In an age and a place where women were expected to be more or less in line with male priorities, Leonor Fini (1907-1996) blazed her own path as a woman and as an artist. Fini was born in Argentina and raised in Italy, but spent most of her life in Paris. Best known as a painter, she was also a costume and set designer and a writer.
Fini created a series of images which conflated the feminine and the animal in a single body. In a series known as The Sphinxes, Fini indulges the “woman as animal” theme more completely than any of her contemporaries. However, in contrast to some works which would “lower” the female to the status of an animal, this work weds the power of the animal with the beauty of the female, resulting in an image which speaks of the strength of the feminine.
The figure’s thick red hair swirling about her head is reminiscent of a lion’s mane, implying a conflation of woman with the male as well as with the animal. Her arms metamorphose into powerful lion’s paws, one of which ends in four intimidating claws. The image speaks not only of the beauty but also of the danger of woman. Fini’s sphinxes served “as a symbolic reunification of a human and civilized world that [Fini viewed] as lacking passion and animality, and an animal world in which the magical powers of animals may help humans to understand their own loss of connection to a more primordial nature.”
Fini and Nature
As in the art of her contemporaries Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo, Fini’s attraction to unmediated nature is evident. “Like Varo, Fini believes in the superiority of cats, and like Carrington, she would prefer humans to be more animal-like.” Animal power is present and welcomed by the artist, but more in the form of a universal power to which the individual can submit and thus share, rather than the power of a machine which can be owned by a single person.
The freedom represented by the animal is the freedom of original nature, not only in the sense of the non-human world, but also in the sense of a person’s true self, unmediated by social constraint or technological complication, and unreceptive to outside agendas. Fini’s lionish Sphinx, with her piercing golden eyes and claws at the ready, is no benevolent muse, stepping lightly into the fantasies of men. It should not be forgotten that the Sphinx would kill men who could not answer her questions.