Magazine article The Spectator

All Paris at Her Feet

Magazine article The Spectator

All Paris at Her Feet

Article excerpt

SPHINX: THE LIFE AND ART OF LEONORFINI

by Peter Webb Vendome, £60, pp. 304,

ISBN 9780865652552 . £48 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

In what was intended as the opening line of a 1951 catalogue essay to an exhibition by the painter Leonor Fini, Jean Cocteau wrote: 'There is always, at the margin of work by men, that luminous and capricious shadow of work by women.' Not surprisingly, Fini excised it.

But it was an attitude that would plague her, and other female artists in Paris's Surrealist milieu, for the rest of her life.

Women were never formally admitted to the Surrealist movement, with which Fini's vast output between 1930-1990 is most readily identified.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1907, Leonor Fini, born Eleonora, spent her childhood in Trieste, raised by her half-Slavic mother and Turkish-cigarette-smoking aunts. Fini's mother had run away from her father, Herminio Fini, a domineering Italian who made one botched kidnap attempt on his daughter. Leonor was allowed to haunt the morgue in her early teens, a renegade from school, and her youthful artistic attempts are not remarkable, although lively, spatially aware and capable.

Peter Webb points out that Trieste was polyglot and cosmopolitan. Fini's uncle's circle included James Joyce and a 40-yearold gay painter, Arturo Nathan, who befriended Fini and gave her a copy of Huysman's A Rebours, and whose painting style she emulated. Travels with her mother took in Gustav Klimt, Giuseppe Arcimboldo and Egon Schiele in the galleries of Vienna.

Webb's writing style is curious, often sounding as if it had been translated from another language, perhaps echoing transcripts of conversations with the artist.

When, aged 24, Fini was invited to exhibit in Milan alongside de Chirico, the author wonders why she was so singled out: 'Was it because of her beautiful appearance and sparkling personality, which would so soon captivate the avant-garde of Paris?'

The hagiographic (and, here, perplexingly sexist) tone cloys, although plenty of quotes support the very compelling effect that Leonor Fini had on both men and women. Moreover, her story is certainly fantastic.

At 24 she met an Italian prince and set off for Paris with him to start out as an artist. Having ditched the prince after a few months, this striking, black-eyed young woman quickly established herself as a painter and participator in the thick of Parisian artistic life and high society.

Within months she had met the Noailles and the Montesquiou families, though Webb does not say how. One gets the impression that Fini kept no diaries, so such interesting details are often frustratingly hazy or absent. …

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