The Sphinx's Riddle: The Art of Leonor Fini

Page 1

The Sphinx’s Riddle

The Art of Leonor Fini

The Sphinx’s Riddle

The Art of Leonor Fini

with an essay by Richard Overstreet

weinstein gallery

This catalogue is published on the occasion of the exhibition The Sphinx’s Riddle: The Art of Leonor Fini Weinstein Gallery, San Francisco June 30–August 11, 2012

weinstein gallery 383 Geary Street San Francisco, California 94102 Leonor Fini quotations cited from Interview with the Muse: Remarkable Women Speak on Creativity and Power by Nina Winter, 1978. Photographs courtesy Leonor Fini Archives, Paris. Photos: p. 3: Adrien de Menasce; p. 5, 10: André Ostier; p. 6: Serge Lido; p. 56 (bottom): Tana Kaleya; p. 62: Dora Maar; inside back cover: Eddy Brofferio Front cover: La victime est reine (The Victim Is Queen) 1963 Oil on canvas 391/8 x 251/2 inches Inside front cover: La sphinx squatte 1972 Mixed media on paper on canvas 291/4 x 22 inches Back cover: Voyageurs au repos (Travelers at Rest) 1978 Oil on canvas 261/2 x 331/2 inches Inside back cover: Leonor Fini, Nonza, Corsica, c. 1965 Opposite page: Leonor Fini, Egypt, 1951

“The history of the sphinx, as I see it, should begin with Oedipus and even earlier, but should necessarily come to a logical culmination and end with Leonor Fini.” —Mario Praz, “Leonor Fini and the Sphinx,” 1945




t has been just over a decade since Weinstein Gallery began its relation­ ship with Leonor Fini and her art. The gallery held its first Fini exhibition in 2001, and since that time has come to house one of the most significant holdings of Leonor Fini paintings in the world. Although I never knew Fini personally, I am daily more and more grateful for this ongoing affiliation with her work, which grows richer and more mysterious with each encounter. I can only imagine that being in her presence would have had a similar effect. In honor of the deepening mystery that her paintings engender, we have titled this retrospective exhibition The Sphinx’s Riddle. Weinstein Gallery is grateful to Richard Overstreet of the Leonor Fini Archives for his insightful essay, which follows. We are also very pleased to witness in recent years Jeux des jambes dans la clef du rêve the growing appreciation by a larger public (Game of Legs in the Key of Dream) 1936 Oil on canvas 32 x 221/4 inches of Fini’s art and the endlessly engaging visual riddles that she incorporated into it. Her work is finally receiving the critical attention of museums, scholars, and collectors that it deserves. The artist was the subject of an important museum retrospective in her native Trieste in 2010, and in the past few years her work has been included in major exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Guggenheim Bilbao; the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt; Muzeum Literatury, Warsaw; Musée Christian Dior, Granville; and the Vancouver Art Gallery. A major monograph was recently published by Vendome Press, the first English-language book of its kind. This past fall, a record auction price was set for a painting by Leonor Fini. This is just the beginning of a story set in motion by this incredible artist many years ago.

Rowland Weinstein Weinstein Gallery San Francisco


Leonor Fini, c. 1948

The Sphinx’s Riddle by Richard Overstreet


hrough the brute force of unique resolve, Leonor Fini willed herself into the embodiment, maybe even the incarnation, of the sphinx. From a biographical perspective all the pieces were perfectly lined up and in place from the very beginning for her to transmute into this sacred beast. As a young child in Trieste at the beginning of the last century, one of her favorite pastimes was to gallop on the back of a great marble sphinx in the public park of the Miramar Castle built by the Hapsburg emperor, Maximilian. 5

