Frieze ‘Alt Feminisms’ Panel Discussion & Sex Work: Feminist Art & Radical Politics

by Melissa Budasz for ArtVerve, at Frieze London 2017



from left to right, Renate Bertlmann, Penny Slinger, Alison Gingeras (Chair), Marilyn Minter & Cosey Fanni Tutti


What a way to kick start Frieze London – an hour and half from opening, Alison Gingeras chairs a panel of feminist practitioners whose careers have spanned over 40 years – Renate Bertlmann, Penny Slinger, Marilyn Minter and Cosey Fanni Tutti. Their art initially had censorship restrictions, cut-off from mainstream feminism from the 1960s and has taken until this Millennium to re-present a critical appraisal and celebration of their practices. They discussed politics, repression, pornography and alternative histories.

Austrian artist, Renate Bertlmann (b 1943, Vienna) has often used her body as a medium which includes painting, sculpture, photography and performance to explore themes that confronts social stereotypes assigned to the masculine/feminine, using fetishistic objects for props that include vibrators, condoms and dummies.

Renate Bertlmann Cactus (1999) & Tender Touchers (1978) courtesy Richard Saltoun, S7, Frieze London


Like Bertlmann, Californian based author and artist Penny Slinger (b 1947, London) chooses to be her own muse using photography and casts of her body throughout her practice, investigating how a woman is seen and how she sees herself, often expressing states of consciousness that investigate psychological and sensual worlds of her awakening self.

Penny Slinger Read My Lips (1973) & Bride’s Book (1973) courtesy Blum & Poe, S1, Frieze London


New York artist Marilyn Minter (b 1948, Shreveport) explores what she calls the ‘pathology of glamour’ in close-up and often cropped photos and paintings of sexual acts laced with cosmetics and food, subverting notions of desire within popular culture with all its trappings of gender and representation. Minter uses pornography as her subject matter and in more recent work, her paintings reveal intimate moments from women’s private lives.

Marilyn Minter Ginger (2016) & Porn Grid 2 (1989) courtesy Baldwin Gallery, Regen Projects & Salon 94, S6, Frieze London


UK artist, Cosey Fanni Tutti (b 1951, Hull) has worked by the ethos, ‘My life is my art, my art is my life’ in her pornographic modelling and in her role as a member of the band Throbbing Gristle. For two years she worked on the ‘Prostitution’ project in which she created a revealing exhibition about the porn and sex industry. At the ICA in London, Tutti used her used tampons and soiled nappies from Mary Kelly’s work which aroused hysterical reactions from the media. Tutti’s work questions the objectification of women, allowing a freedom of expression in her performances.

Cosey Fanni Tutti Women’s Roll, 1976 © Art Action A.I.R. Gallery, London & Cover of Cosey Fanni Tutti, Art, Sex, Music (Faber, 2017)


Frieze London, Regent’s Park, runs until 8 October 2017


Orovida Camille Pissarro: Forging Imaginative Territories

By Florence Woodfield Morais for ArtVerve, September 2017


P999 Big Leaves

Orovida Pissarrro, Big Leaves, Egg tempera on silk, 56 x 65.5 cm (22 x 25¾ inches), 1932


Orovida Camille Pissarro, born in Epping in 1893, came into the world with a name already endowed with considerable art-historical weight. The only daughter to Lucien Pissarro (the eldest of Camille Pissarro’s seven children) and Esther Pissarro (née Bensusan), she was the only grandchild of Camille Pissarro to be born during his lifetime. She was also the first professional female artist in the Pissarro family. Her unique family position early on presented her with a creative conundrum – how to carry such a weight, and simultaneously forge new ground as an artist; respecting her artistic legacy whilst committing to find a new pictorial language and an authentic artistic voice? Orovida Pissarro would tread this fine line between tradition and innovation throughout her lifetime as a painter and a printmaker.


Currently, Orovida (as she was known, choosing early to discard the name Pissarro when she signed her works) is perhaps at her most visible at the Ashmolean, Oxford, where a portrait of her by Carel Wright hangs in the Modern Art gallery on the 3rd floor. Hanging alongside many works by Modern British icons, such as Ben Nicholson and Stanley Spencer, the portrait in fact was commissioned by Orovida herself to accompany the large amount of Pissarro family works that were donated to the museum by herself and her mother in the setting up of the Pissarro Family Archive, which is still housed today at the Ashmolean and can be visited on request. Large and indomitable in loudly striped clothing, the portrait hints at Orovida’s strength and character. However, it is somewhat a shame that she is remembered among her Modern British peers in this room as a donor, rather than an artist. Why don’t her pictures hang alongside those of Nicholson and Spencer? Exploring this question will always entail a certain amount of speculation, and surely is a question that can be repeated for many female artists of this period who have not quite had their place cemented in the canon.



