Leonor Fini: The Fine Artist as Illustrator
in the October 12, 1987 Issue of AB Bookman's Weekly, NYC
One of the difficulties most often encountered by the
artist turned illustrator is the necessity of interpreting another's
imagery. In a painting the artist can capture an entire story in one
image. An illustration must, by necessity, limit itself to showing
one specific moment of an already existing story; and to be truly
successful it should also entice the reader to continue.
The number of fine artists that have managed to make the
transition to successful illustrator is limited. The tendency of most
fine artists when doing illustration is to overwhelm the text with the
force of his or her own vision and style. It is rare to find an artist
capable of walking that narrow line between individual vision and the
illustration of a text.
To my mind, the most successful embodiment of both fine
artist and illustrator is Leonor Fini, about whom the Summer/Fall Paris
Review of 1960 said: "Sharp, incisive, precise, her work seems
constantly to reach behind words to the very thing itself. . . ."
Although the story of her life reads like something rejected as too
unbelievable for a soap opera, it is exactly that life which resulted
in the unique character of the woman that Erté has described
as ". . . a most talented and fascinating woman. Like a character
from the Italian Renaissance, her beauty is wild, strange and flamboyant.
She is a flame in the shape of a woman" and of whom International
Newsweek has said, ". . . As a painter, graphic artist, costume
designer and illustration, Fini has earned huge followings -princely
princes - across the continent . . . . Leonor Fini is at once a very
European painter and a very literary one. The ghosts of an old and possibly
exhausted culture march through her vision and give it a rare depth.
For all the decadence and the hopelessness that invest her canvases,
each is a pure visual joy."
Leonor Fini was born in Argentina (various birth years
between 1908 and 1918 are given, with Who's Who in France listing it
as 1918). She was spirited away to Trieste by her Italian mother before
she was a year old. For the first six or seven years of her life, to
avoid kidnap attempts by her father, she was disguised as a boy whenever
she left her home. This, one can assume, nurtured her fierce independence
and refusal to accept the assigned "female" role.
Her mother, unable to live the macho society of Argentina,
was a major influence on her daughter that probably resulted in what
has been described as a strong feminist cast to much of her work. Fini,
however, sees it as unrelated to gender, but rather to the expression
of the self.
Raised in the "bohemian" salons of a radically
changing Europe between the two World Wars, it was in her childhood
that a lasting love for beauty, books and art was formed. Many of her
early influences, later visualized in her work, are contained in the
following quote: "In the house of my childhood [were] vases by
Galle, libraries full of books, odors of candles in the halls . . .
On the wall of the salon, I saw an engraving by Franz von Stuck [a voluptuous
nude woman with a large, fat serpent entwined about her body with its
head resting on her shoulder just above her naked breast]. I would ask
what "Sinnlichkeit" which was written below said. Someone
said told me "The Sensualist." And what did "The Sensualist"
mean? Invariably the answer was "die Sinnlichkeit!" . . .
I was five years old.
Her preciousness manifested in the creation of a persona
of incredibly strong will and intense sensitivity. "Asked"
to leave every school in Trieste at an early age, her innate curiosity
never allowed her to stop exploring books or studying life. This coupled
with her interest in art, led her to study anatomy at the local morgue.
Most of her education was obtained by reading and observing. In fact,
she has never had any formal training as an artist; amazing when it
was pointed out that as early 1936 The New York Times compared her "deft
brushmanship" to that of Dali.
Fini has always refused to accept being categorized.
This is evident in her wide variations of media, style and purpose.
Each project is as important as any other, whether it be a costume design,
a book illustration, a graphic or an oil. The arguments as to what "school"
of art she belongs to; to whom she can be compared; is she a painter,
an illustrator, a designer, a feminist, a mystic, a voluptuary are superfluous.
Her answer would be that she is Leonor Fini.
This does, however, pose a challenge for the collector
who can never be quite sure what she does or where to find her work;
and for art critics who are notorious for insisting on pigeonholes and
Although glowingly reviewed in 1936 and 1939 in The New York Times,
it is interesting to note that she was never again mentioned in that
paper even though there have been other exhibits of her work in New
York. This deplorable silence could be due to the fact that she does
not care about critics and actively disdains them. A recent example
of this attitude took place at the opening of a retrospective of her
work at the Musee de Luxembourg in Paris last year. Upon being told
that the art critic from a prominent French newspaper was there, her
response was, "Keep that bitch away from me."
Fini has never catered to the critics, the public, or for that matter,
to fashion or commercial necessity. Yet she has managed to stay in the
buying public's favor for over 50 years. Her oil paintings have sold
for six figures, while her limited editions graphic sell for anywhere
from $250 - images from La Grande Parade des Chats (The Grande Parade
of Cats), 1973, to $30,000 (a set of eight silkscreens comprising the
One of the most often repeated phrases I hear when showing her work
is, "How can there be an artist of this quality and stature that
I have never heard about?" Many people discover they know her without
having realized it; primarily her illustration for the Metropolitan
Opera's production of Tristan and Isolde in 1977, and as the subject
of an Architectural Digest "Visit" in March of 1986. But,
her work as a book illustrator is virtually unknown in this country.