This sphinx became her beloved mascot, her confidant and model. She often referred to it as one of her first great friends. Years later, living in Paris in the late thirties, she began painting self-portraits with sphinxes and subsequently produced numerous paintings in which she herself was a benevolent and many-splendored sphinx. Much has been written about Leonor’s passion for this monster with a lion’s body, the wings of an eagle, and the head of a woman. A great deal of the speculation on her choice of iconography centers on the subject’s potent psycho-sexual implications and how Leonor dealt with them. Critics and historians have had a free-for-all tossing around all the obvious references such as female dominance, love of cats big and small, the power of claws, a fascination with tails, truth or dare riddles, a yearning for magical kingdoms, and the call of the wild. I’d like to cast an additional modest insight by relating an incident I witnessed one morning in Paris at the beginning of my friendship with Leonor. It was the end of the sixties and I had accompanied her to a fitting at the glamorous Paris fashion salon of her friend Simonetta, the famous Italian couturière, whom she had known from the war years in Rome and who, for some time, had designed for her such iconic and much-copied pieces as dazzling ponchos, long black capes, feather accessories, and high-heeled black satin boots that stretched all the way up her legs, morphed into tights and still further up into a flamboyant belt. Another client of Simonetta’s was in the shop just finishing a fitting so we had to wait. Leonor was vaguely gracious about waiting her turn, but she was not in the best of moods at being upstaged by

Leonor Fini with her cats and a painting by Marino (1871), Paris, 1949


the client in question, Madame Estée Lauder, who was being given the royal treatment. When Leonor’s turn finally came and she was the center of attention, she tried on the piece that Simonetta had sewn together based on Leonor’s sketches: a black cloak with sleeves flaring out like wings of prey and a high collar that flirted outrageously with High Gothic provocation. She began sweeping around the shop, pausing at every mirror, swooping and snapping the loose taffeta sleeves like a bird of prey. Simonetta asked if she was happy with it. “I could approve,” Leonor replied. “But it depends on the effect. Tell me one thing. I have to know. Be frank. Do I terrify?!” I thought at first that she was striking a dramatic note for Simonetta’s benefit. But the question was in no way rhetorical and was directed as much to Simonetta as it was to the justdeparted client. In reality it was aimed at neither. Leonor was cross-examining herself. Did the cloak, with its delicately vicious arabesque folds, strike just the right chord of theatrical effect? Clothes, after all, had a dual function for her. Conjuring beauty and providing coercion. And, if at all possible, to provide that all-important fringe benefit: striking mortal dread in the hearts of onlookers. The function of design is shock appeal. Like the flamboyantly menacing mane Top: Leonor Fini, Corsica, 1965 Bottom: Leonor Fini with Leonora Carrington, Paris, 1950 of the sphinx. It is interesting to note that Leonor never smiled in any of her photographs. Even with her face in repose, her eyes flashed and more often than not looked daggers. Leonor’s admonition to her dressmaker was in the same vein as a remark she made explaining why she loved creating and wearing extraordinary costumes to Paris balls in the late forties and early fifties. “I didn’t go to dance or dine or make conversation. I went to dazzle and render people speechless. If I could do that I was happy.” This was a sphinx who preferred shock and awe to impossible riddles. In the years to come I would come to realize that, always to great effect, Leonor 7

practiced what she painted. And vice versa. Art is life. She was, to the tips of her claws, a selfinvented, self-promoting, card-carrying sphinx.


heatricality is the flying buttress of Leonor’s persona, and she always thought that her animal side deserved equal, if not superior, billing to the human part. So it is not surprising that a half-lioness half-human configuration was perfect typecasting. No one has better understood the impact of this hybrid fantasy in Leonor’s life and art than the Italian critic and man of letters, Mario Praz, who, in the first monograph devoted to her work, contributed an important essay entitled, “Leonor Fini and the Sphinx” (1945). I quote an extensive passage:

Sphinx Amalburga (Sphinx Amoureux) 1941 Oil on canvas 15 x 18 inches

“The history of the sphinx, as I see it, should begin with Oedipus and even earlier, but should necessarily come to a logical culmination and end with Leonor Fini. A psychoanalyst would find in her everything about the sphinx, from alpha to omega. In the endless line of artists who throughout history have attempted to give features to this fascinating monster, Leonor Fini has been unique, I believe, in providing it with a human aura, and more precisely, an autobiographical one. . . .