(left) Orovida Pissarro, Gazelles, Etching, 27.6 x 17.5 cm (107/8 x 67/8 inches)

Signed, inscribed with title and dated 1930

(right) Orovida Pissarro Fear, Etching, 26 x 19.5 cm (10 ¼ x 7 ⅝ inches)

Signed and dated 1917, trial proof no.2


To re-visit Orovida’s oeuvre, and to understand her circumstance as an artist and an individual, an analysis of important personal and artistic relationships within her family is an important starting point. Orovida’s father Lucien Pissarro, eldest son to Camille Pissarro and an Impressionist painter in his own right, had an extremely close and formative relationship with his father. When Lucien settled in England in 1890, father and son kept up a lively correspondence. The letters, so sensitively collected, translated and edited for publication by Pissarro scholar John Rewald in 1943, show a remarkable degree of tenderness and friendship between father and son. They also provide an insight into the unwavering commitment Camille Pissarro had to his art, as well as providing an insight into the theoretical nuances of the Impressionist movement, the Parisian art scene, and Pissarro’s often complex relationship to his peers.


P1453 Siamese Cat & Kittens 1934

Orovida Pissarro, Siamese Cat with Kittens, Gouache on linen, 39 x 48 cm (15 ⅜ x 18 ⅞ inches), 1934


It was into this close-knit family metier, driven by discussions of art, that Orovida was born. In turn, her own relationship with her father Lucien Pissarro was supportive, loving and warm. Having studied for a period with Walter Sickert, in 1914 Orovida abandoned her formal studies, and her father would remain the most important teacher in her artistic career. She showed artistic promise young, and was untiring in her wish to paint and draw for days on end, often exhausting herself in the process. Her early work, therefore, happened within a family context, either in the family home or on frequent painting trips that she undertook with her father. As Kristen L.Erickson has noted, the importance of this equal and supportive artistic environment, presided over by Camille Pissarro, really cannot be underestimated. She writes of Orovida and her father, ‘Their relationship mirrored in many ways that of Camille and Lucien, not least because they established a steady and fascinating correspondence in which technique, style art theory and criticism are discussed.’[1] Orovida’s work was encouraged by her father and grandfather, as we see in a letter from Camille Pissarro to Lucien on 4 December 1898, in which Camille reacts to an early drawing of Orovida’s. He writes, “The deuce! Here is still another potential artist…Kiddie shows skill in drawing, it was written that she would. Her drawings are already full of sentiment, elegance, waywardness’.[2]


This word ‘waywardness’, used by her grandfather, is in fact a word that could well be applied to Orovida’s work throughout her career. Indeed, it is immediately clear that Orovida’s varied practise is aesthetically a huge departure from the work of her father and grandfather. Her work, slotted most easily under the umbrella of Modern British art, clearly shows a wider pool of interest than that of Impressionism. The Orientalism movement of fin-de-siècle Paris was influential to her, not least in her visit to her uncle Georges Manzana-Pissarro’s solo show at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris in 1914. She was enchanted by her uncle’s use of gild and silver tints, his stylised animal portraits and bold art-nouveau furniture. Exhibitions on Persian art at Burlington House and at the British Museum from 1930-31 also had a profound effect on her developing aesthetic. She was also a great admirer of Paul Gauguin, whose work she had seen in Paris in 1914.  Her increasing interest in non-Western art is significant in the development of her unique style. Her letters from this time begin to suggest that her intense and precocious experience of the cutting edge of European art had in fact led her to a desire to forge new ground. Crucially, her discovery of non-Western art is intrinsically linked with an idea of artistic freedom. She writes during this time, ‘Western art has lead us straight to the photo and eastern art is still free’.[3] We can perhaps see this as a rebellion against the logical or rational progression of the use of the picture plain from Impressionism onwards, as well as Camille Pissarro’s unwavering commitment to realism. In fact, she scorned would-be followers of the Impressionist movement such as Gustave Loiseau and Henry Moret (both now considered distinguished post-Impressionist artists in their own right). Her departure from an Impressionist-led attitude can be read in part as a need to seek a more modern aesthetic, and a free expression for herself. Indeed, the notions of freedom, movement and migration, become the enduring themes of much of her later work. Forced migration had indeed also been a theme present in her own family’s history, the Pissarro family having left Portugal in the latter half of the 18th Century, due to increased persecution suffered by ‘Murranos’ (Jews who had been forced to convert to Roman Catholicism after the expelling of the Jewish population by the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, but who often continued to practise Judaism in secret).


