Le Livre de Leonor Fini:
Self Portrait and Autobiography
Renée Riese Hubert
University of California, Irvine.
Livre de Leonor Fini is an elegant folio volume featuring the
painter as writer or, conversely, the writer as artist. The term
"featuring" may not be entirely adequate. for texts
and images, instead of systematically rivaling or setting off
one another, harmonize in a remarkably original autobiographical
project. Fini's talents were numerous: drawing, painting, book
illustration and theater decoration. What is less known is that
she also authored several tales in addition to the autobiographical
text discussed in this paper. Leonor Fini, who insisted on playing
only a marginal role in regard to the Surrealist movement, practiced
more gregariously than others various forms of collaboration.
On the title page, she names José Alvarez as her principal
collaborator. Together, they reviewed hundreds of photographs
in planning their monumental task--in the etymological as well
as the dimensional sense of the term. Nevertheless, we cannot
underestimate the contribution of the photographer Eddy Brofferio.
In this volume, where the visual and verbal alternate, supplement
but rarely upstage one another, portraits of the artist abound.
Highly studied poses of Leonor Fini with her head facing the
viewer, her elegantly covered shoulders, her black curled coiffure
undoubtedly show the combined artistry of the painter and the
photographer. Indeed, these artifacts have nothing in common
with snapshots, the usual accompaniments of illustrated autobiographies.
In spite of occasional variations, the similarities of the artist's
poses and expressions are striking, above all her focused look
directed towards what remains undefinable to the viewer.
These photographs of the artist, invariably
presented without context or preparation, impose a visual unity
on the book While the graphic account progresses through space
and the verbal account through time, the photographs not only
form a bond among themselves but create an impression of stability
and even power. Nonetheless, the artist asserts the spontaneity
of her enterprise: "Comme dans un scrapbook j'ai écrit
un commentaire là où j'avais envie." [As in
a scrapbook, I wrote comments when I felt like it] Such spontaneity
allows Leonor Fini to combine the world of memory with the world
of imagination. By contrast, the portraits serve as declarations
of her unchanging intent.
In addition to the help provided by
Alvarez and Brofferio, Fini enlisted the collaboration of the
painter Stanislas Lepri but in a more personal or perhaps autobiographical
capacity than that of the other two. This partner in Leonor Fini's life is portrayed
in several photomontages. ( Fig 1) His La Chambre de Leonor
provides one of the highlights of the book while also functioning
in a documentary capacity. These artists shared their activities,
but to my knowledge did not jointly produce any works.
Throughout the book, Leonor quotes from
writers and alters figures of visual artists. She borrows elements
not only from major visual artists, notably Renaissance painters,
but she introduces an amusing caricature by the writer Jacques
Audiberti: a witch devouring a little beast is endowed with its
own particular humor, yet fits thematically into Fini's images
and discussions of the fantastic. The borrowed caricature may
have been a gift by Audiberti or a deliberate collaboration on
the part of a friend. Authors as diverse as Dante, Tasso, Michelet,
Alain Bosquet, and La Comtesse de Ségur make their presence
felt throughout the book, but with increased intensity toward
the end. They provide relevant rather than haphazard passages
and illustrations in a work abounding in annexations, both visual
and verbal. In a sense, they serve to establish a kind of complicity
as far removed as possible from name dropping. Their reiterated
presence reminds the reader of the vast library in Leonor's house
when she was a child. The deliberately cluttered rooms, as we
eventually realize, echoes the astounding complexities of her
mind. She experiences difficulties in making choices, in eliminating
any of these objects and even of discarding what would normally
pass for refuse.In a way, the cluttered home provides the source
and image of the overwhelming abundance displayed in Fini's artistic
productions, in particular her autobiography. It would seem that
between a strictly literary or cultural memory and live encounters
no fundamental difference emerges when it comes to writing an
In the early pages, the voice of Leonor
recounting her childhood experiences dominates. However, in these
more obviously autobiographical texts, authorial sophistication
predominates somewhat at the expense of spontaneity. Its artistry,
rivaling in this respect the careful attention to dramatic details
she gives to her paintings, shows that autobiography as a genre
hardly differs from fictional narrative. In this section at least,
Fini has written a novel about her own childhood. At the very
beginning, she reflects upon the esthetic prerogatives of the
work she undertakes, upon the relation of her art to reality,
upon the function of her imagination.