The sphinxes of Leonor Fini are sphinxes à la mode, not in terms of how they are dressed but rather through their anxious faces, weary and puffy from troubled sleep; through their thick manes of hair that betray a decidedly romantic and modern soul. They are sphinxes that have just flown in from the witches’ Sabbath, during which they lingered endlessly contemplating the beautiful bodies of sleeping adolescents in the purple moonlight. The landscape over which the sphinxes swooped is strewn with broken bones, empty shells, fish skeletons, eggshells, pebbles strung together and especially roots and broken branches bleached by the sea that Leonor so rightly adores. . . . This modern sphinx reigns over a nature morte–like scene and protectively watches over the slumbers of a young man: never was sleep such a twin of death, the human body so inanimate and devoid of life, like a sensual hieroglyphic. . . . Her fantasy is nourished by her unique inner world with a hunger that is obsessional and demonic. . . . Behind the still life we vaguely perceive the outlines of the Medusa sphinx, the Circe sphinx, the melodious-voiced Siren sphinx. This is why Leonor Fini, raised in the school of Renaissance artists and Gothic-leaning mannerists, is ideally suited to illustrate the macabreerotic fantasies of the Marquis de Sade.” When the critic Edmund Wilson visited Leonor’s studio in Rome just after the war he reported in his 1947 book Europe without Baedeker, “Here the sphinxes are leonine and immobilized in their 8

Leonor Fini, Paris, c. 1950

first somber broodings. . . . In Fini’s painting they seem to express a tragic paradox. This is a soul that is sullenly and fiercely and yet wistfully narcissistic, self-admiring, and self-consuming.” Leonor Fini, the sphinx, looks out from her paintings as if she were peering through a window that is at the same time a mirror where she inspects her reflection. “I have always,” she said, “believed that human attributes are terribly limited. I have forever envied animals for their thick, hard claws, their shimmering, phosphorescent scales, their incomparably dense fur. . . .” The answer to this sphinx’s riddle is hidden in plain sight in her painting.

Richard Overstreet

Leonor Fini Archives, Paris, May 2012 9

Leonor Fini, c. 1948

“In my imagination, as in everyone’s there are elements of fear and horror but also of playfulness and humor. These ingredients do not exist as separate entities, but interweave and balance each other.” —Leonor Fini


Sphinx c. 1946–50 Pastel and pen and ink on paper 191/2 x 133/4 inches


Fille allongĂŠe (Reclining Girl) 1924 Oil on canvas 13 x 211/2 inches


Maisons de la rue Payenne (Houses on the rue Payenne) 1933 Oil on paper on canvas 15 x 24 inches


OpĂŠration I 1939 Oil on canvas 361/4 x 251/2 inches


Self-Portrait 1938 Oil on canvas 133/4 x 103/4 inches


Femme costumĂŠe (Femme en armure) (Woman in Costume; Woman in Armor) c. 1938 Oil on canvas 133/4 x 91/2 inches


La Peinture et L’Architecture (Painting and Architecture) 1938 Oil on panel (2 panels) Each: 66 x 271/4 inches


Armoire anthropomorphe (Anthropomorphic Wardrobe) 1939 Oil on wood 861/2 x 57 x 121/2 inches


Femme costumĂŠe (Femme en armure) (Woman in Costume; Woman in Armor) 1938 Oil on canvas 133/4 x 101/2 inches


“Paintings, like dreams, have a life of their own and I have always painted very much the way I dream.” —Leonor Fini


Entracte de l’apothéose (Interlude of the Apotheosis) 1938–39 Oil on canvas 251/2 x 181/16 inches


Portrait of Mrs. Hasellter 1942 Oil on canvas 22 x 18 inches


Mrs. H 1941 Oil on canvas 71/8 x 51/2 inches


L’Alcove (The Alcove) 1942 Oil on canvas 283/4 x 381/2 inches


Homme noir et femme singe (Black Man and Monkey Woman) 1942 Oil on canvas 233/4 x 29 inches


Corset Chair 1939

Ebonized timber, mother of pearl, and wrought iron 381/2 x 18 x 19 inches


Os branche (Bone Branch) 1943 Oil on canvas 213/4 x 13 inches


Couple enlacé allongé sur une souche (Entwined Couple Leaning Against a Tree Stump) 1951 Oil on panel Oval: 31/4 x 41/2 inches


