The Kaleidoscopic Self Part III: Le Livre de Leonor Fini (1975) by Brianna Mullin
In surrealist literature, the pictorial never seems to stray far from the textual: a multidisciplinary genre par excellence, surrealism looks to transgress literary norms by distorting and expanding the boundaries that distinguish artistic mediums. Thus, it is not a coincidence that in some of Surrealism’s most notable works image is as important and prominent as text: Nadja (1928) and L’Amour fou (1937) in which Breton includes photographs varying from different Parisian streets and monuments to objets trouves; La femme 100 tetes (1929) by Max Ernst which contains cut-outs from 19th century magazines, or Le coeur de pic (1937), a children’s book of poems written by Lise Deharme with photomontages by Claude Cahun. Diverse in its materializations, the surrealist book, also called book object, illustrated book, artist’s book or livre de peintre, has no single model, “just as there is no single model for surrealist painting” (Adamowicz 2009). Le Livre de Leonor Fini seems to be, however, the archetypal surrealist artist’s book. Created in collaboration with editor and author Jose Alvarez, Le Livre contains paintings, photographs, drawings, written personal accounts and excerpts of short stories by Fini. As a surrealist artist’s book, it functions as a moving collage of Fini’s life, using the self as many women surrealists often do: as both muse and creator, these intertwining roles deconstructing patriarchal limitations of women’s place in art.
Before the reader even opens this heavy book-object, which measures a staggering 14.4 in. x 10.7 in., she is challenged by the defiant look of Fini on the cover: draped in all black, Fini forces the role of spectator onto the reader through her demanding gaze, daring her to enter Fini’s world if she so chooses. It is as if the artist is admitting to the reader-spectator that she is aware of their presence. In so doing, she acknowledges her double role as subject-object while rendering the artist-spectator relationship a reciprocal rapport of creation and merging of subjectivities. The surrealist self is, after all, malleable. This is confirmed by the veil that Fini wears over her face; she is inviting us into a performance, a charade of selves that is compiled of interlinking artistic fragments, as she explains on the first page of the text:
“This is not my imaginary museum, but rather an ideal milieu that corresponds to my painting. This pleases me more than a monograph. […] Before starting the work on this book with Jose Alvarez, we spread hundreds of photos on the ground and played with them like dominos. A certain memory attracts a painting, which attracts an object, which attracts another painting, which attracts a city. Photos impose a route, like the numbers on dominos” (5).
The book-object thus imitates its initial genesis by oscillating between different mediums and memories, creating a reflective chain of events that merge into each other. As Andrea Oberhuber explains, the dynamic space of the Livre, which dissolves artistic boundaries, embodies the pleasure of 1. the found-object (or objet trouve) and 2. the accidental encounter, both crucial to surrealist expression, as each page reveals a tidbit of Fini’s self, visually or textually, or an unexpected image or excerpt that serves to shock or frighten or entice the reader-spectator. So detailed is this palimpsest of a book that each new reading brings about a different interpretation as the reader-spectator discovers elements previously overlooked. If this is not Fini’s imaginary museum, it is at the very least her own cabinet of curiosities in which she collects and stores materials of the self; personal fantasies incarnated through photography, painting and the written word.
It is interesting to note that in French, the word “domino” also signifies a “piece of clothing or masquerade-ball costume, composed of an open dress, which descends to the heels, and some sort of hood” (Academie francaise, see image below). While she did not mean it in this sense in her explanation of the genesis of this book, when Fini says that organizing the photographs was like “playing dominos” [jouer aux dominos], we can interpret this, given the importance of disguise in Fini’s work, as “dominos” in the sense of the 19th century masquerade dress; that is to say that the book’s creation came to be from playing dress up.
A theatre costume designer from the mid-1940s to the early 1970s, Fini, who was known for her extravagant dress, pours her love of masquerade into her Livre. It is not as much a question in Fini’s work of removing the mask to reach the “true” self than it is draping one’s self in disguise in order to blur the opposition of truth and non-truth. As Lissa Rivera explains: “[Fini] always felt that identity was just a mask […] [s]o the masks that she chose to wear were more true than her biological face” (New York Times 2018). This desire of disguise undoubtedly stems from Fini’s childhood in which she would have to dress up as a boy to avoid being kidnapped by her rich, controlling father in the street (Godard 1996). The role of Other that costume creates is thus a form of protection for Fini; her sense of Self from a young age is intrinsically linked to an otherness that she had to adopt for her own security.
