This is CR Muse, a series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.
“I always imagined that I would have a life very different than the one imagined for me,” artist Leonor Fini once said. “But I understood from a very early age that I would have to revolt in order to make that life.” It’s a bold statement, but then again, Fini was a bold woman. As a painter, costume designer, illustrator, and writer, her creative output knew no bounds. Neither did her ideas on power, gender, and sexuality, which continue to strike a provocative nerve today.
“Once you really get to know Fini’s oeuvre, it quickly becomes evident just how much of her influence flows through the veins and heart of 20th and 21st century art and culture,” Lissa Rivera, curator of Leonor Fini: Theatre of Desire, 1930-1990 at Manhattan’s Museum of Sex, tells CR. “Her work is a lesson in fierce individuality, self-creation, self-empowerment, and sexual freedom…she took control and created something much larger than herself, at a time when just being able to have a career as an artist was not a given for women.”
Over the course of her 60-year career, Fini became known for her depictions of female desire, empowering women, and challenging the traditional dynamics of gender roles. Works such as Nu/Portrait de Nico Papatakis (Nude/Portrait of Nico Papatakis) from 1942 offer a welcome breath of fresh air as a reversal on the countless female nudes by male artists. Her paintings caught the eye of figures like Christian Dior, who promoted her work in a gallery he was involved with, and Madonna, who recreated Fini’s 1949 painting La Bout du Monde (The End of the World) for her “Bedtime Story” music video.
Among the themes Fini touched upon most in her oeuvre was the way we construct identity — an interest imparted on her at an early age. Born in Buenos Aires in 1907, Fini’s childhood was rocked by an abusive father. Her mother, Malvina (described as an independent woman who likely had a deep effect on her daughter’s strength of character) fled with her to Trieste, Italy. But her father sent smugglers after them, in an attempt to abduct Fini, leading her to be dressed in disguise as a little boy. As she matured her dressing up evolved to more nuanced explorations of identity and personae, finding power in the act of creation.
Rebellious, and once even expelled from school, she pursued intellectual interests by reading a variety of literature, from the works of Carl Jung, to Jules Michelet’s history of medieval witchcraft La Sorcière, to homoerotica. This freedom and self-reliance continued through her art education. Rather than honing her skills at formal institutions, Fini was self-taught, even going to morgues to study anatomy. Her talent, dedication to her craft, and broad intellectual pursuits lead her to become a creative force embraced by the art establishment (though she refused to formally join any art circles).
This is not to say that she was a lone wolf. An adept collaborator, Fini posed for photographers throughout her life — Henri Cartier-Bresson, Cecil Beaton, and Lee Miller among them — offering her skills at identity manipulation for the lens. Being a surrealist (with a fabulous wardrobe to boot), she also caught the attention of Elsa Schiaparelli, for whom she designed a perfume bottle in 1937. But her largest ties to the world of fashion came from the costumes she created for the stage, and herself.
A fan of masks and dramatic wares, Fini created sets and costumes for the Paris Opera, allowing her to explore the same themes present in her paintings on the stage. She even created costumes for films, including Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, and John Houston’s A Walk With Love and Death. A staple at society balls and masquerades, Fini created a stir and garnered press, for the ensembles she would arrive in, impacting culture at the same time. “The owl costume she designed to wear for the Bal des Oiseaux (Ball of Birds) was a direct inspiration O’s costume in the final scene of Pauline Réage’s legendary erotic novel Histoire d’O (Story of O, 1954),” said Rivera. Funnily enough, Fini went on to illustrate the 1962 edition of the tome.
Though she passed away in 1996, Fini, a feminist and champion of gay rights, seems more relevant than ever. “We still haven’t caught up to Fini,” Rivera muses. “In both her art and her life, she created a world in which women could express their sexuality without objectification; a world in which the feminine held equal, if not more power, than the masculine.” Considering society is still working through many of the gender issues her work explores, one might say that Fini was almost immeasurably ahead of her time. Luckily, her work remains as a guiding, provoking intellectual volume, that continues to push the conversation forward.END
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