Let’s Get Unconscious, Honey: Leonor Fini “Theatre of Desire, 1930-1990”

Installation view of Leonor Fini: Theatre of Desire, 1930-1990 at the Museum of Sex (Photo: Kris Graves)

Mystics are having a welcome moment of resurgence, from Hilma af Klint’s Painting for the Future at the Guggenheim, to Leonora Carrington’s Magical Tales at The Contemporary Art Museum of Monterrey, to Leonor Fini’s overdue first survey in New York at the Museum of Sex, Theatre of Desire, 1930-1990, curated by Lissa Rivera. This is an exhibition of fetish objects, elaborate textiles, and mythological paintings and drawings, in which Fini carved out her own vocabulary of sensuality that would, in spite of her resistance, inevitably be associated with artists who were her peers. David Zwirner’s fall exhibition Endless Enigma: Eight Centuries of Fantastic Art, is a case in point, placing Fini beside her old friend Max Ernst. The work, The Swimmers (1959), is a fitting distillation of her lugubrious atmospheres and personas in variable postures of ecstasy, mourning and yearning.

Fini was part of an important movement of fantastical image-making, in which, as Thyrza Nichols Goodeve writes in The Brooklyn Rail, we are “placed in a state of suspension—a perpetual hesitation—between belief and disbelief.” In her review of Endless Enigma, Goodeve laments the condition of our present moment, in which we experience astonishment more in the form of rage than whimsy. How is it that we might learn to experience enchantment in our scarcely taboo (yet no less baffling) times? A self-taught artist and recluse who relinquished labels, misogyny and conservatism, Fini had no shortage of societal grievances, and like her Surrealist comrades, she delved deeply into her vivid, pre-Internet imagination.

Leonor Fini, The Alcove/Self-Portrait with Nico Papatakis (L’Alcôve/Autoportrait avec Nico Papatakis), 1941, Oil on canvas (Courtesy of Weinstein Gallery, San Francisco)

As opposed to the corporate sterility and neutral lights of the Zwirner space, the Museum of Sex affords something more aligned with Fini’s bohemian tastes. The first floor of the exhibition has a peepshow vibe, a dimly lit anteroom opening out into a burgundy boudoir of sorts with geometric Twin Peaksian floors. The center of the room is commanded by Fini’s elaborate Anthropomorphic Wardrobe (1939), a closet flanked by swan-like goddesses, first shown in an exhibition of Surrealist furniture and design that Fini had organized at Galerie Drouin. Fini’s biographer Peter Webb points out Fini also designed a corset chair for this exhibition, which unfortunately does not make an appearance here.

Webb explains that Fini saw a distinction between painting her dreams and painting the mechanism of her dreams, the latter of which she believed she was consciously trying to work through rather than reproduce. Fini was versed in Freud, yet more drawn to Jung’s creative unconscious and his archetypal configurations such as anima and animus, within which the feminine and masculine unconscious coalesce in the psyche of both women and men. She implicated her lovers as muses, figures painted in conflated states between eros and death. Portraits such as The Alcove/Self-Portrait with Nico Papatakis (1941), portray Fini herself upright, watching over her resting lover, his body delivered to the viewer as passive, pliant and vulnerable.

Leonor Fini, Woman in Armor I (Femme en armure I), c. 1938, Oil on canvas (Courtesy of Weinstein Gallery, San Francisco)

Accustomed to gender fluidity from a young age, Fini’s mother disguised her as a boy to evade the threat of being abducted by her zealot father. Having experienced the deterioration of a patriarchal family structure, Fini preferred communal life and opted for lovers instead of husbands, and a brood of Persian cats in lieu of children. She grew up with a closeness to mortality, in which she would study cadavers in the morgues of Triste, and lived through the aftermath of two World Wars. She was not interested in comforting or pleasing the viewer, developing unsettling signifiers. Often portraying herself metamorphosed as a sphinx, scholar Alyce Mahon writes of this ongoing motif in her work as “a conscious re-writing of the femme fatale and as the promotion of a new matriarchal mythology in which woman controls her sexuality.”

