Leonor Fini. Never heard of her? You’re in good company. She’s not in the art history books. Fini was a painter in Paris in the 1930s, 40s, and later, working in the same circles as (but never quite claiming allegiance with) Surrealists like Max Ernst, Dalí, and Picasso, and her story has only come to light in recent years.
A selection of Fini’s work is on view at UNR’s Lilley Museum. If you’re not familiar with her (I wasn’t until now), and you’re wondering whether you should attend, here’s a list of five demographics I think this under-acknowledged free spirit’s work is likely to speak to.
Erotica fans (including, but not limited to BDSM fans)
First things first: Fini had a strong subversive bent, and much of her artwork is full-on sexy. In fact, her first-ever American exhibition, in 2016, was at the Museum of Sex. (If you’re curious, the New York Times has more on that.)
Erotica is not the focus of this exhibition. What you’ll see at the Lilley is a survey of Fini’s many themes and styles—more tethered to a Renassiance/Mannerist lineage than to the Surrealist work her contemporaries were making—but the few intimate encounters between energetically sketched figures that you’ll see here are enough to convey a sense of Fini’s erotic imagination. (If you’re curious, there are plenty more on the internet.)
Because she made her living as product designer and costume designer for theater and opera, Fini was not beholden to commercial tastes in order to support her studio work. As a result, she spent zero time trying to conform to what might sell. This is not your grandma’s fresh-faced, vintage cheesecake. It’s a mercurial, non-commercial version of sex that has nothing to do with what the tastemakers of 1940 or 1960 wanted viewers to think and everything to do with what the artist decided to indulge in personally.
BDSM fans: You may be delighted to learn that Fini’s imagery contains quite a bit of power play. You also might enjoy knowing that among the 50+ books she illustrated are Marquis de Sade’s “Juliette” and Pauline Reage’s Story of O.
Anyone who’s pro-polyamory or pro-bisexuality
There’s a quote attributed to Fini that appears in many writings, for which I could not trace an original source, but here it is:
“Marriage never appealed to me. I’ve never lived with one person. Since I was 18, I’ve always preferred to live in a sort of community – A big house with my atelier and cats and friends, one with a man who was rather a lover and another who was rather a friend. And it has always worked.”
Judging from her imagery, this appears to be an understatement. In the exhibition, you’ll catch a glimpse or two of amorous scenes involving more than two players. For many more such scenes, with varying numbers of lovers and varying combinations of women and men, I refer you to again to the internet.
People who who don’t give a damn about adhering to mid-20th-century gender roles
The exhibition is titled Leonor Fini—Not A Muse, An Artist, and it lives up to its name 100%.
Fini made self portraits sometimes, but not one of them depicts her playing the role of a lovely lady reclining for the aesthetic and inpirational benefit of a male artist. In Fini’s world, men were muses. Picture, if you would, a quiet, subordinate man, being admired for his beauty, posing for a portrait. From the lens of the present moment, it may not sound all that radical. But think about it. Have you ever seen that in an art history book?
Anyone who’s annoyed with how most of Western art history has dismissed women
Vivian Zavataro, the Lilley’s director and curator, started teaching art history at UNR in 2018.
“I saw that all of the art history books were very … the opposite of diverse,” she said. “Especially in modern art, they really focused on white, cisgender, heterosexual artists.” She started to think, “Where are the ladies? … I thought it was impossible that there were no women creating art during that time.” She decided to ditch the art history textbooks and assign only articles, so that her students could absorb some points of view that came from outside the men’s club of an art history canon.
“That’s how I found out about Leonor,” Zavtaro said.
As she researched Fini, she came across a telling conversation. Here’s how she recalls it: “So, somebody asks in an interview to Salvador Dalí, ‘What do you think about the art of Leonor Fini?’ ‘She’s better than most, but, you know, talent is in the balls.’”
Reportedly, Fini didn’t care one bit about Dalí’s opinion. Or the millennia-long streak of macho bullshit it rode in on. She made the artwork she wanted to make, social conventions be damned.
No kidding. Fini loved cats. Cats as symbols. (Regal sphinxs; playful storybook kitties.) Actual cats. (There are entire short films of her fawning over her houseful of cats.) Pesonifying cats in drawings. (Yep, including erotic ones.) Dressing up dancers in cat masks and costumes.
If you’re not enthusiastic about any of the above criteria for becoming a Fini fan—erotica, polyamory, gender-role fluidity, or giving the women of art history their due already—you could legitimately love this show on cat connoisseurship alone.
Leonor Fini—Not A Muse, An Artist is on view at the Lilley Museum of Art at UNR through May 15. Admission is free.
“A Surreal Night at The Lilley,” an online event, will take place April 1 at 6:30 pm.
An interview with Reno artist Rossitza Todorova, who is planning a gallery intervention, will take place on March 31 at 3:30 pm on Instagram Live.
On April 30, the Lilley and TMCC will collaboratively host a mask-making event from 5:30-7:30 pm. RSVPs are required and can be made by emailing email@example.com.
Cover photo: Kris Vagner