Le Livre de Leonor Fini:
Self Portrait and Autobiography

Renée Riese Hubert
University of California, Irvine.


Le 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 autobiography.

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 and forms, 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 famous metaphor.

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.

Works consulted


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.