Leonor Fini in 1934; unidentified photographer, contemporary print (© Estate of Leonor Fini, image courtesy Estate of Leonor Fini)

Late in life, the painter, designer, and denizen of the demimonde Leonor Fini (1907–1996) told an interviewer, “in any creativity there exists this element of revolt.”

The curatorial team behind Leonor Fini: Theater of Desire, 1930–1990 at The Museum of Sex take a no-holds-barred approach to her personal revolt through a smorgasbord of 35 paintings and 22 drawings, along with Fini-related film clips, photographs, magazine features, and other projects. They even included Fini-designed perfume bottles and an armoire, proving that being a revolutionary doesn’t mean you have to fly coach.

In a publicity photo taken when the artist was in her late twenties, she is dressed in a ball gown, as if she were a European countess, or a Hollywood siren. But, as always, Fini shatters cultural codes. She provocatively plants a high-heeled foot on a sofa, revealing her stockings and garter belt and turning a clichéd glamor shoot into sleight-of-hand erotic dominance.

But even that eroticism is destabilized, in that Fini is partially hiding her face behind the mask of Thalia, the ancient muse of comedy, while the painting on the wall behind her, a veiled self-portrait, depicts an anonymous, dark-haired goddess wandering in a gossamer robe, unanchored from history.

Fini’s origins set this lifelong masquerade in motion. Born in Argentina, she was taught from an early age to dissemble after her Italian-born mother escaped a domineering husband and resettled in Trieste. As the story goes, after Fini’s father moved to Europe with the intention of kidnapping his daughter, Fini’s mother resorted to disguising her as a boy for much of her youth.

Though Fini never trained as an artist, she soaked up Italian Renaissance and Mannerist art firsthand. Born to wealth and untroubled by the need to make a living, she married and divorced an Italian prince, living for a time in Milan, finding a lot of love as a bisexual, and generally cavorting and traveling with leading artists. Based mostly in Paris, her orbit included Henri-Cartier Bresson, Salvador Dali, and Andre Breton.

Leonor Fini, Max Ernst, and Enico Colombotto Rosso in Nonza Corsica, 1965; unidentified photographer (© Estate of Leonor Fini, image courtesy Estate of Leonor Fini)

Coming into her own as an artist in the 1930s, she flouted the new orthodoxies of Paris’s competing avant-gardes. She also rejected the anti-bourgeois political posturing of the Surrealists. Her first exhibition in Paris was in a gallery run by Christine Dior. In the US, she showed at New York’s Julien Levy Gallery while landing a prime spot in the 1936 exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism at The Museum of Modern Art, which upended the staid New York art scene.

But Fini’s most sustained revolt was against the story that the male canon tells about itself. She teased, taunted, rejiggered, and redefined its carefully guarded traditions on her terms, modeling her painting on the phantasmal spectacles of Hieronymus Bosch and her close friend Giorgio de Chirico, while infusing it with the kind of softly lit details found in the interiors of Dutch Renaissance masters — accentuating flesh and ornamentation, and advancing the insurrectionist premise that painting serves visual pleasure and selfish desires above all else.

Fini’s art, like that of such radically different but equally rebellious peers as Claude Cahun and Dorothea Tanning, disarmed male authority and dissolved gender norms — as the curators attempt to explain in wall plates too often bogged down in today’s “woke” era platitudes. Her sinuous, delicate men often appear nude, in languorous repose or sound asleep, attended by sumptuously dressed, leonine females.

In some paintings, like “In the Tower” (1952), the feminine figure is a modern-day sorceress while in others, like “Portrait of a Woman Seated on a Naked Man” (1942) she is a voyeuristic guardian in what looks like the afterglow of sex romp, as distinctions between reality and fantasy dissolve in the heat of Fini’s hedonistic canvases.

Leonor Fini, “Femme assise un homme nu (Woman Seated on a Naked Man)” (1942), oil on canvas, 13 x 18 1/8 inches, private collection (image courtesy Estate of Leonor Fini)

Apparently the artist’s love for men was as absorbing in her personal life as it is in her art. Having toggled among various lovers throughout the 1930s and ’40s, around 1952 she set up a ménage à trois with the Polish-born journalist Constanty “Koty” Jeleński and the Italian diplomat Stanislao Lèpri, a domestic arrangement that would last the rest of her life. These non-husband husbands are frequent subjects and muses.

Of course, Jeleński and Lèpri weren’t the only artistic men closely circling her flame. Fini collaborated with the French writer Jean Genet, with whom she shared an abiding attraction to Nikos Papatakis, a half-Greek, half-Ethiopian actor she met in Monte-Carlo.

