[Marietta:] Have you seen Leonor Fini’s illustrations for Historie d’O? ‘Illustrations’ is hardly the word—they’re more like a visual echo of the text, dark-coloured washes over lithographed pen-and-ink drawings. Very evocative, but far removed from my own fantasy when reading Réage’s love letter. I do like Fini’s eroticism, though.
D’un jour à l’autre I (From One Day to Another I, 1938) depicts a deserted classical villa, reminiscent of a Paul Delvaux setting, with steps down to a pool on whose surface can be seen flowers, feathers, eggshells, and fish bones. This painting is half of a diptych, the other half being D’un jour à l’autre II (From One Day to Another II), in which the same villa is now partly in ruins and five provocative women, some clothed, some nude, are talking together in the pool. They ignore a nude and bandaged boy in the pool beside them, as well as a man tied to a chair being attacked by three chickens and a man emerging from a tiger skin beside the pool. These two paintings present a nightmare that seems to reflect the atmosphere of the time in Europe. Leonor told the author that the villa had been “ruined by the cruel cataclysm of war.” Here again, the most prominent woman is clearly Leonor herself.
Also from 1938 are two paintings of young women in armour up to their breasts, which seem to have been studies for La Chambre noire, or The Alcove: An Interior with Three Figures of 1939. In this painting the theatrical curtains of an alcove are drawn back to reveal Leonor in characteristic striped stockings seated on a bed holding the hand of an androgynous young person lying beside her. In an atmosphere of mystery and drama, both are looking towards the tall and imposing figure of Leonora Carrington, surrounded by discarded clothing but wearing a metal breastplate, who stands triumphant and powerful in the position of guardian and protector.
Leonor Fini, Self-Portrait with Chimera, 1939
Autoritratto con Chimera (Self-portrait with Chimera, 1939) shows the artist with an abundance of long black hair and wearing a dress but with the wings and tail of a bird, standing beside a hybrid creature with the body of a lion, the upper torso of a nude woman, extended wings, and the head of a cat. This extraordinary painting of Leonor as a deity, half-animal and half-human, which has some of the shock of an Ernst collage, includes a forerunner of her characteristic sphinxes. She herself chose the word ‘ceremony’ to describe these and many later works: “The ‘ceremonies’ are chosen actions where disorder, ugliness, incoherence are rejected, abolished.”
These paintings mark an important stage in the progress of Leonor’s art. They demonstrate not only the lessons she learned from surrealism but also her independence from the movement. They create an erotic dream world in which women are in control, a world that would become characteristic of so many of her later images, such as the numerous manifestations of the sphinx. They show a concern with ancient ceremonies and rituals, a mythology based on the artist’s own psychological and sexual experiences of both men and women. They betray an awareness of the immediate dangers facing the artist and her friends and the world around her as Europe headed towards war in 1939.