Consider that her graphic illustrations for De Sade's Juliette, which
was at that time considered to be "hard core" pornography,
were done in Italy during the war (1944), by a woman, who then had it
printed on the printing press at the Vatican! It is easy to see why
she has fascinated such writers and artists as Jean Genet, Max Ernst,
Alberto Moravia, Giorgio de Chirico, Salvador Dali, Charles Henry Ford,
et al, who have written over 100 monographs, poems, books, and major
articles about her. Jean Cocteau, among others, wrote special text to
accompany her hand-tinted etchings for Portraits de Famille (Family
Portraits), 1950. Like Maurice Sendak and Willy Pogany, she changes
media, format and even her style to fit the project being worked on.
One has only to compare the sharp almost brutal lines in her early illustrations
for De Sade's Juliette with the soft, boldly colored lithographs used
in Baudelaire's La Fanfarlo (1969), to see the extreme changes she is
capable of in her work.
According to Constantin Jelenski, her close companion for many years,
the only criterion for selecting what she will illustrate is that she
feel connected to the story being told; and that it excites her artistic
palate or her sense of humor. Unlike many fine artists who attempt illustration
and then force their own unrelated ideas on the work, her range of illustrations,
each one seemingly the exact medium and tone that the words demand,
always turn the reader back to the book. Her illustrations run the gamut
from the deceptively simple line drawings in the engagingly silly, risqué
Histoire de Vibrissa (Story of [cat's] Whisker), 1973, to the lyrical,
soft water color lithographs for Shakespeare's La Tempete (The Tempest),
1965. The harsh, sensual lithographs used for Pauline Reage's Histoire
D'O (Story of O), 1962, show yet another facet of her instinctive talent
for matching the medium to the story. The overriding continuity throughout
her work is her deep understanding of the author's intent coupled with
superb technique and vision.
A fine example of Leonor Fini's respect for the author's
text can be seen on the title pages of Les Descriptions Merveilleuses
(Marvelous Descriptions), 1973, and Les Estrangers (The Strange Ones),
1976, both by Juan Bautisa Piniero. Through Leonor Fini was a long established
and highly recognized artist and illustrator and was the reason the
book was published, she nevertheless insisted that the author's name
come first, over the title, and be the same size as hers which was listed
below the title.
Like Sendak, she has no fear of paying homage to those artists that
have influenced her. Her Contes Mysterieux et Fantastique (Tales of
Mystery and Imagination), 1952, by Edgar Allen Poe includes an illustration
for the tale of "Bernice," which is similar in feel and style
to Harry Clark's 1919 illustrations for the short story "The Facts
in The Case of M. Valdemar" for the same collection.
In the Satyricon by Petrone (1970) she paints the same vision that Fellini
brought to his film of the same work. Both of them utilize the broken
fresco and sharp images and color that evoke both the time and the sexuality
embodied in the work. Whether they discussed their projects, which took
place concurrently, is not documented. That they were friends and both
extremely visual, seeing the beauty in the bizarre, does accent the
Being established as a fine artist and as an illustrator of over 65
books. Finding her work should be somewhat easy for the seasoned collector.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. Her books appear on the secondary
market infrequently. Once a collector acquires a work by Leonor Fini,
he usually keeps it. This is both frustration and rewarding for collectors
and dealers alike. One limited edition lithograph, La Passegere (The
Passenger) was sold out the day the edition was released. To date only
one copy has been known to be offered for resale. Even today, her new
books (Oeuvres Completes de Baudelaire, 1986) are sold out before publication.
Her newly illustrated edition of Poe (1987) is almost sold out and only
the first of the three volumes has been released. This scarcity heightens
the thrill of finding her books.
Many of Fini's books have been published in France in what is known
as a "Livre D'Artiste" format. Often this means a series of
lithographs, etchings or silkscreens that both illustrate and/or accompany
the books which are issued in limited editions. Portraits de Famille,
limited to 60 copies, is her smallest published edition. Formats range
in size from her first book, Dans l'Annees Sordide (In The Sordid Years),
1943, by Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues, at 5-1/4" wide x 7-3/4"
high to Sultanes et Magiciennes des Mille et Une Nuits (Sultanas and
Magicians of the Thousand and One Nights), 1976 measuring 30" wide
by 22" high. They include anywhere from on simple illustration,
as in Gilbert Lely (1979), to the opulent Monsieur Venus (1972) by Rachide,
which includes 35 etchings, one of the original drawings and a canceled
copper plate. The beautiful, lyric etchings done for Monsieur Venus
are easily among the most lovely of her illustrations.
Another example of the varied formats she has created is seen in the
original edition of her Histoire D'O. Copy number one includes not only
the lithographs in the text, but an additional three suites - one in
black; one in raw umber; and one in full color; along with a suite of
the 12 endings; three each of the two "refusees" (illustrations
done for the book, but not used in the final version); and three original
drawings. Depending on the number of the book, it can be found in a
gray leather-spined slipcase finished in black velvet, or in a plain
black velvet case.
