Today is the birthday (1907) Leonor Fini, Argentine surrealist painter, designer, illustrator, and author, known for her depictions of powerful women. In English she is sometimes called “The Forgotten Bohemian.” She is not forgotten in Argentina.
Fini was born in Buenos Aires, to an Italian mother and Argentine father (of Italian descent). Her parents divorced when she was very young and her mother moved back to Italy. She was raised in Trieste, her mother’s home city. Custody battles often involved Fini and her mother in sudden flights and disguises. She moved to Milan at the age of 17, and then to Paris, in either 1931 or 1932. There, she became acquainted with Carlo Carrà and Giorgio de Chirico, who inspired much of her work. She also came to know Paul Éluard, Max Ernst, Georges Bataille, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Pablo Picasso, André Pieyre de Mandiargues, and Salvador Dalí. She traveled Europe by car with Mandiargues and Cartier-Bresson where she was photographed nude in a swimming pool by Cartier-Bresson. The photograph of Fini sold in 2007 for $305,000 – the highest price paid at auction for one of his works to that date.
Fini had no formal artistic training. Her first major exhibition was in 1939 in New York at Julian Levy’s Gallery. She was considered part of a pre-war generation of Parisian artists, and outlived most of her artist peers. Surrealist artists in France became very interested in her once she began setting herself up as an artist, and came to know her as important in the movement. She is mentioned in most comprehensive works about surrealism, although some leave her out (she did not consider herself to be a surrealist). In 1949 Frederick Ashton choreographed a ballet conceptualized by Fini, “Le Rêve de Leonor” (“Leonor’s Dream”) with music by Benjamin Britten. In London, she exhibited at the Kaplan gallery in 1960 and at the Hanover Gallery in 1967. In the summer of 1986 there was a retrospective at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris that drew in more than 5,000 people a day. It featured over 260 works in a variety of media. As a tribute to the many artistic and creative avenues that her career took throughout her lifetime, there were 100+ watercolors and drawings, around 80 theater/costume designs, and about 70 paintings, 5 masks, etc. Many of her paintings featured women in positions of power; an example of this is the painting La Bout du Monde where a female figure is submerged in water up to her breasts with human and animal skulls surrounding her. Madonna used the imagery in her video, “Bedtime Story” in 2006. In the spring of 1987 she had an exhibition at London’s Editions Graphique’s gallery. Fini was also featured in an exhibition entitled “Women, Surrealism, and Self-representation” at the San Francisco Modern Museum of Art in 1999.
She painted portraits of Jean Genet, Anna Magnani, Jacques Audiberti, Alida Valli, Jean Schlumberger (jewelry designer) and Suzanne Flon as well as many other celebrities and wealthy visitors to Paris. While working for Elsa Schiaparelli she designed the flacon for the perfume, “Shocking”, which became the top selling perfume for the House of Schiaparelli.
She designed costumes and decorations for theater, ballet and opera, including the first ballet performed by Roland Petit’s Ballet de Paris, “Les Demoiselles de la nuit”, featuring a young Margot Fonteyn. This was a payment of gratitude for Fini’s having been instrumental in finding the funding for the new ballet company. She also designed the costumes for two films, Renato Castellani’s Romeo and Juliet (1954) and John Huston’s A Walk with Love and Death (1968), which starred 18-year-old Anjelica Huston and Moshe Dayan’s son, Assaf.
In the 1970s, she wrote three novels, Rogomelec, Moumour, Contes pour enfants velu and Oneiropompe. Her friends included Jean Cocteau, Giorgio de Chirico, and Alberto Moravia, Fabrizio Clerici and most of the other artists and writers living in or visiting Paris. She illustrated many works by the great authors and poets, including Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, and Shakespeare, as well as texts by new writers. She was very generous with her illustrations and donated many drawings to writers to help them get published. She is, perhaps, best known for her graphic illustrations for Histoire d’O.
Fini once said:
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 another who was rather a friend. And it has always worked.
She was, however, married once, for a brief period, to Fedrico Veneziani. They were divorced after she met the Italian Count, Stanislao Lepri, who abandoned his diplomatic career shortly after meeting Fini and lived with her thereafter. She met the Polish writer Konstanty Jeleński, known as Kot in Rome in January 1952. She was delighted to discover that he was the illegitimate half-brother of Sforzino Sforza, who had been one of her lovers. Kot joined Fini and Lepri in their Paris apartment in October 1952 and the three remained inseparable until their deaths. She later employed an assistant to join the household, which he described as “a little bit of prison and a lot of theatre.” One of his jobs was to look after her Persian cats. Over the years she acquired about 23 of them. They shared her bed and, at mealtimes, were allowed to roam the dining-table selecting what they wanted to eat.
Fini died in her apartment in Paris in 1996. By that time her star had fallen, largely because the French art world has always been deeply misogynistic. Dali described her work as “Better than most, perhaps. But talent is in the balls.” If you want a good tour of her art and life, go here: http://www.messynessychic.com/2015/06/09/the-forgotten-bohemian-queen-of-the-paris-art-world-leonor-fini/
I have spoken many times of the huge influence that Italian immigrants have had on Argentine culture and cuisine. It’s maybe a bit of a stretch to think of Fini as an Italian Argentine given that she spent almost all of her life in Europe. Many people think of me the same way. Like Fini, I was born in Buenos Aires, but have spent most of my life in other countries. The thing is that when I returned, many decades later, I knew I was HOME. So I’ll give a recipe for a very common Argentine dish of Italian descent – fainá – a skillet-baked flatbread made with chickpea flour. Fainá can be eaten as a side dish, with toppings, or on top of pizza. Argentinos have no trouble overdoing things.
1½ cups chickpea flour
2 cups warm water
5 tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper
Combine the chickpea flour and water in a bowl and stir well until thoroughly mixed. Set aside covered at room temperature for at least 2 hours. Foam will form on the top. Skim off the foam and whisk in 3 tablespoons of olive oil and salt to taste.
Preheat the oven to 500°F/260°C.
Heat a 10 inch cast-iron skillet over high heat until it is smoking hot. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and swirl it around over the heat to cover the surfaces of the skillet.
Pour in the chickpea batter in one go, and immediately place the skillet in the oven. Bake for about 30 minutes. It should be golden all over. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper. Serve in wedges.