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Leonor Fini - Biography and Legacy

Italian Surrealist Painter, Designer, Illustrator, and Author

Born: August 30, 1907 - Buenos Aires, Argentina
Died: January 18, 1996 - Paris, France
Movements and Styles:
Magic Realism

Biography of Leonor Fini


Leonor Fini, originally called Eleonora, was born in Buenos Aires in 1907. Her Italian mother Malvina, married Herminio Fini, a wealthy businessman also of Italian background, and together they moved to Argentina. The two separated when Fini was just a baby and Malvina quickly moved back home to Trieste in Italy with her daughter. Raised entirely by her independent mother, Fini experienced a free and bohemian lifestyle from an early age. The separation between the artist's parents was not simple; Herminio fought for the custody of Fini and once tried to kidnap her. As result, Fini spent some of her childhood years disguised as a boy, likely initiating a lifelong fascination for dressing up.

Education and Early training

During her youth, Fini had a profoundly rebellious spirit, and was expelled from multiple schools for a lack of ability to adhere to the 'rules'. From a very young age she developed a fascination with drawing as a means to understand the world around her. She loved making visits to the local morgue, where she sketched the cadavers in her own alternative, self-directed anatomy sessions. Aside from these efforts, Fini did not have any formal artistic training and was completely self-taught. She learnt about art by drawing, reading books that she found in her uncle's library, and from countless visits to museums during her travels throughout Europe. She was particularly captivated by the Old Masters.

During her teenage years, Fini suffered from rheumatic conjunctivitis, which forced her to have her eyes bandaged and to live in total darkness for two months. She later recalls that this experience really helped to develop her imagination and to conceive complex visual imagery in her mind. The need to bandage her eyes may also have also inspired a later love of being masked. By the age of seventeen, Fini was already exhibiting her portraits in Trieste, and frequenting the artistic and literary circles of the town, where she was generally considered highly intelligent (she had read Freud before she turned sixteen) and sensitive.

In 1931, she moved briefly to Milan and then to Paris where she became acquainted with Carlos Carrà and Giorgio de Chirico; both became profound influences on the aspiring young artist. By this point, Fini was an ambitious 24 year old, with, as art critic Sarah Kent writes, "a gift for friendship - people loved her warmth, intelligence, and beauty". It was at this time that she met Max Ernst, who became her lover and introduced her to the Surrealists, including Man Ray, Salvador Dalí, and Henri Cartier-Bresson along with many other painters and writers of the group.

Fini quickly became an integral part of the Parisian art scene and social circles. She became known for her eccentricity, flamboyant personality, and particularly theatrical ways of dressing. Art critic Sarah Kent says, "She would dye her hair blue, orange, red or gold and attend private views and parties dressed as a man, or wearing nothing but white boots and a cape of white feathers". During this time, she was also exhibiting her work in Parisian art galleries - one of her first exhibitions was at Christian Dior's gallery that was run by Dior before he became an acclaimed fashion designer.

Mature Period

Upon invitation by Julien Levy, the renowned American art dealer, Fini participated in a collective exhibition in New York in 1936, along with fellow surrealist European and American painters including Max Ernst, Joseph Cornell, and Pavel Tchelitchew. Although her works were constantly featured alongside those of the Surrealists, she never became a formal member of the group, always preferring to remain an independent artist. In 1936, Fini moved from Italy to France and soon after met Carrington who had moved to Paris in 1937 (having become the girlfriend of Ernst some years after Fini had been his lover). The two women were like-minded in many ways and spent an intense summer in the French countryside together in the months before the announcement of World War II.

