New York

Leonor Fini and Geneviève Sevin-Doering, Le Printemps (The Spring), ca. 1975, tie-dyed silk gown, pleated and tie-dyed satin headdress, dimensions variable.

Leonor Fini and Geneviève Sevin-Doering, Le Printemps (The Spring), ca. 1975, tie-dyed silk gown, pleated and tie-dyed satin headdress, dimensions variable.

Leonor Fini

As a child, Leonor Fini (1907–1996) was spirited away from Buenos Aires to Trieste, Italy, to escape a domineering father. To thwart his repeated kidnapping attempts, she dressed as a boy; her gender-bending costumes offered her a way to slip out from under a patriarchal thumb. After studying local cadavers as a teenager—the experience may have ignited her aesthetic predilection for the macabre—Fini relocated to Paris and fell in with the Surrealists. Though André Breton’s lamentable misogyny deterred her from identifying with the group, she participated in such landmark shows as the “International Surrealist Exhibition” at the New Burlington Galleries in London and “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, both 1936. In postwar France—living first with one partner, then with two amid a loving clowder—Fini continued to paint and draw but devoted much of her energy to costume and set design for theater, ballet, opera, film, and television.

For Fini, art and life were inextricable, knit together by an abiding interest in the performance of self, nonnormative conceptions of gender and sexuality, and transformation. These themes constellated in Kasmin’s “Leonor Fini: Metamorphosis,” a lively sampling of the artist’s seven-decade oeuvre, which skewed toward works made in the 1950s through the ’70s. Set against oxblood-colored walls, the exhibition interspersed paintings and drawings that were loosely grouped according to subject matter with theatrical designs, masks, and outfits, including Le printemps (The Spring), ca. 1975, an intricately pleated rose caftan with imposing betta–fish like billows, made in collaboration with Geneviève Sevin-Doering, that was featured in the 2022 Venice Biennale.

Dressing up, Fini said, was “the instrument by which we feel the sensation of changing dimension, species, space.” The elaborate costumes she created for masquerades—designs that were often adapted for the stage—were meant to transform the wearer into human/animal hybrids: creatures unbeholden to any dreary taxonomic constraints. (Plants were ripe for the artist’s sublime modifications as well, as evinced by Masque végétal [Vegetable Mask], 1960, a green vizard composed of dried wheat, flowers, berries, and green-blue stones.) Les cornes (The Horns), 1973, was a set of small, finely ridged waterbuck horns crafted from gold. Equal parts sculptural object and pagan wearable, the alchemical antlers were worn by the artist in her lifetime but were here affixed to an onyx-colored pedestal. A prurient charge suffused several of Fini’s interspecies comminglings, perhaps most gloriously in Les merveilles de la nature (The Wonders of Nature), 1965, an ecstatic drawing of a nude woman copulating with a stag that is so fluidly rendered, the two seem to meld into a single new body. The tendency toward interpenetration in Fini’s work also extends to the boundaries between life and death. In Pendu—Fêtes secrètes No. 12 (Hanged Man—Secret Parties, No. 12), 1977, fat pink flowers sprouted from the colorless cranium of a hanged corpse, whose ample codpiece suggests that he perhaps achieved his petite mort via autoerotic asphyxiation. Fini, it should be noted, illustrated editions of the Marquis de Sade’s Juliette (1797–1801) and Anne Desclos’s Story of O (1954).

The artist was also drawn to Greek and Egyptian mythologies for their thematic preoccupation with metamorphosis and hybridity, and she repeatedly returned to the figure of the sphinx. While Surrealists typically used this creature to signify the mystery and threat of women to men, Fini’s sovereign monstress was more Magna Mater than femme fatale. A trio of drawings, Pourquoi pas? (Why Not?), each 1975, depicted the torqued chimera: With each image, she grows increasingly more colorful until the final, where she becomes an unbridled mosaic of lime green, orange, and turquoise. Although the impassive sphinxes populating Fini’s 1940s canvases (not on view here) often preside over umbral worlds poised between death and rebirth, this later iteration seems to tend to her own internal transformation. Across the decades, Fini also regularly cast the figure of the witch as an agent of feminine power. The subject of Sorcière à plusieurs visages (Witch with Many Faces), 1978, was portrayed as a gleeful broomstick rider. The ghostly impressions of eyes and mouths in her hair may indicate motion, but they are also distinct entities, as the supplementary visages on her shoulder and crotch make unmistakably clear. This being—a new kind of hero—pulses with weird erotic power that hints at the possibility of a liberatory zone outside of existing social and sexual relations. If it’s a self-portrait, it could be the most accurate one Fini ever made.