P1848 Nomads 21of42 copy  Orovida Pissarro, The Nomads, Etching, final slate 32/42, 18 x 25 cm (7 ⅛ x 9 ⅞ inches), 1925


Imagination is another key element of Orovida’s oeuvre, as many of her subjects are, at least in part, imagined. She pored over depictions of Mongolian and South Sea Island cultures at the British Library, collecting any images that she could find of these places.  However, Orovida famously said in a newspaper interview that the furthest east she had ever travelled was the British Museum. The flattening of the picture plane, and stylised treatment of many of her subjects, certainly suggest a radical departure from European art. A theme that has continued importance to her work is the theme of migration, and she painted many works that depict refugees and nomadic peoples. There is a sense of spaciousness in her compositions, almost as if the subjects have been captured in the middle of intense movement and are intensely free. In a mirroring of the Impressionist preoccupation with nature, and the natural landscape, Orovida would be equally dedicated to a study of nature, as a dedicated animal lover. Indeed, her paintings from 1917 to 1944 are devoted mainly to animals. The raw expression and vitality of the beasts that she frequently paints suggest a true imaginative connection with the animals depicted, although never seen by her in the flesh (unless perhaps seen at London zoo, where she obtained a drawing pass and visited frequently). Her reverence to the wild, rawness of nature is so different from the often bucolic or realist depictions of Northern French landscapes found in the works of her closest relatives. The presence of an emotional or imaginative element is also entirely new to the Pissarro family.


P2115 Winter (The Skaters) HR

Orovida Pissarro, Winter (The Skaters), Egg tempera on linen, 91.5 x 114.3cm (36 x 45 inches), 1936-8


Orovida first favoured painting on linen using egg tempura paint, which she mixed herself. During the Second World War, the lack of eggs prevented her from continuing in this medium, and she switched to oil paint. Her work with etching was often very fine and masterful and she did much scholarly research into the invention of the Mezzotint printing method, which she believed to have been invented by Prince Rupert of the Rhine. Her etchings have previously been on display in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Although her works are often depict human and animal subjects in far-flung, partly imagined places, she also often depicts moments of quotidian nuclear family life that she herself would never experience as an adult, such as in Winter- The Skaters and Family Supper. These depictions of everyday family life seem to be equally embued with a sense of magic and rarity, in a stylised and perhaps idealised manner. The use of colour is reminiscent of her Modern British peers such as Vanessa Bell, and the expressive and stylised figures evoke Stanley Spencer’s works.


P1409 Family Supper

Orovida Pissarro, Family Supper, Egg tempera on canvas, 66 x 93 cm (26 x 36 ⅝ inches), 1938


Orovida’s visibility in the art historical canon is not as marked as you would expect from an artist that painted with such verve, such confidence and expressivity. It is left to us to suppose whether her status as a woman, and a single woman at that (she never married), contributed to the struggle for recognition that she suffered during her lifetime, and the subsequent lack of scholarship on her oeuvre after her death in 1968. The fact that her work was not included in a Pissarro family exhibition at the Galerie Marcel Bernheim, in 1934, despite the strong approval of her father that her works should be included, goes some way to describing the difficulties of finding an authentic voice as a female artist at the time, and crucially, to be taken seriously for it from society as a whole. It is clear that Orovida received ample support and encouragement in her work from some members of her family. Indeed, in correspondence from her father Lucien to her mother Esther, it is clear that he supported her artistic development above any material or societal concerns, stressing the importance of the realisation of her full talent. Lucien went so far as to say that he believed his true role as artist to be a conduit to her talent, which he considered to be greater than his own. [4] However, this being said, Orovida would encounter significant resistance from her mother, who was concerned about the material prospects of a career as an artist and wanted her daughter to follow a more commercial career, such as that of a musician.


Despite frequent pecuniary difficulties and periods of ill health (she suffered from a hormonal disorder in later life), Orovida did have significant successes as an artist, and her work can be found in some notable public collections, including at the British Museum, the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and at the Ferens Gallery, Hull, as well as further afield in the Cleveland Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the San Diego Museum of Art. Her work was included in a total of three exhibitions at the Leicester Galleries, London, dedicated to the work of 3 generations of Pissarro family artists. Orovida’s work is notable for an imaginative engagement with a wider world and a respect for different ways of being, undertaken with an open heart, an inquisitive spirit and a strong eye for beauty. Orovida is long overdue a major museum show, but until then, a wide selection of her works, comprising oils, works in egg tempera, and prints can be viewed at Stern Pissarro Gallery in St James’s, London.