Nevertheless, any aspects, notably family
portraits including aunts and uncles, seem to have little connection
with the collaborative enterprise of her book unless we can consider
all her relatives as unwitting collaborators. By reproducing
her first watercolor created at the age of 11 and her first oil
painting at the age of 18, she clearly establishes herself as
an artist. Most important of all are the comments and reflections
on the book she is writing. She repeatedly rejects the notion
of monography as a selective principle. As the texts are rather
episodic with varying perspectives she does not make claims to
autobiographical research and documentary authenticity. The already
mentioned family portraits allow the reader to peruse, so to
speak, her background. Incidental as these pictures might seem,
they provide a launching pad for more dominant scenes. From the
point of view of the present moment, these relatives seem disguised,
especially the uncles dressed as Turks. Far from referring to
daily occurrences, such glimpses suit a book that refers repeatedly
to ceremonies and rituals. Paradoxically, memories of childhood
and youth do not unduly rely on anecdotes. As a result, readers
of conventional biography or autobiography might consider Le
Livre de Leonor Fini unsatisfactory and resent its episodic
structure which allows the author to relate images of her experience
to her art. In their relationships, she emphasizes simultaneity
rather than causality.
The architecture of Trieste, where she
spent most of her childhood, plays an important part in the childhood
experiences she describes in word and image. Although she remembers
that the city abounds in highly ornate sculptures, she refrains
from singling out a single building as unique or particularly
striking. Forming so to speak, an ensemble, the ornate buildings,
transformed and expanded, surface as echoes in subsequent images.
The sculptures from Trieste's baroque period mix with figures
above all imaginary and amphibious, belonging to various ages
and civilizations (Fig. 2). They transgress complex barriers,
moving from stone to textile, from flora to fauna while substituting
ritualistic for commonplace representations. Photographed and
transformed, the remembered sculptures form assemblages with
everyday objects. As the initial reproductions are always hybrid,
their dual nature is continuously extended and enriched in both
text and image. The sphinx , a dominant motif, reiterates a traditional
confrontation of animal and human. It can attract and repulse
simultaneously because of the close encounter of erotic flesh
and fur. The hybrid nature of the sculptures suggests in some
instances associations between live plants and personified flowerpots.
Buried sculptures come back to life in the guise of new and sometimes
outrageous monuments. Originating in sculpture, the sphinx figures
encroach aggressively on Fini's paintings, which differ considerably
from the photographed statues and especially her drawings. The
latter are endowed with extraordinary flexibility. Frequently
the viewer has the impression not of viewing a spectacle as in
the case of most paintings and photographs, but of motion, of
changes of shape, of increasing difformities. In one drawing
in particular, the head continues to expand and the tail goes
on curling. Carried beyond the outlines drawn by the artist the
viewer is thrust into a dynamic projection. The episodic nature
of the text seems to have found a response in the generic difference
of the visuals.
In addition to the photographic portrayals,
Fini's likeness reappears in many paintings which, however, she
did not label self-portraits. She displays herself in lavish
clothes, originating in distant cultures and invariably ceremonial
even though the painter as model remains more often than not
in splendid isolation. But it is not so much the splendor, theatricality,
and uniqueness of the wardrobe that we are called to admire as
the enhancing framing of the wearer. Lending a ritualistic dignity
to Fini, a gorgeous mantilla, reproduced in striking colors and
with sensuous textures, was eventually stolen. The purloined
garment, buried, or so she believes, paradoxically increases
in value and prestige. Its life was indefinitely prolonged by
this criminal burial which transformed it--like the baroque sculptures--
into an embedded but constantly surfacing fetish. By means of
her vast ritual clothes, which sometimes suggest a pavilion, the author transforms
herself into an overwhelming mythical presence. In a particularly
brilliant painting, a bald head arises from a geometrically assembled
priestly robe (Fig 3). Ritual figures, all of them closely resembling
the artist, make their appearance in a variety of ways. Clearly,
women play leading roles not only by their numbers, but by occupying
the very center of mysterious ritual acts whereas male participants,
when allowed to play a part, are invariably upstaged. And it
so happens that on the very first page of her book, the author
pointedly refers to "la feminité triomphante de la
ville de Trieste."
Did the artist wilfully create in her own image legendary
and mythical figures or are all these recurring close resemblances
fortuitous? It is likely that in pursuing the personal itinerary
that is the subject of her book, she could never completely absent
herself either from the text or from the images. The reader is
constantly aware of the unstinting theatricality of a book consisting
of disguises and metamorphoses, of ritual gestures and poses
leading to symbolic interactions among the figures (Fig 4). Obviously,
her practice with theater sets and costumes had a strong impact
on Le Livre de Leonor Fini. As a complement to what might
be described as personal mythography, the photomontages of the
painter's ceremonious domestic life abound in animal features.