It’s a shame that Little Hermit Sphinx (1948) could not be wrestled from the clutches of the Tate for this exhibition. There was a less compelling composition of herself as a sphinx on view from 1954, in which Fini’s stern expression insinuates her nature as both protector and predator. Fini did not shy from the grotesque either, for example, in The Angel of Anatomy (1949) in which she exposes herself as a skeletal body with white hair, confronting the viewer—a dark crone angel. Another case in point, Evening Chimera (1961), presents a blood-spattered apparition bursting forth, the face of a startled feline with a bulbous organ emerging beneath, which could be construed as an open womb. Continuing this theme of apparition, A Great Curiosity (1983) features walls adorned with ephemeral ghouls. Fini adopts the keyhole-as-portal trope, with herself as a voyeur peeping through to another room, a precariously positioned chair gazing back from the other side, appearing as both lonesome absence and ineffable presence. It’s equally no wonder that Fini bonded with Bataille through her depictions of eroticism as a childlike curiosity we continue into adulthood; the titillating threshold between knowing and unknowing.

Leonor Fini, Nonza, Corsica, 1967 (Photo by Eddy Brofferio; Courtesy of Leonor Fini Estate)

The “element of revolt,” as Fini described it, was crucial to any creative act, whether in painting or performing. Describing herself a “royal owl,” Fini arrived fashionably late at parties just for the sake of appearing, not to mingle. Her elaborate masks and costumes were extensions of her fierce sensuality, and an amalgam of occult forces. Her eclectic costumes of feathers, jewels and horns conjured not only the archetype of the sorceress, but that of knights, magicians and horned deities. Through her self-portraiture and her costumes alike, she claimed many selves through diverse guises. Fini took her ego to hyper levels in order to surpass the rampant arrogance of her male counterparts like Breton and Dalí, the latter with his dismissive quip about her work, “Better than most, perhaps. But talent is in the balls.” According to Fini, talent was in the slit—a hidden, cavernous underworld.

Leonor Fini, Woman Seated on a Naked Man (Femme assise sur un homme nu), 1942, Oil on canvas (Private collection)

Fini has no shortage of contemporary admirers who delight in her aesthetic excesses, from Jean Paul Gaultier’s famous silhouette perfume bottles of the 90s, to Dior’s spring / summer 2018 collection, to Madonna’s Bedtime Story music video, of which not only nodded to Fini, but Barbarella, Tarkovsky, and an impregnated Virgin Mary. While traces of Fini’s theatricality lingers on in popular culture, it also prevails in emerging artists today that continue to perturb the mechanics of looking. As I gravitated up the stairs of the Museum of Sex and stepped into a group exhibition NSFW: Female Gaze, co-curated by VICE Media’s Creators, Sophia Narrett’s ongoing series of edenic embroideries playfully kindle Fini’s orgiastic illustrations of Marquis de Sade’s 1797 novel Juliette, depicting scenarios of domination and submission. Also included in this group exhibition were Lissa Rivera’s (who also co-curated NSFW, along with Theatre of Desire) photographic portraits of her partner BJ Lillis, continuing the theme of the fluid muse. One image on Rivera’s Instagram page appropriates Fini’s Untitled / Woman Seated on a Naked Man (1942). Rivera behind the camera, Lillis sits alone in a familiar bright yellow skirt, seated in front of a cabinet of stacked china. A slender tulle lace collar around his neck, a light caressing a topless torso, reminiscent of Fini’s ceremonial scenes. Lillis holds a ceramic milk jug in his lap, perhaps in lieu of a black egg. While stylized and carefully composed, Rivera’s frame is tenderly attuned to this moment of sunlit solitude, one that subtly evokes Fini’s mystique of desire.

Somehow in the labyrinth of the museum exit situation, to my lethargic dismay, I did not come upon the life-sized inflatable breasts. No doubt Fini would have taken a defiant selfie in front of them, before swiftly making her departure through the gift shop.

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