Lucien & Orovida hi res jpg

Orovida Pissarro and Lucien Pissarro. Pissarro family photograph.


© All images Stern Pissarro Gallery


Orovida Pissarro’s works can be viewed at

Open 10am-6pm Monday-Friday & 10am-5pm on Saturday

Email: Web:

Archival Material from the Pissarro Family Archive, including works by Orovida Pissarro, can be seen by appointment in the Print Room, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Western Art Print Room
Ashmolean Museum
Beaumont Street
T: +44(0)1865 278049
E: Tel: +44 (0)1865 278000  Web:



[1] Kristen L.Erickson, Orovida Pissarro: Painter and Print-Maker with a catalogue Raisonné of Paintings’ (doctoral thesis), University College, Oxford, 1992. P. 5

[2] Camille Pissarro, letter to Lucien Pissarro, Dated December 4th 1898

[3] Orovida Pissarro, quoted in Kristen L.Erickson, Orovida Pissarro: Painter and Print-Maker with a catalogue Raisonné of Paintings’ (doctoral thesis), University College, Oxford, 1992. P. 73

[4] In a letter from Lucien to Esther Pissarro dated 4 February 1913

In conversation with Annie Kevans

By Rosie Campbell for ArtVerve, August 2017


A painted portrait has always had the power to grab my attention – and often to hold me by the lapels till I’ve addressed, quizzed, interrogated, decoded…even then, I’ve often been left confused, full of questions. It almost doesn’t matter the painting age, style, medium, subject, or even artist – there is just something about a human face reinterpreted for a third party gaze, that compels…

In the case of Annie Kevans’ work, I am almost helplessly drawn to her paintings. She paints solely portraits; they are frequently highly challenging, always raw, stripped of artifice, painfully human, and often violently emotionally-charged.

Over the past decade and more, she has focused on challenging the ‘expected’ images of famous people, shocked by her reframing of infamous tyrannical adults (Hitler, for example) as helpless and vulnerable children, and given a spotlight to artists, notably women who have previously been denied the visibility she feels they deserve.

In all, her work challenges conventional assumptions about the work lives, the desires, the public faces and the media-created images of public as well as notorious individuals. She is more accurately a ‘character painter’ than a portrait painter.

I am lucky to own a portrait of Britney Spears by Annie; it was an impulsive, and compulsive, purchase nearly a decade ago – and worth every penny I paid.

It has become not only a talking point in my home but also – bizarrely – something of a ‘child’ of mine. Britney Spears’ evident vulnerability has turned me into her defender, her support, her mother… She is doe-eyed, childlike, yet looks – worryingly – as if she’s emerged a bruising long night of self-abusive revelry…


Britney Spears - Annie Kevans

Britney Spears (2008)


The conversation that follows constitutes a discursive interview conducted online, with Annie, and I hope a fire-starter for a longer piece as well as further exchange.

Rosie I was drawn to your paintings immediately, and I’m lucky enough to see your ‘Britney Spears’ almost every day. She has become a kind of Mona Lisa in my house, her eyes following every passerby, her sadness forever fighting her sexual allure. I have hung her just at the bottom of my stairs …she is somehow inviting you upstairs….

How would you comment on my feelings living with one of your ‘famous people’ paintings?

Annie I think owning art is a very personal experience and no artist can anticipate the effects their art will produce on those who own it and live with it, especially when the work is of a famous person, because people will also have an opinion on the subject of the work.

I use our familiarity with famous people to highlight issues that are so common they are seen as normal.  The phenomenon of creating child stars to sell anything from music and films to alarm clocks and shoes, is so prevalent that we barely notice it.  By focusing on the overtly sexual poses of these children, I wanted to bring to light the double standard evident throughout the media which, on the one hand, continues to create the current atmosphere of anxiety and suspicion with regard to images of children, while at the same time disseminating sexually provocative images of young girls and child stars.


Olson Twins - Annie Kevans

Olsen Twins (2009)


By displaying the Girls series unframed, like posters, in the setting of a little girl’s bedroom, complete with toys and home furnishings featuring child stars, I wanted to draw attention to the messages relayed to children through the media and, thus, to highlight their invasion of the home and their part in dictating the roles which children are expected to play.