In this painting which is very often reproduced in books on Leonor
Fini takes its place amidst portrayals of barely disappeared.
As I have already suggested, one of
the chief characteristics of Le Livre is the profusion
of golden masks, highly textures robes, accumulations of jewelry.
Even the artist's innumerable felines wear jewels and may even
abscond with precious stones. An initial sense of richness increases
materialy and even symbolically as different categories of images
combine and mutiply. But richness of this sort has little to
do with greed. Having alluded early in the book to the wealth
of Trieste, the artist asserts that she personally prefers the
poorer, downtrodden section of the city. As she moves through
life and pursues her itinerary, things do not simply add up as
in a millionaire's portfolio. Because the poorest streets of Trieste have exerted
a lasting impact on her, a kind of imaginative undertow frequently
reverses the otherwise positive direction of Le Livre.
She mentions, for instance that, as a teenager, she indulged
in visits to the morgue with perhaps more than painterly designs.
Seen in this negative context, a flock of images become highly
revealing. Again and again, crumbling walls are displayed as
though to flaunt their decrepitude in the midst of the desirable
artifacts emerging in front of them. For instance, visitors must
pass a ruined castle wall in order to view a prestigious ancestral
collection. Concerned with the ephemeral side of all peoples
and cultures, she points to the tranformations that undermined
earlier cultures and mythologies. But she shows a similar fascination
with present day deterioration: "Elle était assez
belle cette femme, un peu sale, le lit était plutôt
défait et on voyait des restes de nourriture par-ci par-là
papiers gaufrés qui avaient contenu des petits fours.
arêtes de poissons bien décortiqués."
[She was rather beautiful that woman, a little dirty, the bed
was somewhat unmade and there were scraps of food here and there, waffled
paper that had contained petits fours, well scraped fishbones.]
But such detioration eventually leads to the presence of death
which becomes very pronounced in the latter part of the book
, especially after the episode devoted to Vienna seen in many
respects as the counterpart of Trieste where he itinerary had
started. Anybody familiar with the paintings of Leonor Fini will
remember multiple incarnations of death. Sphinx Philagra, whose
facial features closely resemble those of the artist, represents
a creature with naked breasts erotically floating in seemingly
stagnant waters. (Fig 5) Otherwise, its sinuous movement and
its animal underpinnings conform to traditional representations
of the sphinx. Fini has stressed duality more even than her predecessors,
for the stagnant waters suggest a simultaneity of birth and death.
This frequently reproduced painting appears amidst stark portrayals
of death devoid of scenery. (Fig 6) They contrast with the Sphinx
Philagra where the landscape and the still water, the broken
upwards pointing bones, compound the ambiguity. Featuring crawling
creatues, it brings to an overwhelming climax: feminine portrayals,
gruesome backgrounds, sphinxlike representations, combinations
of fauna and flora, and the reciprocated impingement of life
on death.This epitome of the fantastic allows the painter to
reinvent herself, to move beyond the relative fixity that portrayals,
stage sets or performances can attain. "Plus tard j'ai admiré
la perfection des squelettes, le fait qu'ils sont le moins détériorable du
corps et les momies qui se recomposent toujours comme de belles
statues." [Later I admired the perfection of skeletons,
the least deteriorable part of the body and the mummies who always
recom[pose themselves like beautiful statues] Her paintings of
squeletons, all slightly different, hold their upright position
without threatening or attacking anybody directly. (Fig 7) Their
feminine elegance and eroticism compound the seductive qualities
so typical of the artist's itinerary. Hardly pertaining to surrealist
imagery, these skeletons function as pastiches of, and modernist
quotations from earlier paintings. They form a sequence that
will inevitably lead to the traditional Dance of Death as though
Fini insisted on returning to representational origins..
A question that remains to be answered
is to what extent we can establish meaningful connections between
the visual and the verbal. It is clear that text and images do
not illustrate or justify each other's inclusion in spite of
striking juxtapositions. Moreover, they rarely provide documentation.
They move along different tracks even when they address the same
problems. Images come in sequences. We see, for instance, several
pages of women going through rituals of dressing. Portrayals
of Fini appear among them. The painter questions her identity
in the very act of participating in these imaginary rituals.
She is one of them while remaining herself. She boasts of mysterious
links with cats to which many pages are devoted. (Fig. 8) They
are introduced with playfulness and humor in the section entitled
"Les Chats." When Fini reports the intimacies of her
own feline experiences, she displays centuries of knowledge about
cats. She includes literary allusions to these animals from Tasso
and Dante. She relates her domesticated cats to fantastic creatures.
