Sunday, 31 August 2014

Leonor Fini, the 31 Women Number Twenty Nine. Her Birthday is 30th August.

Leonor Fini, Argentinian/Italian. Born 30 Aug 1907 in Buenos Ares, died 18 January 1996 in Paris. 
Painter, novelist, illustrator, costume, film and theatre designer.
Leonor Fini is yet another extraordinary artist who has been largely forgotten by the wider art world because she was a woman. In her lifetime her superbly outrageous dress sense and scandalous lifestyle kept the press confused and fascinated; although Leonor the celebrity was one of the most photographed women of the day, there was less interested in her art, outside the galleries and collectors.

Within the Surrealists she was also affected by sexism from the male artists, Dali typified the attitude when he said of her work, "Better than most perhaps. But creativity is in the balls." Fini's art became less acceptable amongst the art-critical elite during the 1950's and 60's as she had no interest in moveing into vast abstractions. She has gradually been downgraded and underrated ever since, becoming merely regarded as a 'niche' artist, while the male surrealists - particularly Dali - continued to be valued.
Eleonora Fini's nationality is confused; from Argentina she moved to Austria, then Italy, and spent much of her productive career in France.  Born in Buenos Aries, she had a disturbed early childhood; she was spirited way from her tyrannical father, Herminio Fini, at the early age of 4 and taken by Malvina, her mother to Europe.  Malvina Braun Dubich was of Serbian, German and Venetian extraction but her family home was Trieste, then an important Austrian seaport. The city was passed to Italy as a result of the treaty of Versailles after World War I.  Herminio refused to divorce his wife, he never gave up demands for the return of his daughter and tried to have Leonor kidnapped.  Malvina only managed to secure a divorce in 1919.

Leonor grew up in the family home with her mother's parents and brother. As a young child she dressed her dolls and herself in elaborate costumes, a love for fantastical dress which she never outgrew. She also painted and enhanced her work collage style with crushed eggshells and beads.  Like her friend Leonora Carrington had been, the child Leonor was rebellious at school, which she hated, she was expelled from three different Trieste schools. She had no formal training in art as a child, but was constantly drawing subjects which interested her. Something of a prodigy, she won a prize for drawing when she was only four and by the age of seventeen had begun a promising career painting portraits, in oils, of the well-to-do in Trieste. Her talent recognised, she was invited to Milan to paint the family of a government official. She stayed and studied.

This led to involvement with former futurists Achille Funi and Carlo Carra, who by the mid 1920’s had rejected the bombast of Futurism for a more classical approach to modern art.  These artists may have attracted the young Fini for their interest in metaphysics and classicism in a modernist context rather than their earlier connection to Futurism, her work gives no hint of Futurist influence. She also knew  the very un-futurist Arturo Tosi, whose work embraced classical subjects depicted in landscape and still life.

However the greatest influence on Leonor Fini before she moved to Paris was the metaphysical artist Arturo Nathan, who became her teacher. She was invited to exhibit with him and Giorgio de Chirico in 1929, when she exhibited another of her portraits, Vecchia Signora, in a detailed, naturalistic style. She moved to Paris in 1933, where she realised that the fantasy elements of her art gave her a close link to Surrealism whilst her detailed naturalistic technique, remained second to none. Other early artistic influences were varied, including Beardsley, Klimt, the British Pre-Raphaelites, German Romantics and Italian Mannerist artists of the Post-Renaissance period. This heady cocktail of Romanticism mixed with metaphysics and a dash of the classics was poured into the writhing vessel that was Surrealist Paris in the 1930’s, enabling Fini to create some of the most disturbing and striking surrealist images by any artist, man or woman.

Although her disturbing dream imagery fits right in with the surrealist ideal, Fini never regarded herself as one of the Surrealists under Andre Breton, finding their attitudes to women demeaning. She refused to participate in surrealist group activities, although she did exhibit with them and in 1939, herself arranged an exhibition of Surrealist objects and decorative arts. However she was always outspoken, independent and not the sort of woman to play the part of fey, docile muse to the Surrealist men, she often worked and exhibited with other artists notably Jean Cocteau.

She became close friends with Max Ernst (who needless to say had an affair with her), Victor Brauner, Dora Maar, Rene Magritte, Paul Eulard, Man Ray and notably with Leonora Carrington and Meret Oppenheim. She spent some time with Carrington and Ernst in their countryside retreat at St Martin L’Ardeche. After the war forced the split between them, Fini spent the war years in Arcachon, Cannes, Monte Carlo and finally Rome, where she arrived just before Mussolini surrendered. Her friendship with Oppenheim and Carrington was still of vital importance to her during those years, they exchanged many letters.
Peggy Guggenheim acquired Fini’s The Shepherdess of the Sphinxes in 1942 while she was still in Europe, trying to arrange the exit of herself, her family and her new lover, Max Ernst, from occupied France. She was introduced to Fini, who was described as Ernst’s protégé. The painting was exhibited in 1943 at the Exhibition by 31 Women, alongside one of Leonor's self portraits, while Leonor herself was living in Monte Carlo.

The Shepherdess of the Sphinxes itself has become one of the iconic images of Surrealism, it is still in the Peggy Guggenheim collection and was used on the cover of the catalogue for the 1997-8 exhibition Art of This Century: the Women, which began at the Pollock-Krasner House, East Hampton in 1997 and then moved to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice in 1998. 