Rosie Can you comment on how you settled on portraits; what you feel this genre allows you to do..?

Annie In my second year of college I tried to paint some ‘evil’ children (Adolf Hitler, Fred West, Mary I and Al Capone) but I wasn’t happy with the results and decided to focus on photography.  I thought about creating the series using this medium but it involved finding children to pose for the photos and, strangely, the work wouldn’t have had the same ring of truth about it as the paintings do.  By that, I mean that I would have had to create photos that looked like genuine ones and this would have seemed deliberately deceitful.  I decided to return to painting and narrowed down the series to political leaders. Finally, I decided that the series worked best on oil-painting paper.  Painting gives me freedom to explore ideas in a way I found impossible to do with photography.

Despite contemporary interpretations of the portrait, there is a general acceptance and knowledge of what portraiture is, or should be, about: capturing the likeness and personality of a person.  By using the traditional painting format of portraiture, I use people’s familiarity with the genre to imbue my works with truth and to explore difficult ideas.


Marilyn Monroe & Joan Crawford (2009)


Rosie We are very interested in women’s suppressed and too-often ‘forgotten’ artistic lives, and I know you are too… to the point you created an entire series based on women artists who hadn’t had the – art historical/critical – prominence they warranted – what was your plan for this series, and how did you choose those to include?

Annie As is often the case, the series started with my interest in a few people and grew into a large series.  I originally created a small series depicting four female Impressionists.  They were displayed at an art fair under the title ‘Impressionists’.  This simple title was enough to make people think in a completely new way about an art movement they felt knowledgeable about.  Some of the female Impressionists exhibited in every single Impressionist exhibition but where are they now in those big blockbuster shows?  They had no idea they would one day be dropped from the programme.  The problem has been with their legacies and with the recording of the history of art.  This is why I called the series ‘The History of Art’ because that’s really what it’s about.


Sonia Delauney & Kathe Kollwitz (2014)


The History of Art series features women in art history who were once acclaimed in the art world – some were even international celebrities – and whose history and significance have been gradually eroded so they are ultimately forgotten to a modern audience.  I was astonished to learn throughout the course of my extensive research that, despite the massive obstacles in their path, many women managed to have successful careers as artists as early as the 16th century.  Although some have been championed in the last decades having been ‘rediscovered’ by later art historians, these women still remain separate from mainstream art history. Their work is consistently sidelined in major exhibitions and women artists are deemed only worthy as subjects within the secondary realm of feminist art history.


History of Art Series - Annie Kevans

Women Artists from ‘History of Art’ Series (2014)


The more research I do, the more women I find who deserve to be studied, exhibited and remembered.  There are probably around 100 artists who should be in the series and maybe I’ll be able to complete the series one day.  I never know when I embark on a project how big it will become and who will form part of the work.  This is why I say my work is concept driven because the subjects of the works are unknown to me when I begin the series.

Rosie What is it about recognition and the face that feels important to you?

Annie I think people will always be interested in looking at others (it seems so obvious, it feels ridiculous to point it out!), which is why the depiction of humans in art will never disappear.  There are always people proclaiming that portraiture and painting are ‘dead’ and yet relevant artists keep on depicting other humans in their work.

Rosie Your style of painting is very identifiable and leaves brushstrokes very ‘naked’ . Can you talk about how you paint…?  Is the act as spontaneous and swift as it appears?

Annie It is spontaneous and swift, although it takes me time to get to the point where I can paint like that.  I often work intensively for several months and then take long breaks.


Robert Mugabe (2013) & Kate Moss (2014)


Rosie You are on the record talking about the practical and cultural hurdles and barriers women face being ‘artists’ throughout history – and also still, these days. Can you talk a little about the fact of being a woman and your own creative practice?

Annie There are depressing statistics on the disadvantages faced by women in the art world.  You only need to look at any commercial gallery website, or even institutions like the Royal Academy, to see the gender imbalances.  Auction results show how hard it is for women to attain the same prices for their work as men.  Without the backing of the big commercial galleries, life can be very difficult, especially if you’re not from a wealthy background.  It takes a lot of money to pay for a home, a studio, materials, international travel to exhibitions, and, as I’ve recently discovered, the cost of self-publishing books (big publishers are only interested in you once you’re showing in big museums).  Childcare costs in the UK are astronomical but I get irritated when I hear people saying this is a problem for women.  It’s a financial problem for people who don’t have a lot of money.  If you’re a person with a nanny, then having children isn’t going to stop you being an artist, a writer or an actor, whether you’re a man or a woman.  The fact remains that the obstacles facing women are more to do with the lack of support from museums, curators, writers and art historians.