The use of masquerade serves to expand Fini’s form of self because it reflects the merging of her roles as muse and artist: she uses her own body as a canvas for self-expression and experimentation, making her at once model and designer, living art and artist.
The use of masquerade serves to expand Fini’s form of self because it reflects the merging of her roles as muse and artist: she uses her own body as a canvas for self-expression and experimentation, making her at once model and designer, living art and artist. In several paintings of the Livre we see the process of masquerade, which is, in Fini’s work, a process of becoming, as feminine figures are measured and dressed up in gowns. In L’essayage II, the gown which is being measured is almost indistinguishable from the body of the female figure, as if it is an extension of her skin. In L’essayage I, another female figure is literally tied up to a canvas, emphasizing the way in which the body functions as a space of creation and manipulation: this is not an idealized female body, but a distorted one, reminding us of Louise Bourgeois’ words: “For me, sculpture is the body. My body is my sculpture” (quoted in Chadwick 1998, 13).
For Fini, her body is the extension of her canvas, as she explains in the Livre:
“Putting on costumes, getting dressed up is an act of creativity. And that applies to one’s self which becomes other characters or one’s own character. It’s about inventing one’s self, being transformed, being so apparently changing and multiple that one can feel it from within one’s self. It’s one —or many— representations of self, it’s the excessive exteriorization of fantasies that one holds within, it’s the rawest creative expression” (41).
Following the same logic of plural self-representation that Claude Cahun evokes in her autobiography Aveux non avenus (1930), “Under this mask, another mask. I will never be finished removing all these faces,” Fini rejects the patriarchal notion of a universal One by illustrating the self as a wellspring of creation. Costume is not simply superficial, extravagant attire; it’s the exterior evocation of internal self-invention. One does not reach the self by removing layers, but by adding them. To refuse an absolute self through the transformative power of masquerade is to reject the patriarchal localization of women. The trope of the masked-self both acknowledges and deconstructs women’s exteriority in the male gaze, as Whitney Chadwick explains: “Positioned to collude in their objectification, unable to differentiate their own subjectivity from the condition of being seen, women artists have struggled toward ways of framing the otherness of woman that direct attention to moments of rupture with — or resistance to—cultural constructions of femininity” (1998, p. 9).
Women surrealists like Fini rupture with the cultural constructions of femininity by reworking the “rituals of seduction” that masquerade represents and creating new coded signs (Chadwick 1998). In a society that attempts to subjugate women to the role of muse and mirror of male desire, displacing, or effacing, any possibility of realized selfhood, women surrealists choose to dismantle the hierarchy of roles altogether. Through masquerade, Fini plays with the limitations of dichotomies as the mask serves to blur the boundaries between masculinity/femininity, living/dead and human/animal (Mandia 2020).
Fini rejects the patriarchal notion of a universal One by illustrating the self as a wellspring of creation. Costume is not simply superficial, extravagant attire; it’s the exterior evocation of internal self-invention.
Representations of death characterize the Livre, with skeletons donning sheer dresses and hats. Death is an aesthetic performance of glamour and grace, a symbol of nocturnal fêtes par excellence. Fini explains in the text that as a young adolescent she “[…] admired the perfection of skeletons, the fact that they are the least “deteriorable” part of the body […]” (124). Fini’s fascination with death stems from childhood. She describes in the Livre how she would visit the local morgue as a young girl, observing different cadavers whose display to the public represented a sort of gothic performance as the bodies were “[…] well-dressed, surrounded by sumptuous flowers, the head resting on embroidered cushions; the women, their beautiful hair scattered” (124). Death is an extension of masquerade; it represents mystery, the unknown. Like art, it is sacred. To attempt to represent it is to attempt to represent the unpresentable (Mandia 2020). Fini does not shy away from such a challenge: her danse macabre is as much a celebration of life as it is of the unknown. The costumes and movements of the painted skeletons in the Livre reveal that they are very much alive; resisting the stasis of death through dynamic eroticism, seducing the spectator by this disturbing yet enticing in-between state. It is also interesting to note that on the cover of the Livre, Fini is dressed in a ceremonial funerary garment, as if she too is “looking at us from death” (Mandia 2020, 44).