Throughout this time, Fini also worked as an accomplished portraitist (painting portraits of many celebrities and visitors to Paris, and especially of her friends including writer Jean Genet, actress Maria Casarès, ballerina Margot Fonteyn, and the socialite Hélène Rochas) as well as an illustrator, illustrating Edgar Allan Poe and Shakespeare, and often donating her drawings to new emerging writers. Besides being generous, she was talented, glamorous, and often perceived as being profoundly controversial. Art critic Catherine Styles McLeod describes her as "magnificent, perturbing, mocking enigmatic, terrible, and compassionate". Art critic Joseph Nechvatal further enhances her colorful existence in that he writes, "her wild lifestyle, open bisexuality, and infamous ménage à trois relationships shocked even the Parisian café society".

Fini spent the war years in Monte Carlo and Rome, continuing both her portraits and her 'surreal' works with signature erotic, Gothic, and Mannerist qualities. It was in Rome that she met the Italian Count Stanislao Lepri, who swiftly abandoned a prodigious diplomatic career for a creative and experimental life by Fini's side. The couple returned to Paris in 1946, where they lived together with lots of Persian cats. It is said that at one point, Fini owned 23 cats, that all shared her bed and ate at the dinner table, whether there were guests or not.

Late Period

Between 1946 and 1953, Fini had a very active social life and remained an influential and central figure of the high society, attending countless masked balls, always making the magazine headlines afterwards for her exuberant outfits. In 1952, she met the Polish writer, Konstanty Jelenski, known as Kot, who moved in with her and Lepri in Paris; the three remained inseparable until their deaths.

At age of 45, Fini was painting prolifically and had also immersed herself in other creative endeavors. Her passion for extravagant masks and drama led her to doing some stage, costume, and poster design for various theatres and opera houses, including the Paris Opera and the Metropolitan Opera Association. Fini also designed the costumes for Frederico Fellini's movie 8 ½ in 1963, and in 1972 she designed Brigitte Bardot's costume for the Rothschilds' Ball.

During the 1960's, Fini was often photographed by her friend Eddy Brofferio, sometimes at the monastery of Nonza on the island of La Corse where she spent recurrent holidays. Typically in full-feathered headdresses and elaborate costumes, these dramatic pictures reveal Fini's continuing exuberant and performative lifestyle. In the company of Kot and Lepri, the artist continued living in her Parisian apartment, painting surrounded by her cats. Still active and painting well into her 80s, she died in 1996 at the age of 89.

The Legacy of Leonor Fini

Leonor Fini was befriended by the whole Parisian artistic community and was one of the most photographed people of the 20th century, resulting in the legacy of "queen of the Paris art world" (expression coined by art critic Sarah Kent). Her popularity in artistic social circles made her the subject of many poems, artworks, and photographs by various artists and writers of her time, including Man Ray, Lee Miller, Cecil Beaton, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Besides this social popularity, due to her recurrent depiction of empowered woman, Fini is generally considered a great contributor to the feminist movement, being perceived as a female icon and described as a 'libertine'. Based on her work alone, Fini has been described as a European Frida Kahlo, and as a "female Salvador Dalí".

Sadly, her eccentric lifestyle, open sexuality, and bohemian Parisian society life has diverted attention away from her artwork. As such, the Art Dealers Association of America considers her "the most undervalued artist of the 20th Century". A view seconded by art critic Joseph Nechvatal who claims that since her Parisian popularity that she has been "sliding ever since toward obscurity".

She was a painter, performer, designer, feminist, and mystic, who refused to be labeled or categorized (even as Surrealist). She questioned pre-established beliefs and pushed limits, even those of the open minded. She exhibited a freedom of approach, which resulted in powerful self-expression and collective female empowerment. As such her influence is felt powerfully among young and emerging female artists, shown particularly by the Dreamers Awake (2017) exhibition in London that showcased the work of artists influenced by the 'female Surrealists'. Art historian Mathew Gale writes: "Leonor Fini is remembered for the exoticism of her imagery and her challenges to conventions".

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Content compiled and written by Sarah Frances Dias

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Dr Rebecca Baillie

"Leonor Fini Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Sarah Frances Dias
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Dr Rebecca Baillie
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First published on 26 Dec 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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