Fini spent much of the war years moving around with her cats, her mother and her lovers Federico Veneziani, Kot Jelenski and Stanislao Lepri from one temporary lodging to another in France, Monaco and and Italy, desperately trying to avoid the occupying forces.  She lived alone with her cats on the small island of Giglio in 1943, before the arrival of German troops forced her to flee in 1944 to Rome, which was at the time under bombardment. Once that ceased, she earned a living again by painting portraits and also began designing stage sets for theatre and ballet.

She returned to Paris in 1946, and set up house in Paris with Jelenski, a writer and Lepri, who was also a painter. They would summer in a ruined monastery in Nonza, Cap Corse where they were visited by friends Dorothea Tanning, Max Ernst and many others. Whilst most of Leonor Fini's known lovers were men, much of her work later resembles exquisitely executed lesbian eroticism.  She had been engaged before her arrival in Paris to a minor Milanese nobleman but the relationship soon failed, as did a brief marriage in 1941 to Federico Veneziani.  

Leonor Fini was not a feminist, neither did she call herself a Surrealist, she rejected categorisation as she rejected marriage and motherhood, determinedly living as an independent human being. However she personally suffered sexism and was well aware that her fellow women suffered to. She became increasingly sympathetic to women as she matured, both personally and as subjects, "I find it much more natural to paint women than men. Women are more mythic, closer to their origins, intuitive, aware. They are more beautiful than men." None the less she chose to live only with men, in a household consisting of her two lovers and one or two assistants, who as well as acting as secretary, concierge and housekeeper were also charged with care of the increasingly numerous cats. At one stage there were seventeen.
Leonor's early surreal paintings show imagined scenes with women in positions of strength; in Figures on a Terrace (1939) Fini depicts herself with a Lion’s mane. Her art seldom depicts men and when it does they have an androgynous style similar to certain post-renaissance mannerist paintings. She preferred beautiful and intellectual men and disliked the macho. The sexual charge of her imagery has been said to come from the intense interest of the surrealist group as a whole in the works of the Marquis de Sade, an attribution which as usual ignores the strength of Fini's own powerful imagination. Male artists and art historians have routinely denied women the right to  own their erotic imagery.

The subject matter of her middle period tended more towards the purely erotic than the surrealist/sadist leaning shown in some of her early output. For a time in the 1950's and 60's  her style became looser, more textured, akin to Tachisme, though always with predominant representational elements. Later she reverted to a tight technique, though the paintings of the 1970s and 80's had a lighter touch and brighter palette than her early, naturalistic works. The subject matter remained as erotic as ever.

Fini also continued to work in theatre, creating paintings, posters and sets for the Paris Opera, costumes for the Comedie Francaise and sets and costumes for La Scala Opera in Milan. She illustrated a large number of books and wrote several herself.  Her widest audience was probably in cinema, when she designed costumes and sets for a number of movies, most notably Federico Fellini's '8 I/2 '. She continued to take commissions for portraits, though this ended in 1980 when a commissioned portrait of Paul and Linda McCartney was rejected by their agent as too precise and too sad.
Fini lived & workd in Paris and the Loire valley until a ripe old age, surrounded by her beloved cats, even after losing her human companions, Stanislao died in 1980 and Kot in 1986.  She suffered both losses very deeply, though she was not alone. Her assistants Raphael Martinez and Richard Overstreet remained with her.  Her last work was less challenging and perhaps less technically accomplished, but whilst the darker overtones become undertones, they are often still present and sometimes overwhelming as in  'L'Ami de la Famille' of 1992, where a pastel woman embracing two children seems unaware of the small, vividly coloured demon who is lurking over them.

Leonor Fini died of pneumonia at the age of 89 and was buried alongside her lovers Kot and Stanislao. Martinez made a film about their apartment and initiated the distribution of her work to museums, though when a large body of her work was offered to the French government in lieu of tax, it was turned down. Today the Centre Pompidou Collection du Musee d'art Moderne in Paris
contains just one single painting by Leonor Fini, a portrait from 1932.  It also contains a dozen photographic portraits of Leonor Fini, by Man Ray.  This is a final slap in the face for yet another marvellous surreal artist who dared to be a woman.

Sources include :-
'Sphinx: The Life and Art of Leonor Fini' by Peter Webb, Vendome Press 
'Leonor Fini; Surreal Thing', by Sarah Kent, Daily Telegraph, 30 Oct 2009

Comments, corrections and further information about Leonor Fini are very welcome. 
You can read about the remaining members of the 31 Women as their birthdays arrive, only two remaining now for me to post, although there may be a thirty-second woman still to come - watch this space..!

Earlier artists will remain on the blog.


  1. I'm sure I've seen a book of her paintings. Now i can't seem to find a record of her work anywhere....anyone know where i can find it?

  2. Hi Maxine, there are some books about Fini's work, probably all out of print by now. I suggest you look on, they have access to second hand and out of print books all over the world. I managed to get a couple of exhibition catalogues of hers from abebooks and it's worth going back every month or two, more stuff appears there all the time.
    There's also a large book published around 2008 by Peter Webb, called 'Sphinx, the Life and Art of Leonor Fini.' Best to try to access that via a library, it's very expensive. Good luck, Sue G