Painter, novelist, illustrator, costume, film and theatre designer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
'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.