OBITUARY:Leonor Fini

In the 17th century Leonor Fini would have been burnt as a witch. Surrounded by cats, and with feline eyes herself, she exuded what her one-time lover Max Ernst described as "Italian fury, scandalous elegance, caprice and passion." In photographs you would take her for beautiful in the manner of Bianca Jagger but, according to the American art dealer Julian Levy, she was not a beauty as such, in that "Her parts did not fit well together: head of a lioness, mind of a man, bust of a woman, torso of a child, grace of an angel, discourse of the Devil . . ."

Levy confirms my belief that if she had been born in the age of the extra teat and the familiar, this lady was for burning. "Her allure," he says, "was an ability to dominate her misfitted parts so that they merged into whatever shape her fantasy wished to present from one moment to the next." You can almost hear the faggots crackle.

Leonor Fini was of mixed Spanish, Italian, Argentinian, and Slavic blood, a formidable genetic cocktail. She was born in Buenos Aires in 1908 but grew up in Trieste. Her formal education was, as might be imagined given her independent and imperious temperament, fragmentary, but she had the run of her uncle's large library in Milan and also travelled widely in Italy and Europe visiting all the museums and taking in such then unfashionable painters as the Mannerists, a school later reflected in her own work. In reproduction she was to add Beardsley, the German Romantics and the British Pre-Raphaelites - all evidence of a Surrealist eye.

Her facility was precocious. By the time she was 17 she was already painting commissioned portraits. It was however in 1936 when she moved to Paris and became friendly with Ernst, the Eluards, Brauner and others, that she began to paint Surrealist images and to draw close to the movement. Close but not of. Like her greater contemporary Frida Kahlo, Fini refused to bend her knee before Andre Breton, and declined to accept the iconic role of child-woman or to accept his belief in l'amour fou, the monogamist obsession with one person as opposed to bisexual narcissism. She did however exhibit with the group as a kind of fellow traveller.

For Whitney Chadwick, the feminist author of that remarkable and very carefully titled book Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement (1985), she is a hero, as indeed are any of the women Surrealists who failed to be seduced by Breton's good manners and formidable charisma. He in his turn was shocked - for he was in many ways extremely puritanical - by her sometime scandalous behaviour and her fondness for the company of homosexuals (Breton was for whatever reason a ferocious homophobe).

How good an artist was she? Not a great one, certainly, but a very interesting one. There are echoes of de Sade (at one point she illustrated his Justine) but it is de Sade for Vogue. Even in her most extreme imagery Fini remained totally in control. In 1949 for example she painted a picture called The End of the World, an apocalyptic enough subject, you might have thought. It shows a beautiful young woman up to her breasts in black swampy water on which float the skulls of various creatures under a red sunset. I have my suspicions that this may have its origins, given Fini's enthusiasm for the Pre-Raphaelites, in Holman Hunt's The Scapegoat, but, whereas Hunt's vision is tragic if slightly absurd, Fini's, as so often, is rather camp. The young woman's hair for example has obviously just been set by a fashionable Parisian crimper. The swamp and the dead animals, while suggesting putrefaction, in no way imply the stench of decay. On the contrary one suspects it is all more likely to smell of Schiaparelli's "Shocking", for which Fini designed the bottle in the shape of a naked female torso. She was also a very talented illustrator in the glossy magazines.

Leonor Fini was indeed obsessed with death, but somehow the spectator is not at all alarmed by her depictions of it. That astute critic the late Robert Melville described one of her corpses as "a bright green cadaver daintily spotted with magenta blood". Even death is turned "all to prettiness and favour".

Yet there's nothing wrong with camp, after all, "the lie that tells the truth", and especially in her Sapphic paintings Fini achieved high camp of the first order. While she claimed categorically not to be a lesbian but open to everything, the temperature rises only when two of her elegant and immaculate girls are involved. On the other hand her men (or, to be more accurate, youths) are balletic and androgynous, lounging about lethargically, toyboys in a precise sense. It is the tall and seriously beautiful women, more often than not self- portraits, who one feels will direct or have directed the action.

Her erotic masterpiece is without doubt The Train Journey. It's based on a beautiful calm but charged 19th-century picture by Augustus Egg of two almost identically dressed girls facing one another across a railway carriage. The blind is up, its tassel swinging to suggest the train is in motion. In Fini's version the blind, with its frieze of cupids, is down. One girl, in Melville's perfect description, "while enclosing her unisex lover between her legs, graciously assumes the air of a victim and has neatly freed one breast from her corselet to imply that it has been forcibly uncovered . . ." This interpretation could be a projection of his fantasy but, looking again at the picture, I suspect not. Anyway, it's a wonderful erotic image.

Leonor Fini has died at the age of 87 but it's impossible to imagine her old. She will always be, for those of us who admired her, the wild, raven-haired, ill-proportioned beauty who haunts her pictures. The lethal yet irresistible sphinx, the vampire we would most like to visit us.

George Melly

Leonor Fini, artist: born 30 August 1908; died 18 January 1996.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

HR Manager - HR Generalist / Sole in HR

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - HR Generalis...

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Banking - People Change - Lond...

HR Manager - Milton Keynes - £50,000 + package

£48000 - £50000 per annum + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Shared...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape