PARIS — Though once fêted as a glamorous Parisian queen of the libertine, bohemian art world, Leonor Fini (1907–96) has been sliding ever since toward obscurity. But if you like cats, Carolee Schneemann, and/or Carol Rama, Fini’s erotic and theatrical avant-gardism may be just for you.
This feminist icon is often remembered for being passed over by the infamous Surrealist phallocracy, principally due to André Breton’s misogyny. Breton viewed Fini (as he did Jacqueline Lamba, his wife and inspiration for his L’Amour fou) as a femme enfant whose lucid madness — that which provides naïve access to the unconscious — made her the ideal conduit for the male artist. But in the wall of photographs included in Cherchez la Femme: Portraits réels et imaginaires at Galerie Minsky, Fini looks confident, daring even, and sure enough of herself to resist such a subservient position. But as we know, photographs can be deceiving.
Although her eccentric manner of presenting herself has often overshadowed her quixotic paintings and drawings, the Argentinian-born artist’s fearless, vivacious, and flamboyant creative fire is currently the subject of enthusiastic reevaluation in some circles. Frequently labeled a Surrealist, even though she was never an official member of the movement, Fini was known for fantasy Gothic paintings that explore female sexuality and power, such as “Sphinx Amoureux” (1942), which shows a male nude lying limp in the arms of a Fini-headed sphinx. She frequently portrayed men as passive and, sometimes, androgynous figures, as in her “Hermès” (1932), an oil painting of the god of transitions and boundaries.
In many of Fini’s most compelling works, the female figure takes the form of a sphinx, often with the face of the artist. Other recurring themes of her work include anthropomorphism, wild-haired womanliness, uncertain space, and the horse as a symbol of free sexuality. Yet even as she was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s pivotal Fantastic Art Dada Surrealism exhibition, her painting style remained problematic to pigeonhole.
Fini first moved to Paris in 1932 and quickly fell in with (or became muse to) Paul Éluard, Dora Maar, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst (one of her many lovers), Stanislao Lepri, and Constantin “Kot” Jelenski (two of her longtime lovers, with whom she lived simultaneously, along with more than a dozen cats). Both Jean Cocteau and Georges Bataille championed her work at different points during her six-decade career. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photograph “Trieste” (1933), of Fini floating nude with pubis shaved in a swimming pool, once held the world record for his work at auction.
Fini first became know (and photographed) due to her erotic and somewhat frightening eccentricity, which she exhibited with her costume-like clothing and theatrical behavior. Her wild lifestyle, open bisexuality, and infamous ménage à trois relationships shocked even the Parisian café society. Known far and wide for this flamboyant bohemian lifestyle, in 1939 she curated an exhibition of surrealist furniture for her childhood friend (and fledgling gallerist) Leo Castelli.
Fini is also known as an illustrator of books, like Histoire d’O, and had a successful career as a theater designer, creating award-winning set designs and costumes (many of which are present in the Galerie Minsky show as drawings). She contributed set and costume work to many productions, including George Balanchine’s ballet Le Palais de cristal, Jean Anouilh’s ballet Les Demoiselles de la nuit, Jean Genet’s play The Maids, and Federico Fellini’s film 8 1/2. In product design she is known for creating Elsa Schiaparelli’s torso-shaped Shocking perfume bottle. She also wrote three novels: Rogomelec, Moumour, and Contes pour enfants velu et Oneiropompe.
Galerie Minsky’s modest, charming, almost austere exhibition focuses on Fini as a proficient portraitist. Many of the paintings and drawings seem incontrovertibly derivative and conventional, though clearly enlivened by Surrealism. Her portraits are frequently enchanting, such as “Passager XVI” (1989), but their lack of inventive style keeps them from reaching more spectacular heights. She does have one or two terrific drawings in the show that border on the erotic psychic — one of them, “Cerf et Femme Erotique” (“Deer and Erotic Woman,” 1967), portrays a vivid and ecstatic scene of gravity-defying beastiality.
The best painting in the show is one she made for the Mexican actress María Félix, “Les Sorcières” (“The Witches,” 1959). It melodramatically contains a cataclysmic pictorial voodoo of swirling feminine sexuality. Her technique is less wispy here, as she depicts some form of broomstick dowsing rod combo on which five women ride. This witching rod painting visually twitches with something of a not so terra firma and is the most enigmatic piece in the show. It seems to contain many florid possibilities of interpretation and thus seems magical — as magic does not conform to our modern canons of causality. Indecision, ambiguity, and conflict become dynamic and useful values here in suggesting secret pleasures.
As is the norm in theater, the focus of another standout piece, “Portrait de Jacques Dufnilo” (1958), is on an actor’s face. That theatrical focus is needed to advance careers, but my feeling is that this conventional theater mindset was not very enriching for Fini’s art, and possibly only tightened a tourniquet of self-mythologizing around her less derivative work. Perhaps art history has not been unjust to this seductive and self-contradictory artist, for it was as a person happy to be an outsider with panache that she flourished best.
Leonor Fini’s Cherchez la Femme: Portraits réels et imaginaires continues at Galerie Minsky (37 rue Vaneau, 7th arrondissement, Paris) through January 30.
Correction: This article originally cited “Self-Portrait (Inn of the Dawn Horse)” “1936–37) as an early work by Leonor Fini when it is in fact a painting by Leonora Carrington. We apologize for the error.