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Wednesday, July 6, 2005

Consciously painting the subconscious

New retrospective shows how Leonor Fini's career outstripped Surrealism

Special to The Japan Time

One of my favorite paintings is one by a trained elephant that I picked up on holiday in Thailand daubed by a trained elephant. It's not a very good one, but the story behind it makes it special -- highlighting one of the aspects by which art has come to be judged.

In a similar way, the story of Leonor Fini, the Surrealist painter whose works are on view at the Bunkamura, adds a certain mystique and fascination to her art, although, luckily, in her lengthy career, she learned to paint a lot better than the average tourist-friendly elephant.

Her life was marked by a series of dramatic episodes, such as the early divorce of her parents. One year after she was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1907, her Italian mother divorced her father and took her back to Italy, where Fini was routinely disguised as a boy to prevent her estranged Argentinian father kidnapping her and taking her back to Argentina.

Wearing male clothing seems to have played a significant part in her life. When she was living in Paris in 1936, one of her paintings was seen by a member of the Surrealist group and a meeting was arranged. For this pivotal event, she arrived dressed in a cardinal's scarlet robes, a stroke of self-dramatization that established her reputation.

Although the works of female Surrealists, like Dorothea Tanning and Frida Kahlo, have attracted increasing attention recently, Surrealism is still seen as an art movement that was dominated by Freudianism and male notions of desire. Fini's art is supposed to be a woman's take on the movement, and offer a female view of erotic pleasure, but how much paintings of women about to engage in cunnilingus reflect a feminine sexual perspective is open to question.

The fact that such works are among Fini's paintings also explains why this exhibition is being held now, nine years after her death.

"Even a few years ago it was a problem to bring sexually explicit works to Japan," assistant curator Aki Hirokawa points out. She also explains that, despite the clearly lesbian content of paintings like "Between the Two" (1967), Fini had many male lovers. But this, instead of confirming her feminine sexuality, suggests that she was merely co-opting male sexual norms of promiscuity in a way that created notoriety useful to an artist.

While earlier artistic movements depicted the external world, Surrealism took the inner world of the subconscious for its territory, both in terms of method and subject. While artists like Andre Masson and Max Ernst developed techniques like automatism and drip painting that sought to bypass conscious creativity, other Surrealists, like Salvador Dali, consciously painted the subconscious world of dreams and visions, as did Fini.

An eye infection in her teens temporarily blinded her, and helped Fini to develop her ability to visualize fantastic images. So, when she came to paint, she was a natural Surrealist -- as shown by "The Interval of the Apotheosis" (1938-9), an eerie dreamlike scene in which the central figure, interpreted as Fini herself, attempts to place a wig on her knee against a dreamscape populated with witch-like hags.

Despite her affinities with Surrealism, Fini preferred to maintain some distance from the official Surrealist group, dominated by the writer and theoretician, Andre Breton. She saw the group's obsession with manifestoes and theories not as radical, but as a symptom of what Dali called a "typical petit-bourgeois mentality." So, while benefiting from her association with Surrealism, Fini was not stifled by it and continued to develop her art in other directions, notably as a costume designer for opera and ballet.

She also distinguished herself as a portrait painter as several examples here testify. Some of these are clearly pictures of friends tossed off in moments of fun, while others are formal, finished portraits of the wealthy and vain, like her excellent "Portrait of Princess Nawal Toussoun" (1952), which shows a princess of the soon-to-be-deposed Egyptian royal family, painted in what is today an almost shockingly un-Islamic costume, holding a luxuriantly furred Persian cat. The interesting contrast between the open slender neck of the princess and that of the cat, which is being firmly held, suffuses the work with a subtle tension that gives it energy.

While later paintings sometimes took on a "kittens and clowns" kitschiness, this exhibition shows Fini succeeded in creating a visionary universe that was the perfect foil to her larger-than-life character.

"Leonor Fini" runs till 31 July at The Bunkamura Museum of Art, Tokyo; Daimaru Museum, Umeda Aug. 31 - Sept. 11, The Museum of Modern Art in Gunma, Sept. 23 - Nov. 3, Nagoya City Art Museum, Nov. 11 - Dec. 25

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