“I have always loved, and lived, my own theatre.”
TRQ: Leonor Fini, Born August 30, 1907
Surrealist painter, designer and author Léonor Fini was born in Buenos Aires on August 30, 1987. Her single mother raised Fini in Trieste, Italy, but attempted kidnapping from the girl’s father meant that she often disguised herself as a boy.
Fascinated with death at an early age, she began visiting morgues in her teens. During these years she suffered from rheumatic conjunctivitis, and having her eyes bandaged left her living in total darkness for months at a time. Fini credits these experiences with enhancing her ability to imagine complex visuals and inspiring her to paint.
After moving to Milan at age 17, and to Paris in her mid-20s, Fini met many of the artists who inspired her work: Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Leonora Carrington, Carlo Carrà, and Giorgio de Chirico, among others. Cartier-Bresson photographed Fini nude by a swimming pool on one of their road trips through Europe.
She did not pursue formal training but relied on her personal instinct and had this in common with Surrealist painter Frida Kahlo.
Fini idealized the “autonomous, absolute woman” who lived and worked according to her passions. She was bisexual and often lived communally with at least two men.
Fini said in a 1982 interview with Whitney Chadwick, “I am a woman and have had the ‘feminine experience’ but I am not a lesbian.”
Fini’s exploration of sexuality, as connecting internal and external realities, shared commonalities with the Surrealistic work of Dalí, André Masson and Hans Bellmer. Her 1936 exhibition in Paris alongside other Surrealists strengthened an uneasy association.
While her exhibition that same year in New York at the Julien Levy Gallery was the first major acknowledgement of her importance to the Surrealist movement, Fini felt that Surrealists often undermined women’s autonomy.
Emphasising Fini’s unwillingness to bow to male desire, her work often places women at the painting’s center to evoke a sense of their power and freedom. The painting La Bout du Monde features a female figure surrounded by animal skulls in a pool of water, which Madonna appropriated into her “Bedtime Story” (1994) music video.
Fini’s work explores matriarchy, lesbianism and androgyny. Often rejecting abstract principles of dominance and submission, she painted images of people she knew in life: Jean Genet, Anna Magnani, Jean Schlumberger, and other celebrity friends and acquaintances. Fini often subverted surrealist stereotypes by merging dualisms found in male artists’ work. Fini’s females could be monstrous, and also protective and creative, or girlish and also sensual and aggressive.
Fini work is diverse. She worked with Elsa Schiaparelli and designed the flacon for “Shocking,” the house’s top- selling perfume. She designed costumes and decorations for Les Demoiselles de la nuit, performed by Roland Petit’s Ballet de Paris.
In film, Fini designed costumes for Renato Castellani’s Romeo and Juliet (1954), Federico Fellini’s 8 1⁄2 (1963), and John Huston’s A Walk with Love and Death (1968), starring Anjelica Huston. For the Rothschilds’ Ball, she designed Brigitte Bardot’s costume.
She wrote three novels: Rogomelec, Moumour, Contes pour enfants velu, and Oneiropompe. She published them in the 1970s.
Similar to other Surrealist artists, Fini tended towards shock and drama. She once appeared in public wearing a Cardinal’s red robes to play ideas of gender against Catholic priests’ code of celibacy. She married Federico Veneziani but divorced him after meeting and starting a relationship with Count Stanislao Lepri. Writer Konstanty Jeleński soon joined the Fini and Lepri and started living with them in October 1952.
Her lifestyle distracted attention away from her work, making her “the most undervalued artist of the 20th Century,” according to the Art Dealers Association of America.
Léonor Fini died in Paris in 1996.