Why Leonor Fini’s Seductive Surrealist Paintings Are Resonating with Collectors Today

Art Market

Ayanna Dozier

Portrait of Leonor Fini in Paris, 1938. Courtesy of Kasmin, New York.

Leonor Fini’s trance-like paintings of witches, powerful women, and mystical creatures offer a matriarchal vision of society. In this world, women and nature are revered and free from patriarchal control.

While she is often referred to as a Surrealist and her work resembles the movement’s style, Fini disavowed the term, setting herself apart from the group’s misogyny that came to dictate its curatorial vision in the 1930s (Frida Kahlo would disavow Surrealism for similar reasons in the 1940s). The largely self-taught Buenos Aires–born, Paris-based artist approached painting through an alchemy of science and magic, which undergird her paintings’ nocturnal scenes.

To many audiences, Fini might be considered the darker sister of the more well-known Leonora Carrington, her contemporary. Whereas Carrington’s work bewitches audiences through her singular use of figuration, Fini’s work hexes us through sinister masks and distorted bodies and faces. Like Carrington, though, Fini sought to refute the idealized, sexualized image of womanhood presented by their male Surrealist contemporaries. Instead, in Fini’s work we find darkly garish presentations of women. And like Carrington, the late Fini’s work (she died in 1996) has recently attracted renewed attention by the art market, institutions, and contemporary women painters like Sarah Slappey and Madeleine Roger-Lacan.

Installation view of “The Witch’s Cradle” in the 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, “The Milk of Dreams,” 2022. Photo by Marco Cappelletti. Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia.

On the heels of a widespread interest in women of Surrealism at present, it’s easy for Fini’s legacy to be overlooked compared to her more notable peers like Kahlo, Carrington, or Dorothea Tanning. However, Fini is gaining renown in her own right, from major new auction records to exhibitions with commercial galleries, including San Francisco–based Weinstein Gallery and the New York–based Kasmin.

Most recently, Fini’s work is being featured in a solo show entitled “Metamorphosis” on view through February 25th at Kasmin in New York. She was also included in “The Milk of Dreams,” the main exhibition at the 59th Venice Biennale curated by Cecilia Alemani last year, in a gallery that emphasized the work of women Surrealists. Concurrent with the Biennale’s spring opening, the Peggy Guggenheim Museum featured her work prominently in the exhibition “Surrealism and Magic: Enchanted Modernity.”

Installation view of “Leonor Fini: Metamorphosis,” 2023 at Kasmin. Courtesy of Kasmin, New York.

Kasmin director Emma Bowen attributes much of Fini’s current acclaim to the artist’s interests in fashion and costume design, evident through her collaborations with Christian Dior and Elsa Schiaparelli. This can be seen in “Metamorphosis.” In fact, Fini’s daring and risqué style across her work is what led New York’s Museum of Sex (contrary to its tourist appeal, the museum boasts a reputable and deeply engaging special exhibition program that should not be overlooked) to stage a retrospective of her works in 2018. That show, “Theater of Desire, 1930–1990,” is where Bowen, and many others, discovered the full breadth of Fini’s practice.

Fini pursued art as a way to unmask herself. She was raised by a single mother in Trieste, Italy, in a household that celebrated her mixed heritage across Argentine, Italian, and Slavic roots. A true coquette, Fini left Italy—where she exhibited her paintings in her hometown and in Milan—for Paris with an Italian prince whom she promptly left after falling in with the Surrealist circle of André Breton, Max Ernst, and Salvador Dalí. Her first solo show was at a gallery directed by Christian Dior in Paris at the age of 25. In 1936, her work was included in the seminal “Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

“Those that are familiar with Fini know that she was a fiercely independent woman with a highly original vision who answered to no one when it came to both her personal way of living and her artistic expression,” Bowen told Artsy. “She was self-taught and paved her own way by working tirelessly and charming those around her with her magnetism, flare, and incredible talent.”

Bowen is quick to correct the misconception that Fini was not well lauded during her time in light of this contemporary revival of her practice. “Towards the end of the 20th century, Fini and many of her contemporaries fell out of favor to the younger, more trendy and experimental artists working in Pop, Abstract Expressionism, and Minimalism,” she said. “It’s a common misconception that Fini and her contemporaries were unknown until more recently—they were just pushed aside!”

Leonor Fini, Mise en garde ( ̈Petites enseignes pour la Nuit VI), 1982. Courtesy of Galerie Minsky and Kasmin, New York.

The current market has in recent years caught up with the women Surrealists who were pushed aside in the the 20th century. Fini’s top five auction records were all set in the past three years. Her current record was set at a 2021 Sotheby’s auction, where Autoportrait au scorpion (1938) sold for $2.3 million, nearly three times its high estimate of $800,000. Fini’s previous auction high was $980,000 with Figures on a Terrace (Composition with Figures on a Terrace; La Terrasse) (1938), which sold at a Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art evening sale in 2020.

The other auction results in Fini’s top five all come in under $900,000. These include Les Aveugles (1968), which sold for $867,000 at a 2021 November Sotheby’s sale; and Donna del Lago or Le Bout du monde II (1953) which sold for £499,000 ($694,765) at a March 2021 Sotheby’s evening sale.

However, Fini’s market lags slightly behind that of Carrington and Kahlo. In comparing Fini’s prices to Carrington’s, you see a notable difference in auction results, despite their stylistic similarities. Carrington’s sizable paintings on the secondary market tend to sell for around $1.7 million on the low end, while her record high was set last year when The Garden of Paracelsus (1957) sold for $3.2 million. The disparity between the two contemporaries may be explained by the artists’ disparate levels of fame across Western countries.

“Fini spent her entire life in Europe (unlike Carrington and Tanning who both lived in the Americas), so has always been most well known amongst Europeans (in particular France and Italy, where she lived),” Bowen said. “The Fini work in private hands is still mostly found in those two countries. France has very strict export laws, which can also cause difficulties in bringing work to the U.S.”

Installation view of “Leonor Fini: Metamorphosis,” 2023 at Kasmin. Courtesy of Kasmin, New York.

Fini’s bold personality may also be haunting the work, insofar as her practice thoroughly embraces the shadow side of dreams that includes kink culture (which was examined in her Museum of Sex retrospective) in a way that is absent from Carrington’s practice. “I’ve been told by those who knew her that Fini was a challenging character. I think this comes out in her work. I find it intriguing, but perhaps it intimidates some,” Bowen said.

Bowen reiterated, however, that Fini’s work is finding a place with emerging and established collectors who are unencumbered, if not enticed, by Fini’s bravado. “New, young collectors are fascinated with Fini and are acquiring works on paper that are still at an accessible price point,” she said. “We’ve also had very established collectors vie for Fini’s work. There has also been institutional interest, and multiple museum groups have visited the exhibition.” Recently, Kasmin included works on paper by Fini at its Felix Art Fair presentation in Los Angeles.

“Those that come across her work before knowing anything about her person, are quickly drawn to the incredible draftsmanship of her work, and the highly rendered, mysterious canvases exposing tensions between figures and the sexes,” Bowen said. “It’s high time Leonor Fini has a proper revival.”

Ayanna Dozier

Ayanna Dozier is Artsy’s Staff Writer.