LEONOR FINI: The Forgotten Bohemian Queen of the Paris Art World

Calla Lily ArtArleen Solomon Rotchin4 Comments

She was an Argentine-born Surrealist known for her Gothic paintings that explore female sexuality and identity.

As a child, Leonor Fini was fascinated by death and decay and visited the morgue in her town to make anatomy sketches of the cadavers.

She had very little art training and was expelled from a series of schools throughout her youth.  She read about art from the books in her uncle’s library, traveled widely and visited museums throughout Europe.

In her teens, she suffered from rheumatic conjunctivitis and had to wear bandages on her eyes for months.  She later recalled that living in the dark had given her the opportunity to form and visualize elaborate images from her imagination.

Her earliest paintings were portraits, a genre she returned to throughout her life.

In 1931 Leonor left for Paris, where she connected with the Surrealists Man Ray, Max Ernst, Salvador Dali and Paul Eluard.  She quickly became known for her eccentricity not only for her art but also for her clothing and theatrical behavior.

Although she never became an official member of the group, she exhibited with them in London in 1936 and her work began to explore Surrealist themes like dreams, mythological and fantasy motifs and the unconscious.  

Her paintings also showed the influence of Italian Mannerism, German Romanticism and the Pre-Raphaelites, all of which she had come across in her museum trips as a girl.

Fini’s work was introduced in the United States in 1936.  

Like many other Surrealists, she worked in a variety of other media beyond painting and drawing. She designed furniture, fashion and costumes and in the late 1930’s, she collaborated with Italian fashion designer Schiaparelli.

Fini’s paintings were considered both erotic and somewhat frightening.  She explored the power dynamics between men and women and often used the sphinx to represent a powerful or autonomous woman and it became sort of an alter-ego for her.  

She repeatedly overturned Surrealist patriarchal conventions by painting women in positions of power and men as passive and sometimes androgynous figures.

The cat also served as a prominent trope in Fini’s work.  She knew cats well having reportedly cared for 17 of them at one point in her life.  They appeared in her earliest paintings as well as those she produced as late as the mid-1990’s.

In 1942 Leonor was included in an all-women exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of the Century Gallery in New York City with Frida Kahlo, Kay Sage, Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning.  

She returned to Paris in 1946 and spent the rest of her years in France at her country home in the Loire valley and the Island of Corsica. She continued to portray erotic and grotesque subject matter throughout the 1950’s and 60’s but as she aged those paintings became more colorful and decorative as in The Anatomy Lesson (1966) and her series of paintings depicting women facing one another in a train compartment. (1960’s)

Fini was internationally known for designing sets and costumes for the theatre, opera and ballet.  She also illustrated many books.

As for her personal life, she was known for her unique style of living which was based on the practice of not parting company with ex-lovers but continuing to live with them even as new lovers moved in and took their place in her life.