In addition to death, we also see this blurring of realms with the use of cats and sphinxes in the Livre. How can one avoid talking about cats when discussing Leonor Fini? In the same way that the mask invents and evolves the self, the feline characteristics that define many of Fini’s painted characters (as in Les mutantes, for example) dissolve boundaries and prioritize hybridity. There are no limitations between the human world and the animal world: in Fini’s three novels of the 1970s, Mourmour, conte pour enfants velus (1976), of which the Livre contains excerpts, L’Oneiropompe (1978) and Rogomolec (1979), felines play an extremely important role; as love interests, protagonists, etc. In Mourmour, for example, the main character is half-cat, half-human. In the Livre, the reader-spectator is thrown into this Finian universe in which cats abound: from the humoristic to the tender, cats are used to draw the human subject in and illustrate their inability to tame nature. Fini does not look to dominate her favourite animal, but to live in such a harmony with them that her human subjects inevitably become felines (incarnated most notably through the figure of the sphinx). There are several photographs of Fini’s own cats throughout the Livre, and a striking photo of the artist wading in water, wearing a large hat on which images of cats have been placed; her very own “cat costume.” If masquerade is a means of revealing the self, Fini does not shy away from using material —from costume to paint— to reveal her most hybrid of qualities.
Le livre de Leonor Fini is a masterpiece of the surrealist artist’s book genre. The dissolving of boundaries in the content results in the dissolving of distinctions between different art forms as word and image work together to create a reader-spectator experience in which Fini demands our full participation. The “undetermined,” “unknown” and “in-between” create new spaces of curiosity and contemplation of the Self. The nineteen different sections that define the Livre function as nineteen different Finian universes in which the reader-spectator can immerse herself; from “The Long Sleep of Flowers” to “Breathing Shadows.” From a feminist perspective, Fini rejects patriarchal notions of autobiography by questioning the stability of the self through traditionally feminine themes and figures; masquerade, felines, sphinxes, and even Death. She invents a new autobiographical space in which limitations are effaced and she assumes total agency. Although Fini refused labels, this innovative, interdisciplinary Livre seems to tie in well with her feminist values that call for women to create and demand more, as she once stated: “Often I find that by wanting to be equal to men, they [women] are too modest… they’re only paying them homage. Women must have the pride to invent other glories, other honours and to remain sovereign” (Godard 1996, 106).
Adamowicz, Elza. “The Surrealist Artist’s Book: Beyond the Page,” The Princeton University
Library Chronicle, vol. 70, no. 2, 2009, p. 265-292.
Chadwick, Whitney (ed.). Mirror Images: Women, Surrealism and Self-Representation. Cambridge, Mass., & London, England: MIT Press, 1998.
Fini, Leonor and Jose Alvarez. Le Livre de Leonor Fini. Lausanne: La Guilde du Livre, 1975.
Godard, Jocelyn. Leonor Fini ou les metamorphoses d’une œuvre. Paris: Le Semaphore, 1996.
Mandia, Valerie. Autoportraits texte-image chez Leonor Fini. Doctoral Thesis, Ottawa:
University of Ottawa, 2020.
McDermon, Daniel. “Sex, Surrealism and de Sade: The Forgotten Female Artist Leonor Fini,” The New York Times, November 6 2018:
Oberhuber, Andrea. “La dualite creatice dans Le Livre de Leonor Fini”:
Dictionnaire de l’academie francaise. “Domino”: https://www.dictionnaire-academie.fr/article/A9D3010
Brianna Mullin is currently a PhD student in French Literature at the University of Toronto. Her research interests include transgressive desire, humour noir and word-image studies in French surrealist literature (Nelly Kaplan, Lise Deharme, Valentine Penrose).