Leonor Fini and her Cats: The Subjects of her Work and the Objects of her Affection.
She adored cats. Everyone around her adored cats. Artist Leonor Fini, shared her extraordinary life with sometimes ten, sometimes twenty, sometimes more cats of all shapes and sizes. Abyssinians, Scottish Folds, Himalayans, Strays. Persians were her favorite. She found great beauty in the species, in their freedom, and independence. They became a favored subject of her artwork, which was sometimes whimsical, and often erotic. She had conceived a fantastical world on canvas, where women were portrayed as sphinx; in control, mischievous, and all-knowing. The Parisian cult figure fixated on all things cat was more feline than feminine; dignified, powerful, sexual yet not constrained by her sex. Feminists hailed her, but she reportedly dismissed the praise, saying, “I am a painter, not a woman painter. I am independent.”
Fini was born in Argentina, but was quickly spirited away to Italy when her parents’ relationship disintegrated. In Trieste, Italy, Fini’s mother dressed her as a boy until she was 16, in order to elude her estranged husband’s kidnap attempts. This empowered young Fini, who never seemed to feel constrained by her gender, and throughout her life dismissed anyone (including Surrealist Andre Breton), who did not treat her as an equal. Fini was surrounded by the greats from an early age, which likely contributed to her great confidence and poise, as her mother hosted Sunday salons to which James Joyce, and Rainer Maria Rilke would attend. She heroicized Nietzsche and was fascinated with Freud. Countless men and women were taken by Leonor, including Max Ernst, Margot Fonteyn, Pablo Picasso, Horst, Andy Warhol and Cecil Beton, and many used Fini as an inspiration to their art – be it poetry, prose, painting or photography.
Fini, called by some the last of the great Surrealists, illustrated over 60 books, including Histoire de Vibrissa (1973), which depicted many of her famous friends as cats – some not so flattering – causing a stir amongst the European artists’ circles. One of her most famous paintings was Dimanche Après-Midi (1980), an oil painting interspersing wild-haired yet essentially sexless women in diaphanous dress with cats of all types. She designed things as diverse as the label of the 1952 Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Elsa Schiaparelli’s Shocking perfume bottle, molded after Mae West’s torso. Fini also designed costumes and sets for the Paris Ballet, including Roland Petit’s Les Demoiselles de la Nuit, set on Paris rooftops. Fini created elaborate cat masks for the dancers, but Margot Fonteyn, the prima ballerina claimed hers made her feel grotesque, and refused to wear it. A bit of a prima donna herself, Fini threatened to set fire to the theater if Fonteyn didn’t wear it in the production. At the pleading of Petit, they compromised on a cut down version of the mask.
“I didn’t know a person who didn’t fight with her at some point. But then you had to step back and say – that’s just Leonor,” Neil Zukerman, friend and owner of the CFM gallery in New York City, says fondly. He remembers the first day he was invited to Leonor’s house in Paris after offering to bring her an exotic American shorthair (one of the few breeds that she didn’t have), as a hostess gift. From that moment, they became great friends. Although Fini died in 1996, the gifted cat, Maisie, is one of two of Leonor’s cats that remain in her home today (the other is Misha), looked after by close friends Richard Overstreet and JoyceNeyman; fellow feline aficionados.
In her life, her own cats allowed her to easily study the feline form. Whenever she painted, “the cats would come all around her; on the easel, on the bed on the palate,” recalls Joyce. Zukerman, a collector of her work, lets the cat out of the bag; you can always know an original Fini, “by the cat hair and occasional scratch on the canvas,” pointing to one in his collection with such a distinctive marking. Overstreet, Fini’s friend since 1968 when she designed costumes for a John Huston film for which he was assistant director, remembers the cat hair billowing in the air in her studio. He is also quick to partially dispel a delicious rumor I had heard about Leonor, that her cats “did not always travel by limousine . . . Only when she went to the Loire valley in the summer were they packed into their own car in little wicker baskets – four or five in the front and fifteen or so in the back.” He conceded that the two hour trip would be made with anaccapella chorus of meows, resounding from the car.
Those who knew Leonor always come back to the same main themes; extraordinary beauty, sexuality, intellect and of course, cats. Active in the SPA of France, she was a good friend of Brigitte Bardot and contributed her art to the organization in order to draw attention to the problem of strays. She could not say no when it came to the species, and even with so many (Overstreet tallied 50 throughout her life), she never got used to the loss. She was known to say, “In every way cats are the most perfect creatures on the face of the earth, except that their lives are too short.”