To date she has also written the text for six of her books including
Mourmour, Conte Pour Enfants Velus (Mourmour, Tale for Hairy Children),
1976, a trade edition which has a special edition of 100 copies which
are accompanied by an etching of the title character, Mourmour - the
only illustrations done of the book. She has edited and written text
for two other books that are photographic compilations of her work and
life (Le Livre de Leonor Fini, 1975; and her cats, Miroir Des Chats
with photographs by Richard Overstreet, one of the most magnificently
printed and photographed book I have ever seen).
She often involves herself in the design of the total book and its presentations.
The box she designed for Les Estrangers, with its use of strange and
wonderful cats portends the tinted etchings and bizarre world to be
found inside. In this book, cats, a recurring theme in much of her work,
are the take-off point for wonderfully fey creatures including Le Chat
de Soleil, a fiery sun cat, L'Olpa, whose head is repeated at the end
of its tail, and a glamorous hermaphroditic cat. Her style here is simple
and complex at the same time, and perfectly captures the author's incredible
In 1960 she was asked by the editor, Joseph Foret, to take part in "The
most expensive book in the world," L'Apocalypse de St. Jean (The
Apocalypse of Saint John). Six other artists, including Salvador Dali,
Bernard Buffet and Foujita, and six writers, headed by Jean Cocteau
and Jean Rostand, were also invited to participate in the project. Dali's
cover was of bronze made by the lost-wax process and included semi-precious
stones, knives and forks, nails, pearls and seashells. The book was
published in a single copy. It was hand-lettered on parchment with all
the original artwork bound in and weighs 460 lbs.Seven copies were to
be printed on various silks or papers, featuring lithographs of the
artwork in the original book. Fini's contribution to the project was
three original illustrations on parchment and seven sets of three lithographs
of the originals. Her lithos were produced, as were those of only one
other artist, Buffet. It is not known if any of the others actually
completed their lithographs. Since the seven additional copies were
never finished, Fini's and Buffet's lithographs were found their way
to the marketplace. The single, original book, after having toured the
major cities of the world, now rests in a vault in Japan, the property
of a cartel of French and Swiss art dealers.
The only English language text Fini has illustrated is Carmilla (1983),
by Joseph-Sheridan le Fanu. This tale of a female vampire who preys
on young women is exemplified by the title illustration showing the
face of a beautiful woman which on careful observation hints at the
horror that lies just beneath the surface. Peoples' reaction to the
original drawing for the illustration shows just how successful Fini
is. They first admire the quality of the painting and then express an
unease with it. Only after they are shown the slight hint of fangs do
they shrug away their discomfort in the same manner that laughter dispels
the fright of a good horror movie.
Another difference from most illustrators is that Fini will often illustrate
the same material more than once. A good example is the work of Baudelaire.
She illustrated Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) originally in
1964. In 1986 she did new illustrations in part of Oeuvres Complete
du Baudelaire (The Complete Works of Baudelaire). She first did drawings
for the Les Peintres Du Livre (Painters of Books) series, of Le Livre
de Monelle (The Book of Monelle) by Marcel Schwobin 1965. The drawings
in this perfect-bound edition of 3,050 copies are unsophisticated, yet
effective. She chose to re-illustrate the text in a sumptuous, art deco
clothbound Livre D'Artiste edition, comprised of 24 signed etchings,
in 1976. These etchings, although similar in feel to the drawings in
the earlier book, are more detailed and ambitious.
She has just completed her third group of illustrations for the work
of Edgar Allan Poe. The first was in 1952; the second in 1966 and the
latest this year, 1987. Each of them has similar elements of design,
but brings new insight to the subject matter.
Fini's re-workings of earlier drawings and illustrations at various
stages in her life is done without self-consciousness or apology. In
her non-book-related paintings there is a marked propensity towards
developing a theme over long periods. This is one of the most disturbing
and hypnotic forces she wields over those who are attracted to her work.
I am constantly surprised to find that there are art dealers selling
art books who are totally unfamiliar with her name. I regularly receive
catalogues addressed to Leonor Fini in response to my ads requesting
quotes on books and material by or about her. In one instance a book
she had illustrated was offered in the catalogue!
Dealing in her work is both frustrating and rewarding. The blank looks
that I receive when I mention her name to all too many art and art book
dealers is disheartening and can be daunting; but the joy of discovering
those familiar with her work, and the greater joy of finding copies
of the books, more than makes up for it.
Art and Antiques in its September 1986 issue ran an item in its Sketchbook
column denigrating the commercial work of artists. It presented argument
that if an artist does commercial work he has damaged his artist integrity.
This seems to me to be one of the reasons that the painter of pictures
and the book illustrator - books being a more overtly commercial endeavor
- are seldom combined successfully in one individual. My response to
Art and Antiques and published in their November, 1986 issue was ".
. . that the artistic result should, and in the end will, govern the
wisdom and the integrity of each project."
To view a painting or an illustration by Leonor Fini is to prove the
validity of my response.