“I always imagined that I would have a life very different than the one imagined for me, but I understood from a very early age that I would have to revolt in order to make that life.” – Leonor Fini
The Museum of Sex (MoSEX) presents Leonor Fini: Theatre of Desire, 1930-1990, the first American museum survey of the work of Argentine-Italian artist Leonor Fini (b. 1907, Buenos Aires, Argentina–d. 1996, Paris, France). The exhibition will immerse visitors in Leonor Fini’s life and career from the 1930s to the 1980s. Although Fini exhibited in major Surrealist surveys throughout the 1930s and 40s, and counted Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí as friends, she rejected the invitation to officially join the group, disavowing movement leader André Breton’s traditional view of woman as muse. Multi-talented and fearlessly forward thinking, she refused to be categorized in any way, especially through gender norms. Her art explored the masculine and feminine, dominance and submission, eroticism and humor. She also went beyond the medium of painting to embrace theatre, ballet, the illustrated book and costume. She not only rejected tradition and social conventions, she insisted that identity, like artistic expression, is never fixed – it must constantly be open to inspiration and imagination.
Largely self-taught, as a teenager growing up in Trieste she liked to visit the morgue and always took inspiration from a wide range of art and literature. In the 1930s she won the attention of critics thanks to her first exhibitions at the Julien Levy Gallery and her inclusion in the major Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism exhibition in 1936 at MoMA in New York. She also quickly acquired a reputation for uncensored eroticism within a figurative style that might be compared to earlier art styles – the Symbolists, Pre-Raphaelites and Flemish Masters from Bosch to Bruegel, but which also advanced the artistic aspirations of Surrealism. From then through to her last works, she inverted canonical traditions of the muse by staging men as androgynous, passive beauties and herself as a Sphinx-like force, embodying the power of both life and death.
Her illustrations for the Marquis de Sade’s Juliette (secretly printed on presses at the Vatican in 1944) further revealed her unorthodox sense of the erotic – one which led to collaborations with such writers as Georges Bataille, Jean Cocteau and Jean Genet. Throughout her life, and especially in her homes in Paris, the Loire Valley, and a ruined medieval monastery in Corsica, Fini presided over a ménage of cats and lovers, including two primary partners (Stanislao Lepri and Konstanty ‘Kot’ Jeleński) as well as numerous platonic friends and admirers whose presence allowed her to live in what she termed a “community.”
Fini’s turn to the theme of the masquerade in her art and collaborations perhaps best reflects her understanding of freedom. The powerful self-portraits she produced throughout her long career present woman as warrior, sphinx, dominatrix and feline goddess, mastering landscapes and lovers alike. The costumes she produced for George Balanchine and Federico Fellini, as well as the fantastic feathered masks and elaborate costumes she made to wear at grand society balls, continued this theme of self-fashioning and won her the attention of the press as well as such photographers as Carl Van Vechten, André Ostier and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Spanning two floors, and featuring works from the 1930s through the 1980s, Leonor Fini: Theatre of Desire, 1930-1990 will include paintings, book illustrations, drawings and costume designs, as well as objects she designed, such as her iconic ‘Shocking’ perfume bottle for Elsa Schiaparelli (a design referenced by Jean Paul Gautier’s Classique and now Kim Kardashian’s KKW). A showcase of Fini’s extensive artist books will include her 1944 illustrated edition of the Marquis de Sade’s Juliette and her 1962 illustrations for Pauline Réage’s The Story of O. A large selection of photographs and ephemera from the Leonor Fini Archive in Paris will also be on display, documenting her sense of life as theatre. Fini’s many admirers have included Andy Warhol, Madonna, and more recently Maria Grazia Chiuri, head of the house of Dior, whose Spring 2018 collection was dedicated to her. With Leonor Fini: Theatre of Desire, 1930-1990, she is certain to gain many more.