           Hari Nef - Annie Kevans

Hari Nef (2017)


Rosie You are described as an ‘acclaimed British painter’.  Are nationality, home, studio location important ?

Annie I think when you realise you have so many obstacles to overcome, you have to give yourself as much of a chance of success as possible.  I believe you are more likely to succeed in a big city with a thriving art scene.  I benefited from graduating from a well-known London art school because our degree show was very well attended by curators and collectors.  As our tutors told us, a London degree show is probably the best-attended exhibition most artists will ever take part in.  Location becomes less important as you become more established and gallerists and curators care less where you live.


Jean Paul Gautier - Annie Kevans

Jean Paul Gaultier Muses show, History of Art (2014)


Rosie Do you feel free or trapped by descriptions such as ‘acclaimed’, ‘painter’ ‘woman’..?

Annie No! I take those descriptions as compliments.

Rosie What can you say about feminism and art, or feminism and painting..?  Are you a feminist painter?

Annie I’ve always believed in equality between men and women so I’ve always been a feminist.  I expect all women artists are feminists and, as I’m a painter, that does make me a feminist painter.

Rosie Which other contemporary women artist/s do you feel inspired by, who’s work you would most like to own, are you most excited by at the moment..?

Annie I feel inspired by many women, including Paula Rego, Cornelia Parker, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Marlene Dumas, Cathie Pilkington, Tracey Emin, Rachel Kneebone, Tessa Farmer, Karen Knorr, Rebecca Warren and Kate Lyddon.

Rosie When you look ahead what kinds of projects and ideas are you mulling?

Annie My main goal at the moment is to work in different media and on a different scale.


RA Summer Show (2017) – Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy & Robert Mapplethorpe in drag



All images © Annie Kevans, kindly reproduced with permission.

All rights reserved, 2017.



LEONOR FINI: Artist, Libertine, Provocateur

By Melissa Budasz for ArtVerve, June 2017


Leonor Fini - cat

Portrait of Leonor Fini by André Ostier (1951)


“I am independent. I am free. I am not a surrealist and beyond classification.“

Leonor Fini (1982)


Unconventional, free-thinking and experimental, Leonor Fini was once the ‘it-girl’ of Paris and was one of the most photographed women in the art world. Known more perhaps for her flamboyant nature and penchant for dressing-up and cross-dressing rather than her painting, she had an illustrious career in theatre and set design, illustration, product design and film too. However, it is her status as a painter that needs to be examined so we can appreciate her unique influence on 20th century art history.



Fini in Corsica (1957)


Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina (1907) to mixed Argentine, Spanish, Italian and Slavic blood, Fini fled with her mother at two years old to Trieste, Italy, to escape her father. There are stories of her father’s plots to kidnap her, and Fini was disguised regularly as a boy. As a teenager, she spent months with her eyes bandaged whilst suffering an ocular ailment and when they were eventually removed, started expressing her inner thoughts and visions through painting. Her rebellious spirit led her to be expelled from several schools with no formal training in art. Much of her art was exhibited in surrealist art exhibitions in the 40s and 50s, but although her painting had elements of surrealism she refused to be labelled a surrealist or a feminist – she was too aware of the complex ways many of the surrealist male artists conceptualized and identified women. She once said of her painting process,


“I strike it, stalk it, try to make it obey me. Then in its disobedience, it forms things I like.”



Leonor Fini Le carrefour d’hecat (1977-78)  oil on canvas, 25 5/8 x 39 ½ inches. Photo image from Weinstein Gallery, San Francisco, USA


She arrived in Paris in 1932 and quickly broke into the avant-garde art scene, becoming like several other important woman artists of the time loosely associated with the Surrealist movement at a time of its ‘golden age’ when it was becoming more visible to the public at large.


Salvador Dalí was once quoted, in a blatantly misogynistic assessment of her work, that she was, “better than most, perhaps. But talent is in the balls.”


This was a stereotype of the time and creativity seemed to be a male attribute and right, therefore women were instantly excluded from the domain. This perhaps explains why Fini and many of her female contemporaries distanced themselves from the Surrealist movement so that they could relate their own ideas about female sexuality and the expressive representations of women by refusing to be the object of another’s desire. Fini subverts preconceived gender roles and social codes – the women in her paintings point to empowerment and liberation. She is (whether she admits it or not as she adamantly refused classification) a feminist, and her idea that woman is complex and ambiguous creates a fluid and more open identity for women to explore.



