New York

Leonor Fini, Divinité chtonienne guettant le sommeil d’un jeune homme (Chthonian Deity Watching over the Sleep of a Young Man), 1946, oil on canvas, 11 × 16 1⁄4".

Leonor Fini, Divinité chtonienne guettant le sommeil d’un jeune homme (Chthonian Deity Watching over the Sleep of a Young Man), 1946, oil on canvas, 11 × 16 1⁄4".

Leonor Fini

Museum of Sex

“Theatre of Desire, 1930–1990” is the first American retrospective devoted to the Argentinean-Italian painter and illustrator Leonor Fini (1907–1996). Across two floors and sixty years, precious Italianate portraits of friends and lovers morph into macabre fantasies of witches’ sabbaths and half-flayed bodies, crystallizing at last into kinky, acrid-pastel paintings of women and girls locked into flattened, compressed spaces and ambiguous erotic relations. Pornographic illustrations for works by Jean Genet and the Marquis de Sade, costume designs for operas and ballets, and extravagant photo portraits of the artist by George Platt Lynes, Carl Van Vechten, and Henri Cartier-Bresson also texture the exhibition as vivid artifacts of Fini’s social and intellectual milieu.

Born in Buenos Aires, Fini was raised in Trieste, Italy, by her mother, who left Argentina to escape an unhappy marriage. She began painting at age thirteen and, lacking formal training, learned anatomy by studying Renaissance paintings in museums as well as cadavers at the local morgue. Fini moved to Paris in 1931 and became close with Georges Bataille, Max Ernst, and other artists and intellectuals in Surrealism’s orbit. In 1936, she participated in the first International Exhibition of Surrealism in London, had a two-person show with Ernst at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York, and presented works in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism.” Today, MoMA has no paintings by Fini in its collection. It has 283 by Ernst.

That this retrospective is held at the Museum of Sex underscores institutional art history’s missed encounter with Fini’s work. For curator Lissa Rivera, the exhibition is an opportunity to uncover the transgressive sexual politics of Fini’s art and life “removed from the stifling context of masculine movements and constructs—the Surrealist movement and even art history itself.” Foregrounding themes of gender fluidity and sexual expression in her work, her rejection of marriage and procreative sexuality (she lived in a ménage à trois with two men for forty years), and her flamboyant self-fashioning that anticipated performative theories of the subject, “Theatre of Desire” makes a case for Fini as a sex-positive, proto-feminist icon. “Affirming femininity” through “images of strong women,” the wall text asserts, “Fini was able to create a space of empowerment.”

In her epicene male nudes from the early 1940s, for example, Fini redistributes the usual scopic economy of erotic art, giving the lissome male body over to the desiring female gaze. In Divinité chtonienne guettant le sommeil d’un jeune homme (Chthonian Deity Watching over the Sleep of a Young Man), 1946, this gaze belongs to a black Sphinx—a common avatar for the artist—looming in the velvety shadows over the attenuated body of a supine ephebe, his sex barely hidden by a swath of iridescent pink fabric. This nocturnal visitation recalls Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare, 1781, classically understood as a Romantic allegory of repressed libidinal drives (a reproduction reportedly hung in Freud’s study). While undeniably erotic, Chthonian Deity also contains a crucial thanatotic element. “The man in my painting sleeps,” Fini explained, “because he refuses the animus role of the social and constructed and has rejected the responsibility of working in society toward those ends.” In this statement we glimpse a nonproductive expenditure, a totalizing refusal of work and the world, and an excessive, hard-to-name negativity remaindered by the show’s framing themes of unfettered pleasure and empowerment. “I am against society,” she insisted in 1962, “eminently asocial, and I am linked to nature like a witch rather than as priestess, as I’ve told you I am in favor of a world where there is little or no sex distinction.”