Leonor Fini (1907-1996) was a painter, designer, illustrator, and author. She has been described as a sorceress, an extravagant cat lady, and famously ‘the woman who rejected Salvador Dali’, but ultimately Fini was one of the most important and overlooked artists of the 20th century.
Born in Buenos Aires, Fini only lived in Argentina for a short time before fleeing to Italy with her mother to escape her abusive father. Living in Trieste allowed Fini to spend much of her youth surrounded by Mannerist and Renaissance art, both of which shared mutual themes of wealth, decadence and power, and would prove to be a source of great inspiration for the artist in later years.
From the age of 13, Fini would visit the local morgue and study the corpses, an experience that would help her to capture the human form, and develop the distinctive and ethereal humanoid figures that became her trademark. These early artistic encounters, combined with studies into psychoanalytic theory, informed much of Fini’s work throughout her artistic career.
Though Fini resisted joining the more unified ranks of the Surrealists, her work was certainly of the Surrealist canon. She depicts otherworldly creatures, strange landscapes, scenes of alchemy, occultism and desire. Often, Fini would use her work to respond to the male-gaze, objectifying the male form and allowing the female viewer to take a more dominant role. Fini’s description of her own work and demeanor sums this up perfectly:
Myself, I know that I belong with the idea of Lilith, the anti-Eve, and that my universe is that of the spirit.
Her reluctance to join a particular group or adhere to any artistic label was characteristic of Fini’s desire for autonomy. Wishing to subvert typical gender roles, Fini abandoned the femme fatale and innocent virgin prototypes, instead creating goddesses reminiscent of greek mythology, and female figures that could not be categorised or defined morally or sexually. Themes of fertility, female empowerment and magic run through her work, and Fini often depicts the figure of the Sphinx, a half human, half lion hybrid.
In the early forties, Fini accepted Peggy Guggenheim’s proposal to appear in the show ‘Exhibition by 31 Women’ held at the Art of This Century Gallery in New York. The 1943 exhibition brought together work by women of different ethnicities, age ranges and artistic practices, and explicitly highlighted Guggenheim’s fascination with surrealist art. Fini exhibited alongside the likes of Frida Kahlo, Dorothea Tanning and the extravagant Leonora Carrington, with whom she would form an intense and lasting friendship.
Fini was photographed by a several famous artists (most notably, Henri Cartier-Bresson), often in erotic or provocative poses, adopting the role of the sexually empowered female – a character we see in much of her painted work. Sometimes Fini appears in elaborate costumes, adorned in jewels, feathers and furs, looking like a high priestess or otherworldly creature. Never one to separate life from art, Fini often draped herself in lavish costumes and was rumoured to have attended a party in celebration of the Witches’ Sabbath, wearing nothing but “knee-length white leatherette boots and a cape of white feathers”.
Her talents appear to be endless. In addition to being a artist and designer, Fini also created costumes for ballets, theatre productions and operas, as well as designing the bottle for Schiaparelli’s perfume ‘Shocking’. In 1949, she conceptualised the ballet Le Rêve de Leonor (Leonor’s Dream), which was later choreographed by Frederick Ashton. During the 1970s, Fini turned her attention to writing, and penned three novels: Rogomelec, Moumour & Contes Pour Enfantes Velu and L’Oneiropompe. As an illustrator, Fini’s work accompanied the writing of authors like Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Baudelaire, as well as the Marquis de Sade’s salacious novel ‘Justine’ (1791).
Fini was married once, briefly to Federico Venezianio, but she never married again and was openly bisexual at a time when sexual fluidity was still a taboo.
Marriage never appealed to me, I’ve never lived with one person. Since I was 18 I’ve always preferred to live in a sort of community – a big house with my atelier and cats and friends, one with a man who was rather a lover and one with a man who was rather a friend. And it has always worked.
For the remaining years of her life she lived with her lovers Konstanty Aleksander Jeleński (a polish writer) and Stanislao Lèpri (a surrealist artist) and (most importantly) her persian cats. She died in Paris in 1996.