an environment to match. “The rich crimson rags which hung about the room concealed a battery of colored lights, as on a miniature stage, and these were operated by imperceptible threads strung through the draperies as if they were cobwebs,” wrote Levy. “The disorder of the room was monumental.”
All of these aspects get a workout in Réalisme Irréel, (Unreal Realism), a show that samples Fini’s output over 40 years beginning in 1939. What it reveals most strikingly is how closely her art merged her public persona and inner life. The sexually liberated, communal life she lived was the same one she painted, and her subject, for the most part, was herself. She dissolved distinctions between dreams and waking life, male and female, animal and human, vegetal and mineral. Alternately inhabiting the roles of sibyl, odalisque and sphinx, she cast herself as a high priestess with alchemical powers, ruler of a kingdom in which women fawned over androgynous young men or frolicked amongst themselves (as is the case with most of the paintings on view here). While such scenes appear homoerotic, the characters portrayed are, in fact, Fini in various guises, co-mingling. Here it’s worth noting that, sexually, Fini preferred men. She famously retained a male harem comprised of current and ex-lovers, all living under the same roof. Yet in her art, her strongest allegiances were always to women or, more accurately, to the mythological idea of woman as creator and locus of ancient wisdom. For this, and for her refusal to play the role of muse or mistress to better-known male artists, feminists applauded; however, their admiration wasn’t reciprocated. Fini distrusted ideologies, her primary allegiance being to herself and to her dream experiences for which she frequently consulted psychoanalysts “to learn what they mean.”
La prison de Zigriphine, 1975, oil on canvas
Réalisme Irréel, brings these complexities to the fore with 25 posters that hang as banners from the ceiling. They show Fini with friends and lovers in a variety of costumes and poses captured by a who’s who of twentieth century European photography: Man Ray, Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, Horst, Dora Maar and many others. Apart from being spectacular compositions and remarkable period documents, the photos reveal telling glimpses of the reality behind fantasy world she inhabited and painted. They set the stage, so to speak, for the surrounding paintings and drawings.
Eroticism is the strongest theme sounded. La prison de Zigriphine
(1975), for example, shows two bare-breasted women, one staring stonily into the distance, the other leering at the first. The piece feels uncannily current: The bodies bring to mind John Currin
and Lisa Yuskavage
, two mammary-fixated contemporary artists who I’m guessing leered long and hard at Fini. Both figures in this painting wear elaborate headscarves and diaphanous dresses that emphasize their shapes. The obvious historical antecedent is Gabrielle d'Estrées et une de ses soeurs
, (1594), a nipple-pinching portrait widely believed to be about lesbian love; it hangs in the Louvre, its creator unknown. Other works in which fulsome, bare breasts figure prominently, include Le train
Le train, 1975, oil on canvas
(1975). In this, two women sit opposite one another, their heads sheathed in bright orange headscarves. Fini uses the train’s chartreuse seatbacks to form halos around the heads, injecting a note of religious austerity into sex scene about to happen. (One thinks of Piero della Francesca.) La lecon de botanique (Botany Lesson, 1975), shows another pair of women, one nude, the other dressed like Futurist stripper. They’re looking at a plant whose parts mirror the female sexual apparatus as Georgia O’Keefe might have painted it. With one hand gesturing to the stamen and pistil and the other to her partner’s private parts, the nude on the left, could be offering an almost credible lesson in universality of reproductive forms had the bodies not been so lavishly eroticized and accessorized.
Still, for all the high-camp allure of pictures like these, I found myself leaning closer to the longstanding critical view, that Fini’s best work came early in her career during the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. Before and during the war years and for some time after, Fini earned her living painting portraits. However much she stifled her instincts to serve the rich, there’s no getting around the fact that she was spectacularly good at it, bringing to the job a degree of painterly virtuosity and psychological insight that surfaced only sporadically in final decades of her life. She also made many portraits of close friends that were better still for having given those instincts full
Portrait of Mrs. Hastler, 1942, oil on canvas
vent. Two walls of drawings, all solitary self-portraits (as opposed to the group scenes described above), attest to her powers, as do several major oil paintings. Among the latter, the strongest is Femme en armure I (1938), a pensive, melancholy picture that shows the artist wearing a piece of low-cut body armor that reveals far more than it protects. It’s cinched at the waist and cut high at the bottom to reveal a fine pair of legs in striped stockings. She wears a headdress that looks as if it were made of writhing snakes. Fini appeared in it repeatedly, both in paintings and photos, looking, alternately, like Medusa or a Wiccan goddess. It shows how, at her best, Fini could overlay an otherworldly aura onto an almost Flemish sense of realism, projecting herself as a force of nature.
At the opposite end of the reality-unreality spectrum, Fini, in the early 1960s, made a series that was almost entirely abstract, based on her experience exploring underwater grottoes in Corsica. These multi-layered works (The Mineral Series) describe dark, unknowable depths haunted by the sort of chimeras that once prowled the edges of medieval maps. They are unlike anything else Fini painted. The best example here, L’Abreuvoir de nuit/les songes d’une nuit d’été (1963), mixes seduction and terror in equal parts.
Despite her inclusion in Fantastic Art: Dada Surrealism at the MOMA
in 1936, Fini never really achieved much recognition in the U.S. Certainly her brand of celebrity seeking would have played well on these shores – witness Dalí. But the eclipse of Europe by New York as the world’s art capital, Fini’s reluctance to travel, and the unevenness of her work in the last decades of her life may have dampened critical opinion. Though Réalisme Irréel
, overlaps significantly with a retrospective mounted by Weinstein in 2009, it makes a convincing case for a reassessment of her bold and storied career.
–DAVID M. ROTH