Gala & Salvador Dalí, Leonor Fini & Andre Pieyre (1940)


Fini knew and became friends with many of the early 20th century Surrealists – Leonora Carrington, Meret Oppenheim, Remedios Varo, Dorothea Tanning, Max Ernst and Salvador Dali.


She was said to have once brazenly asked Picasso why he kept doing “the same old shit.”


Cartier-Bresson, Lee Miller and Dora Maar were some of the photographers that captured Fini in print – portraits with masks on, in elaborate costumes and with her cats (she had up to 12 cats at one time and over 20 in her lifetime). She was the ultimate cat queen, the shape-shifter and erotic seductress who was thought to have been the influence for the conclusion of The Story of O, the erotic novel published (1954) by the French author Anne Desclos. Fini intoxicated those around her with her intelligence, fearless wit and creative energy.


Leonor Fini -sphinx

Leonor Fini, Chthonian Deity Watching over the Sleep of a Young Man (1946) oil on canvas, location unknown, © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2012/Scala, Florence.


“Have we not known for a long time that the riddle of the sphinx says much more than it seems to say?”

André Breton, View (1942)


In her paintings, she reversed the male gaze and reassessed power boundaries. Fini was possibly the first woman artist to paint an erotic male nude in her painting Sphinx Amalburga (Sphinx Amoureaux) (1942). She produced a series of paintings in which she would take the form of the sphinx watching over sleeping young men who had an androgynous beauty, emphasising the role reversals at play; her work challenged the patriarchal and focused on the matriarchal.

A predominant theme in Fini’s art is the complex relationship between the sexes, primarily the exchange between the dominant female and the passive, androgynous male – connecting her with other women artists that have focused on this shift of power and subversion of the male gaze, for example Sarah Lucas, Kiki Kogelnik, Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger.


“I see my work as a series of attempts to ruin certain representations and to welcome a female spectator into the audience of men. If this work is considered incorrect, all the better, for my attempts aim to undermine that singular pontificating male voice-over which correctly instructs our pleasures and histories or lack of them.”

Barbara Kruger


Fini also made a series of erotic drawings and lithographs with men and women and women with women as well as self-portraits as a sphinx. She was known to have had many lovers and found it hard to part with old loves. The interplay of her life and art was vital. She said,


“Marriage never appealed to me, I have never lived with one person. Since I was 18, I’ve always preferred to live in a sort of community – a big house with my atelier and cats and friends, one with a man who was rather a lover and another who was rather a friend. And it has always worked.”


Her work connects women to the universe, to the land and to myth. She rejected the idea of being anyone’s muse. Her figures – the sphinxes, cats, nymphs, priestesses, nudes – are all bold declarations of a woman’s sexuality that convey a powerful feminine subconscious. The myth of the sphinx offered surrealism many narratives, from an exploration of desire to existential anxiety. In Fini’s work the sphinx questions gender stereotypes, from the muse to the maternal, and offers an iconography which goes beyond woman as the source of male creativity or as a source of procreativity alone. The sexual hybridity of the sphinx as half animal/half woman and the role of the sphinx as guardian/protector, reinforces Fini’s vision of a natural and erotic feminine force, in charge of her powers.



Leonor Fini Sphinx Amalburga (Sphinx Amoureaux) (1942) oil on canvas, 15 x 18 inches. Photo image from Weinstein Gallery, San Francisco, USA.


Fini was also renowned for her theatrical set-design, costumes and posters which she often did not get credit for. She designed costumes for ballets and famously fell out with Dame Margot Fonteyn who refused to wear the cat mask Fini had designed for the ballet in Paris (1948), “Les Demoiselles de la nuit.“ Even though the set collapsed whilst Fonteyn danced, the two women made up and remained friends for years. She also designed the costumes for Castellani’s Romeo and Juliet (1954), was one of the costume designers for Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film 8 ½ (1963), and designed the costumes for John Huston’s A Walk with Love and Death (1968) staring Anjelica Huston. Fini’s design for the bottle of perfume Shocking by Schiaparelli (1937) later influenced Jean Paul Gaultier’s design for his own perfume (1995), a bust-shaped bottle etched with a corset. The shoe designer Christian Louboutin has also designed and named a pair of shoes in homage to Fini.



