Important Art by Leonor Fini
In this relatively early self-portrait, Fini confronts the viewer with a direct stare and reveals a hidden scorpion beneath a single glove (a commonly recurring motif within the Surrealist oeuvre). Although on first glance the woman appears feminine and attractive, a closer look uncovers the predatory and venomous creature as well as tears in an apparently traditional blouse and skirt. Fini was known to intentionally rip outfits with the suggestion of clothes torn in passion, especially when a trace of red is revealed beneath the folds of fabric. Perhaps this is a vaginal metaphor, an invitation to pleasure with a simultaneous warning. The blouse could also make reference to the structure of the scorpion's armored abdomen and as such introduces the theme of metamorphosis from human to animal to which Fini will often return.
As a self-taught artist, Fini's works reflect influence from multiple sources. She was inspired by the Romantics, by the Pre-Raphaelites, by the Flemish masters including Hieronymus Bosch, by elongation techniques of the Italian Mannerists, by Symbolist painters, and by the Surrealist environment she found herself an integral part of. She also found inspiration in her dreams. The scorpion here could be interpreted as a symbol of feminine power, in a similar way that the spider is used by Louise Bourgeois decades later. The art historian, Mathew Gale claims that "Fini located herself within a specifically female hermetic tradition of an originary and powerful Great Goddess", emphasizing the qualities of the powerful female in which her work is rooted."
Sexually charged and encouraging the viewer to look beyond the surface to the layers beneath, the painting bears parallel to many other Surrealist works. With traces of a bodily interior exposed from above one is reminded of Fur Teacup by Meret Oppenheim (1936), and equally of Oppenheim's work in general, often re-imagining the glove and imbuing her objects with a creaturely life. Dorothea Tanning also used the folds of fabric to hint towards sexual experience, and this idea has since been taken further in the psychologically challenging fabric sculptures of Louise Bourgeois.
The work, also known as La Chambre Noir, or The Dark Chamber, features a low-lit interior with three women, one foregrounded and two sitting behind on the bed. The woman in battle dress at the front is a direct portrait of Leonora Carrington, made whilst the two artists spent the summer together in 1939. The work shows the intense admiration that Fini felt for her friend, as Carrington is depicted as a 'woman warrior', a tower of strength like a modern day Joan of Arc. Carrington even holds Fini's signature striped black and white fabric that she wore often, thus revealing the immense degree to which she identified with her fellow artist. The two figures on the bed may both be reminiscent of Fini herself looking over at Carrington in wonder. The overall composition, drapery, and pulled curtains all hark back to much earlier paintings and to settings of the Old Masters. The work captures a moment experienced by Fini of productive female companionship. This however, was not typical for the artist, and unfortunately after the war she did not spend much time with Carrington (a much altering time for all and one that saw Carrington's permanent emigration to Mexico), preferring in general the company of men.
Here though, during the last months of calm before the onset of wartime chaos, the power of three women is considered. Whether the three fates, the three graces, or three sorceresses, all of these trios embark on important ritual tasks that have the potential to decide on matters of life and death. Carrington and Varo (who Fini did not know but shared artistic affinity with) were particularly interested in magic, ritual, and the occult, and there is certainly a sense that some kind of ancestral powers are here being summoned. Deeply inspired by Carl Jung and his mythological connections and use of symbolic universal archetypes, many of Carrington and Varo's own portraits present women on quests, or journeys, traveling to realms where they may find hidden and enlightening treasure. Fini seems to suggest here, in her rendering of the eternal shared language of the feminine, by giving her friend an armored breastplate that any great secrets of life, if they are to be found must be fought for.
The painting depicts a powerful tribal like woman, with her commanding staff, looking over a group of smaller sphinxes. They all abide a dramatic, arid, and deserted landscape. There is a somber feeling of destruction that is further emphasized by the broken egg-shells, bones, and other remains that are scattered on the ground. This kind of vast, desolate and unearthly landscape is one explored by other female Surrealists, including Kay Sage, Toyen, and also to a degree, by Remedios Varo.
The image of the sphinx (a mythological hybrid that is half lion half female sometimes with bird wings) is a recurring motif for Fini, which appeared in many of her paintings during the 1940s. So inspired by the fictional creature, in 1951 she traveled to Egypt to see some original examples carved in colossal stones. Sphinxes had already been revived since ancient times, depicted in the 19th-century symbolist works of the Belgian painter, Fernand Knopff. The sphinx has long since been associated with death and destruction, but also with notions of transformation. For the renowned art historian Whitney Chadwick, with the suggestion that everyone has the power to be active in the formation of their own identity and to re-invent themselves, "by assuming the form of the sphinx Fini exercises all the powers that have been lost to contemporary woman".
Upon noticing that the protective armor worn by the guardian 'shepherdess' could be a chastity belt, other interpretations presented with regards to this image are associated with sensuality and sexuality. Looking at the painting along these lines, art historian Rachel Grew adds that: "While this might imply virginity, the way in which she straddles her shepherd's crook is highly suggestive, creating a connection not only to the witch's broom... but also to sexual autonomy". Desire and bodily vigour is portrayed to be an at once destructive and protective force with the roles and intentions of the women depicted remaining elusive and ambiguous.