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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.