This month with the ArtSmart Roundtable we have had to pin our topic down to one painting.
I love so many for many different reasons but the one I have been mulling over the most since my graduation last year is a work (more like a couple of works) by Leonor Fini. You may not have heard of her here in North America but in France her work is still prominent and her social life was well documented as she was a woman who loved to shock the Parisian bourgeoisie.
I first came across Fini’s work when wandering the Surrealist exhibition that was held at the Vancouver Art Gallery during the summer of 2011. I had seen the infamous Dali (and Edward James) Lobster Telephone, Duchamp’s Boite-en-Valise, the automatism drawings of Tanguy and the disturbingly enchanted painting The Oneiroscopist by Edith Remmington. But what really caught my eye that day was the works that I was not familiar with which included Leonor Fini’s The Alcove: An Interior with Three Women 1939 – also known as La Chambre Noire.
The painting is what both titles promise, a dark bedroom with three women. In the background darkness upon a bed of grey silk and white sheets are two young women. The woman almost completely in darkness has her belly protruding into a bit of light and in fact we can only see her face and her stomach to know that she is present. She stares into the mid left either at the woman in foreground or right behind her. The second woman, in the red shirt is looking to the woman in the foreground as if waiting for her reaction.
What captured me were the garments of the foreground character. The foreground character stands in control of the room emotionless yet strong and stern staring beyond the frame to the right. She wears a chest plate that covers her entire torso stopping at her neck and shoulders and her hair is long, wild and voluminous. Her nylons are red and pop against her long green skirt and the green scarf or perhaps blazer she holds in her right hand almost dangling from her finger tips. Her left hand is hidden within the darkness and perhaps is the central focus for the woman furthest in the background. Strewn upon the ground is a hat, more striped stockings similar to what the woman in red is wearing and red stockings similar to what the foreground character is wearing.
To get a deeper understanding of this painting we should try to understand Fini. First of all, nylons – red and striped as within the painting – were fashion items she often wore. In fact, Andre Breton had admired her pink cardinal stockings she wore having purchased them from a Roman store catering to cardinals and priests. Although both Breton and Fini had a distain for each other due to his misogynist ways. Fini would often dress similar to her characters and costume designer Schiaparelli would design her outrageous clothing for her to attend Parisian events in. Fini ended up being one of the most photographed artists of the 20th century.
A trait of Fini’s work is to have female characters that often resemble sorceresses wearing armour and or tattered clothing. Sorcery was a prominent theme within the work of second generation female Surrealists who were veering away from Breton’s Surrealism who used Freud and taboos. The second generation female Surrealists looked to psychologist Carl Jung instead of Freud using his themes of mythology. Leonor Fini’s dear friend Leonora Carrington, who is actually the muse for the woman within Fini’s foreground in The Alcove, was one of these second generation Surrealists. Carrington and Fini met through Max Ernst who was a true playboy within the art world. I challenge you to find a female Surrealist he didn’t sleep with (there aren’t too many). Ernst was lovers with Fini but then left her for Carrington. The Surrealists often saw relationships similar to to the characters within a Jack Kerouak book, as fluid as the paint spread across their canvases. However, Carrington was Ernst’s love and vice versa and while he was imprisoned within a Nazi prison camp she showed sings of struggling mental health. However, Fini’s The Alcove was painted before her breakdown and eventual self-admittance to a Spanish experimental mental hospital.
One of Carrington’s works, Self Portrait done in 1936 depicts a woman siting within a chair with a rocking horse upon the wall behind her. The character of Carrington’s piece appears similar to the Carrington within Fini’s The Alcove. The faces are pale and emotionless, the hair crazed and is an example of the sorceresses that many female Surrealists painted at that time.
Females within the Surrealist movement felt ignored and objectified by Breton’s manifesto which spoke only to men, much as Freud’s work focused only on the male perspective. Painting women strong and in control was a way to reclaim that power for the second generation female Surrealists. Many of the men within the Surrealist movement used the female body within their work in a sexualized way much as the male painters movements and generations before them had.
Within Fini’s Surrealist work she painted androgynous men, submissive to a powerful sorceress or female sphinx. Within The Alcove Fini is establishing a Surrealist woman with power and an example to follow. Within the bedroom the women behind the foreground Carrington appear looking to her as if in need of a strong example, a leader of sorts who keeps her armour on within the bedroom.
Leonor Fini goes on to paint many more characters that appear wearing armour similar to the of Wonder Woman, Super Girl or Catwoman and as my professor, Robert J. Belton author of The Beribonned Bomb: The Image of Woman in Male Surrealist Art, expressed during my last year of university after I revealed this link between the female Surrealists of this time – there must be a missing link that connects Fini or female Surrealists in general with artists from the comic book world. Especially because comic books were highly popular during the Surrealist movement when exhibitions were taking place in New York and later in Los Angeles. However, Wonder Woman for example made her debut in 1941, which is well within the Surrealist timeline as the female generation moved on and gaining publicity. The only missing link is to prove that a comic book artist had attended one of the Surrealist exhibitions and was inspired and the rest is history.
To Learn more about Leonor Fini and her biography watch the video below.
What do you think? Is Fini and second generation Surrealists a viable link to modern day female comic book characters?
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