Nue échevelée (Nude with Disheveled Hair) 1948 Oil on canvas Oval: 37/8 x 5 inches


Portrait imaginaire (Imaginary Portrait) c. 1945–50 Watercolor, gouache, and ink wash on paper 133/4 x 10 inches


Portrait imaginaire (Imaginary Portrait) c. 1945–50 Pastel, pen, and gouache on paper 191/2 x 13 inches


Portrait of Emeline de Casteja c. 1955 Oil on canvas 81/2 x 61/4 inches


Portrait of Mme Lucienne Domb c. 1955 Oil on canvas 283/4 x 235/8 inches


Leonor Fini in her studio, rue de la Vrillière, with Garde du dragon on wall at right, 1960


Garde du dragon (The Dragon’s Keeper) 1958 Oil on canvas 131/2 x 111/2 inches


Colloque minĂŠrale (Mineral Colloquium) 1960 Oil on canvas 233/4 x 361/2 inches


ForĂŞt (Forest) 1960 Oil on board 173/4 x 143/4 inches


L’eau endormie (Sleeping Waters) 1962 Oil on canvas 281/4 x 351/4 inches


Chimère du soir (Evening Chimera) 1961 Oil on canvas 32 x 231/2 inches



Une ombre respirante (A Breathing Shadow) 1962 Oil on canvas 21 x 601/2 inches


Le rĂŠveil des fleurs (The Flowers Awaken) 1964

Oil on canvas 231/2 x 39 inches


La victime est reine (The Victim Is Queen) 1963 Oil on canvas 391/8 x 251/2 inches


Les Aveugles (The Blind Ones) 1968

Oil on canvas 281/8 x 451/4 inches


Portrait de jeune femme (Portrait of a Young Woman) c. 1970 Oil on paper on canvas 27 x 21 inches


TĂŞte de fille (Head of a Girl) 1974 Oil and tempera on silk 131/2 x 10 inches


La chambre d’écho (The Echo Chamber) 1975 Oil on canvas 351/2 x 46 inches


Portrait de Tana (Portrait of Tana) c. 1975 Oil on canvas 213/16 x 18 inches


La prison de Zigriphine (The Prison of Zigriphine) 1975 Oil on canvas 233/4 x 283/4 inches


“When a painting is finished I can perhaps consciously say that this is this or that is that, but the beginning for me is never an idea. It happens first as a color or a form. If I try to analyze afterwards what I have done, I feel as if I am cheating because I can never be sure. A painting is something like a spectacle, a theater piece in which each figure lives out her part.� —Leonor Fini


La leรงon de botanique (The Botany Lesson) 1974 Oil on canvas 471/4 x 471/4 inches


La perle (The Pearl) 1978 Oil on canvas 413/8 x 26 inches


Le radeau (The Raft) 1979 Oil on canvas 321/4 x 46 inches


Voyageurs au repos (Travelers at Rest) 1978 Oil on canvas 261/2 x 331/2 inches


Portrait d’éphèbe (Portrait of a Beautiful Young Man) 1980 Oil on canvas 83/4 x 51/2 inches


Top: Leonor Fini’s Paris home, featured in Architectural Digest, 1986 Bottom: Leonor Fini’s beloved cat Moufti in front of Une grande curiosité


Une grande curiositĂŠ (A Great Curiosity) 1983 Oil on canvas 38 x 57 inches


Carmilla 1983

Oil on paper on canvas 18 x 13 inches


Tête d’homme (Head of a Man) 1987 Oil on paper on canvas 213/4 x 18 inches


Visage de femme (Face of a Woman) c. 1976 Oil on paper with lithographic base 211/2 x 151/4 inches


Visage de femme (Face of a Woman) c. 1976 Oil on paper with lithographic base 193/4 x 151/4 inches


Leonor Fini, Paris, c. 1936


Les carcans (Shackles) 1984 Oil on canvas 36 x 253/4 inches


Le choix du silence (The Choice of Silence) 1987

Oil on canvas 29 x 391/4 inches


weinstein gallery