Shocking by Elsa Schiaparelli (1937) perfume bottle & packaging designed by Leonor Fini  Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent at Somerset House, London to 17 Sep 2017


In 1965 Fini was given a retrospective in Belgium, then Japan (1972) and in Paris (1986). Since her death, she has had retrospectives in Trieste (2009), New York (2010), and in Sweden (2014). Despite the mark Fini left on those around her she has often been relegated to the footnotes of articles and books on Surrealism along with many of her female contemporaries. Unfortunately, this story is one we are familiar with, there are too many examples of important women artists that have had to be unearthed again and their names put back into the history books –  Artemisia Gentileschi, Ana Mendieta, Camille Claudel, Edmonia ‘Wildfire’ Lewis, to name just a few that have been rescued from obscurity. It seems that a woman who, through the strength of her personality and her art, succeeds against the odds, is then erased from view as soon as she dies.

Fini’s work is included in three shows currently – a solo show at Galerie Minsky in Paris, and her work is included in a group show at White Cube Bermondsey, Dreamers Awake, works of up to 50 women artists from the 1930s to today exploring the influence of Surrealism. The perfume bottle Shocking she designed for Elsa Schiaparelli is currently on view at Somerset House’s exhibition, Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent.

Leonor Fini’s legacy is immense as she did so much in her lifetime personally, professionally and artistically. She is an inspiration and beacon to young women artists and her work must be evaluated, celebrated and enjoyed.


© All images Estate of Leonor Fini.


You can see Leonor Fini’s work in the following exhibitions:

Leonor Fini Exhibition, Galerie Minsky, 37 Rue Vaneau, 75007 Paris – until 29 Jul 2017

Dreamers Awake, White Cube Bermondsey, 144-152 Bermondsey St, London SE1 3TQ – until 17 Sep 2017

Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 1LA – until 17 Sep 2017



  1. Leonor Fini, Surrealist Sorceress – by Dr Sabina Stent – Treadwells Bookshop – London, 19 May 2017
  2. Leonor FiniSurreal Thing by Sarah Kent – Telegraph, 30 Oct 2009
  3. How to be a Surrealist Queen, according to the artist Leonor Fini by Priscilla Frank – Huffington Post, 13 Nov 2015
  4. “The Problem of Woman”: Female Surrealists and their Unique Brand of Mystery by Sian Folley – Sotherbys, 3 Nov 2014
  5. Dada & Surrealism, by Alyce Mahon –
  7. Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent at Somerset Housen – London to 17 Sep 2017
  8. Sphinx: The Life and Art of Leonor Fini by Peter Webb, The Vendome Press, 2009, ISBN 10: 0865652554 & ISBN 13: 9780865652552

From One Tip of a Diamond to Another

by Moira Jarvis for ArtVerve, May 2017



Ridge 2 by Caroline Underwood (digital print on aluminium, 50x50cm, 2015) 

Caroline Underwood, Jackie Brown and Moira Jarvis share a strong desire to connect with the natural world and recently met up in the Isle of Wight to walk from the most easterly point of the island to the most westerly point across the chalk ridge. This 26.5 walk was in aid of Earl Mountbatten Hospice and as the island is the shape of a diamond, the walk was from one tip of a diamond to another.

Although Caz is still based in London, her new home sits in the centre of the island. From her house she can easily reach the coast in any direction. As an artist this has become a catalyst for her work, setting off ideas as she literally sets off to the sea. She calls the top room of her house the crow’s nest and aims eventually to develop this space to accommodate an artist in residency scheme, initiating ideas from land to sea and giving visiting artists the opportunity to connect with the natural world.

Over half the Isle of Wight’s landscape is recognised as an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty with miles of breath-taking Heritage Coastline. It is also of great geological interest. Quay Arts, a twenty minute walk from Caz’s house is an impressive focus for resident and visiting artists. It is currently showing an exhibition by Richard Long called The Isle of Wight as Six Walks. Richard Long is an artist who embarks on long distance walks to create work. For this exhibition, and documented in a wall piece, he walked across the island, vertically dissecting it from north to south. His flint floor sculpture was like bones from the earth and contrasted with the more ephemeral fluid marks made by hand and mud from the river that literally runs through the Quay Arts building.

Equally impressive was work made by school children in the education department which caught the essence of Long’s work. These beautiful tactile pieces with minimal mark making and an innate understanding of the use of materials showed very personal responses. Both exhibitions echoed our own experience of walking horizontally across the island, in our case from east to west.

We aim to continue the conversation for some time.


Quay Arts Sea Street Newport Harbour, Isle of Wight PO3O 5BD

Richard Long: The Isle of Wight as Six Walks – Exhibition continues till 1 July 2017 FREE