Surrealist artist Leonor Fini was one of the twentieth century’s finest painters and one of the most provocative artists for her time. Her highly sexualized subject matter and nonconformist approach to gender and sexuality makes her especially timely now. She depicted women as strong and powerful and also portrayed men as objects of the female gaze. A large number of her paintings were both autobiographical and mysterious.
Leonor Fini was born in Buenos Aires but moved to her mother’s birthplace of Trieste, Italy. As a child she was made to wear disguises, including boys’ clothing, to avoid being taken by her father as her parents were divorcing. This gender masquerade would work itself into imagery later on in her paintings.
With no training other than some informal mentoring, Fini painted in Italy during the 1920s. She arrived in Paris in 1935 and was noticed by Andre Breton the founder of Surrealism, whom she never liked because of his misogyny. She quickly proved herself to be an artist and not just a muse. She became part of the Surrealist social circle that included artists Giorgio de Chico, Salvadore Dali, and Max Ernst, who became her lover for a time. Her first solo show at the Galerie Bonjean in 1932 confirmed her importance for this group. She exhibited with them at other major venues such as an exhibition with Max Ernst in New York City in 1936. She refused total inclusion in the Surrealist group because of her support for Georges Bataille and Jean Cocteau, men loathed by Andre Breton.
She was one of the most photographed artists in Paris during the 1930s and 1940s, wearing costumes for photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lee Miller, Dora Maar, and especially Andre Pierre de Mandiargues, who photographed her cross-dressing and wearing masks. Fini was an active agent of her own appearance. One of the costumes she liked to wear was a metal breastplate and feathered headdress, and in 1938 used these costumes in two paintings of the same name, “Femme en armor” (Woman in Armor).
Like other female artists aligned with Surrealism, Fini extended her conception of the feminine to the natural world of animals and plant life and the preternatural world of myth, magic and alchemy. For decades she used the cat motif in many paintings, including her 1950 “Ideal Life” where she painted herself as queen of the cat kingdom. She used the same preternatural themes in her works from the mythical sphinx in her 1942 “Sphinx Amalburga” to depictions of women as potent figures, an example of which is her 1955 “Guardian with a Red Egg.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, she worked in stage and costume design for the Paris Opera and the Metropolitan Opera House and made book illustrations and drawings for works by Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, and others. In her paintings at this time she made an aesthetic adaptation that veered towards Abstract Expressionism as seen in her 1961 “Evening Chimera.”
Fini had a retrospective of her work at the Museo Revoltella in Trieste, Italy some nine years ago. The first major retrospective of her work in the United States, was “Leonor Fini: Theatre of Desire, 1930-1990.” Her six-decade career spanned painting, film, photography, furniture, and costume design. Her work was exhibited in dozens of group and solo exhibitions in Europe and the United States. Her work is in the permanent collections of museums in Rome, Trieste, the Art Institute of Chicago, Paris National Opera Theater, Museums of Modern Art in Paris and Brussels, Tate Modern London, Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, and Centre Georges Pompidou.