This most entertaining chapter combines personal memory with
research into remote periods.
The narrative aspects of Le Livre
have the same importance as the visuals, for Fini loves to
tell tales, changing their tonality in much the same way she
modifies the contours of her drawings. We wonder to what extent
these tales are prompted by personal memories or owe their existence
to her imagination. And do her imaginings derive primarily from
what she may have witnessed and read? Could she have pursued
her literary itinerary had there been no painterly focus in her
life? As she often quotes from modern and ancient authors, her
cultural background surfaces even more overtly than in the paintings,
where her own style often overwhelms quotations from other artists,
notably when she focuses directly on the rituals of women. We
may also wonder whether the paintings as a collection offer greater
coherence than the entire sequence of texts. Leonor Fini's stories
and tales are sometimes borrowed from her previous publications
and, to a limited extent, from other literary works. In regard
to style, they tend to be at least as ornate as some of her paintings.
But textual ornateness does not limit itself to a dominant motif
as in the baroque statues, for complex happenings and metamorphosis
have taken over. The relating of encounters moves simultaneously
in many directions. Abundance transforms not only the protagonists
but the very substance of their existence. In "Mourmour,"
a tale about a cat, stability, feline or other, hardly matters.
In first person narratives, the narrator, losing all objectivity,
compounds the turmoil. Compared to such intense moments, the
paintings appear serene or contemplative. Fairies and fantastic
creatures, devils and malicious witches undergo constant metamorphoses.
One of the reasons why the paintings strike us as serene, spacially
well ordered and
uncluttered is the abundant use of frames and windows in the
visuals. (Fig 9) She reduces space to easily managed proportions
by setting one or several figures within a severe rectangular
enclosure, thus heightening by geometry the serenity of gestures
and poses. The textual passages project, on the contrary, a consistently
apprehensive becoming. This contrast between the graphics and
the verbal does not mean that Fini adheres to the traditional
if not defunct division between image and text. It may well be
that, in Le Livre, the two are related in much the same
way as the umbrella and the sewing machine in Lautréamont's
The clearly stated theory that ornateness
is preferable to all things natural prevails both in her graphics
and her texts. Her desire to "resignifier les mots existants"
[ give different meanings to existing words ] would indicate
a systematic departure from conventional literary communication
based on things as they are. No doubt, her female characters
undeniably originate in some remote reality precluding any kind
of frequentation. In every way, they remain at a distance we
cannot bridge. A smilar principle govern the colors of her paintings.
Their unusual tones, tend to enhance the entire pictorial surface,
revealing simultaneoulsy depth, translucence, transparence, impenetrability,
and otherworldliness. Reversible blendings of this sort do not
appear in the texts. How could they?
"Le long de ces images, de ces
contes, notes, de ces fragments se dénoue presqu'une autobiographie."
[ In the course of these images, these tales, these notations,
these fragments a close approximation to an autobiography unfolds
itself.] In the end, Fini admits that she has almost written
an autobigraphy, seemingly contradicting some of her earlier
statements. As a writer, she distinguishes herself from a painter
who has to replace the first person singular by self portraiture.
She could hardly have pursued her itinerary had she limited herself
to visuals. Paradoxically, the self that comes into being through
the text is more like a theatrical creation and therefore keeps
at a safe distance from the standard objective of autobiography.
This theatrical self plays so many parts that it is always in
the act of becoming somebody else. "Si tout le monde est
multiple rares sont ceux qui le savent." [If everybody is
multiples, rare are those who know it.] If Le Livre has
a message, this may be it. But messages matter much less to Fini
than the creation of an all encompassing artifact.
Audiberti, Jacques. Leonor Fini.
Paris: Hervas, 1981.
Antle, Martine, "Picto-théatralité
de Leonor Fini,"French Review (Mars 1989): 640-49.
Borgue, Pierre. Leonore Fini, ou,
Le Théatre de l'imaginaire, mythes et symboles de l'univers
finien. Paris: Les Lettres modernes, 1983.
Le Livre de Leonor Fini: Peintures,
dessins, Ècrits et notes.
Paris: Editions Clairefontaine, 1975.
Villano, Tiziana. Parcours dans l'Oeuvre
de Leonor Fini. Paris: Editions Michele Trinckvel, l989.
Zuckerman, Neil. Leonor Fini:The
Artist as designer, an exhibition of ballet, theater, books in
commercial design. New York: C.F.M., 1992.
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