Little Hermit Sphinx, despite its modest size, is one of Fini’s key works of the post-war period. It shows the open doorway of a decrepit and overgrown building, with peeling paintwork and abandoned furnishings. The scene is a disconcerting one. The threshold is occupied by an internal organ – which the artist identified as a human lung – suspended from the lintel and the sphinx of the title, sitting among leaves, bones, a bird’s skull and a broken egg shell. The sphinx wears a black cloak that parts to reveal her cat-like paw.
The themes of mortality and morbidity place Little Hermit Sphinx at the intersection between two sequences of Fini’s paintings. On the one hand, the thresholds of ruined buildings were later taken further in The Stair in the Tower 1952 and The Convent Door 1955 (both private collection, both reproduced in Civico Museo Rivoltella, Galleria d’Arte Moderna 2009, pp.144–5). Such openings, especially onto darkened or labyrinthine spaces, suggest what one scholar has described as ‘the fear of the unseen, of the unknown, of the future and of our fate within it’ (Annette Shandler Levitt, The Genres and Genders of Surrealism, New York 1999, p.101). On the other hand, much of the tension in Little Hermit Sphinx is generated by the presence of the sphinx itself, a figure that preoccupied Fini throughout the 1940s. This began with The Shepherdess of the Sphinxes 1941 (Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice). This imagery looks back to nineteenth-century symbolism and especially to the work of the Belgian painter Fernand Knopff (1858–1921). However, Fini located herself within a specifically female hermetic tradition of an originary and powerful Great Goddess. The art historian Whitney Chadwick has observed: ‘For Fini, woman is sorceress and priestess, beautiful and sovereign; by assuming the form of the sphinx she exercises all the powers that have been lost to contemporary woman’ (Whitney Chadwick, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, London 1985, p.188).
This empowerment of the feminine underlies all of Fini’s depictions of the sphinx, though it is somewhat muted in Little Hermit Sphinx that dates from the end of the sequence. Indeed, Chadwick identified this sphinx as a ‘sorceress and image of death’ (ibid., p.189). Recently this painting has been interpreted biographically, with Peter Webb linking the painting to Fini’s hysterectomy in late 1947: ‘Little Hermit Sphinx is a self-portrait that reflects Leonor’s state of mind after the trauma of her operation’ (Webb 2007, p.135). Having a horror of childbearing, the artist accepted the operation but was also willing to associate the broken egg shell with this loss. Her observation that she ‘painted a human lung … because of the beautiful pink colour’ (ibid. p.135) exacerbates the atmosphere of anxiety.
Leonor Fini is remembered for the exoticism of her imagery and her challenges to convention and male domination. These concerns were conveyed through a precise, illusionistic style. She used an extraordinarily fine technique, especially in the late 1940s, to convey a decayed and decadent world parallel to the reality of post-war Europe. While she was close to the surrealist artists Max Ernst, Leonora Carrington and Salvador Dalí in the 1930s, Fini’s rejection of the movement’s orthodoxies – and especially a mutual antipathy for the leader André Breton – reinforced her independence. Nevertheless, there are connections. The precision of illusion recalls Dalí’s paintings, and the emphasis on a charged atmosphere in Little Hermit Sphinx is comparable to Dorothea Tanning’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik 1943 (Tate T07346) and evokes what Fini acknowledged as the ‘mechanism of the dream’ (Gautier 1973, p.8).
Xavière Gautier, Leonor Fini, Paris 1973.
Peter Webb, Leonor Fini: Metamorphoses d’un art, Paris 2007.
Leonor Fini: L’Italienne de Paris, exhibition catalogue, Civico Museo Rivoltella, Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Trieste 2009.