Papatakis’ extensive work posing for Fini is represented in this exhibition by the its standout double portrait, “The Alcove/Self-Portrait with Nico Papatakis” (1941) in which a satyr-like female bearing an unmistakable resemblance to Fini with laurels in her hair, gazes at a sleeping semi-nude Papatakis, gleaming like polished marble on the white bedding. With its bronzed and golden rendering of flesh, along with its luxuriant purples and greens, the painting is a ruminative, decadent miracle. Quiet and complicated, the twinned androgyny only deepens the picture’s curiously placid, operatic feel.

Fini’s kinship with Genet led to two oil portraits of the writer, one of which is featured here, transforming the ex-con outlaw into a beatific Catholic saint. The exhibition features original graphics for Fini’s limited edition of Genet’s poem La Galère (The Gallery) (1947), a book deemed obscene by French authorities thanks to Fini’s depictions of gay sex. And it is her uninhibited, meticulous work as an illustrator, on display in numerous vitrines, that marks a radical high note of the retrospective.

Leonor Fini, “Femme en armure II (Woman in Armor II)” (c. 1938), oil on canvas, 13 /4 x 10 1/2 inches (image courtesy Weinstein Gallery, San Francisco)

These smaller works on paper — executed in pen, graphite and watercolor — deserve far more art historical attention than they have received so far, especially Fini’s illustrations for a 1945 edition of Marquis de Sade’s Juliette (1797), a novel that champions sex and role-playing as ends in themselves. Most noteworthy are Fini’s extensive erotic drawings for her own portfolio, Les Merveilles de nature (Natural Wonders) (1973), which restore to the Orpheus legend its original sexual explosiveness, qualities long tamped down over the course of the West’s myopic and prudish post-Enlightenment periods.

That Fini kept the subversive fires burning for as long as she did turns out to be the most surprising revelation here. True to her belief in creativity as revolt, she upended the styles that had made her own midcentury reputation.

In the early 1960s, she temporarily turned against figurative painting and erotica. Instead, she created viscous semi-abstract and florid paintings that are arguably her masterpieces. Fini’s “Forest” (1960) and “Evening Chimera” (1961) push back on the stylistic tide of their era, harkening back to visionary pathways cleared by Symbolist painters like Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon, in which colors melt and merge into one another, subsuming the picture’s forms into a trance-inducing visual banquet.

You might think such accomplished semi-abstract paintings would mark the logical endpoint for Fini’s painting career. But as she entered her sixties the painter kept close pace with youth culture, coopting the free love iconography that percolated worldwide during the late 1960s and 1970s, and translating it into paintings that make late 19th-century Art Nouveau new again.

Leonor Fini, “Les Aveugles (The Blind Ones)” (1968), oil on canvas, 28 1/8 x 45 1/4 inches (© Estate of Leonor Fini, image courtesy Weinstein Gallery, San Francisco)

This late work also marks her return to erotic figuration. While the paintings that had established her name decades earlier exploited chiaroscuro and other Renaissance techniques, the hyper-stylized late canvases are human aquariums exploring de-centered composition and flattened perspective. Their fever dreams feature lithe, pale female nudes with disproportionately tapered limbs, bulbous chests, and rounded bottoms who gesticulate, bathe, float, frolic and embrace in spaces illuminated by rosy whites, pale yellows, light greens, and bright orange.

Fittingly, Fini’s sexually charged, lifelong revolution, cycling through selfhoods and styles, leaves the senses exhausted and spent. Passing through the museum’s other offerings, like a top floor showcase of early 20th-century porn films, or its downstairs bar wallpapered with photomontages from New York City’s orgiastic nightclubs of the 1970s and ’80s, it’s impossible not to wonder what Fini, the ultimate unconventional European grande dame, would make of her retrospective inside a venue called The Museum of Sex, an institution whose very name suggests that America has quarantined human desire inside an archival building, placing sex permanently in the past tense.

Leonor Fini in Nonza, Corsica (1967) (photo by Eddy Brofferio, © Estate of Leonor Fini, image courtesy Weinstein Gallery, San Francisco)

Leonor Fini: Theater of Desire, 1930–1990, curated by Lissa Rivera, continues at The Museum of Sex (233 Fifth Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through March 4.

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Tim Keane

Tim Keane's writing on poetry and visual art has appeared in Modern Painters, The London Magazine, Utne Reader, The Brooklyn Rail, Vision China, and in Joe...