Donna del Lago or Le Bout du monde II by Leonor Fini, ca. 1953
Leonor Fini embodied the anti-muse in both her life and work, constantly defying, subverting and surprising the largely male-led Surrealist movement. Although she befriended, had relationships with, worked with, and exhibited alongside other key figures of Surrealism, she resisted the confining roles usually cast upon women associated with the group - namely those of muse, lover or student. Never officially joining the movement, she powerfully asserted and defined herself as the anti-femme fatale in her extraordinary and fantastical woman-led worlds.
Painted circa 1953, Donna del lago / Le Bout du monde II is a seductive and mythological articulation of the feminine gaze. At the centre of the composition, emerging from the dark pigments of Fini’s chthonic otherworld, is the defiant female figure, dramatically spotlit in ethereal opalescent tones. Although above the surface her gaze is slightly averted, her reflection stares directly at the viewer. Whilst theories of the “female gaze” had yet to be fully articulated when this work was executed, in this mirrored space, Fini explores this notion of what it means to be both the viewed and the viewer at the same time.
This active gaze is not singular. It emerges from all corners of the canvas through the half-submerged skulls which look out, the pupils of their roving eyes retaining their final traces of consciousness. Although in form they take the shape of prehistoric or mythological beasts, for Fini these represent men rather than animals: “The men around her are dead. They are too limited in understanding, too brutal to survive.” (L. Fini in P. Webb, Sphinx, The Life and Art of Leonor Fini, 2009, p. 143). Diametrically opposed to the projections of women by the male Surrealists around her, in this world Fini depicts her protagonist enacting exactly what these male artists most feared: castration and the dissolution of the ego. In an act of retaliation, these men are stripped of their physical bodies and muscularity with their features reduced to almost still-life like objects. With the holes of their skulls and the porous surface of bone insidiously penetrated by water, the feminine substance of life, and here death, Fini disrupts the iconography of Surrealism through the creation of her own subversive mythology.
The present work is the later version of one of Fini’s most acclaimed paintings, Le Bout du Monde, painted around five years earlier in 1948. The painting evolved with the passage of time: a city has emerged in the distance, the sky appears darker and the hair of the figure unravels further into Fini’s signature medusa-like tendrils. Although this image is certainly one of Leonor herself, in conversation Fini downplays this attribution: “It’s me but not just me: it’s the essence of the feminine. She is woman, symbol of beauty and deep knowledge. She emerges from the water, the essential element of life, the primeval material, because she knows how to survive the cataclysm.” (P. Webb, op. cit., p.143).
Whilst oneiric and mythological in scope, a powerful assertion of personal female reality lies at the centre of the picture. Leaving behind her submerged breasts, in Donna del lago / Le Bout du monde II the figure has emerged more fully from the water: she takes up more space, her sphynx-like neck is proudly elongated and her nipples are on show as she confidently and knowingly asserts her own erotic desire and sexual power.
This sexuality notably does not incorporate any of the usually idealised evocations of potential fertility. To the side of the figure lies a symbol of an egg, its shell broken, the branch from which it grows brown and withered. In this image of vegetal decay Fini explores both her body’s and her own psychological rejection of personal physical motherhood. Whilst being averse to pregnancy herself, this was also a possibility taken out of her hands after she underwent a medical hysterectomy in 1947: “I was so glad to have that operation. The thought of having children horrified me” she recalled later (P. Webb., op. cit., p.133).
Painted with her signature exquisite delicacy, which seductively belies a virile and anarchic agenda, Donna del lago / Le Bout du monde II is an extraordinary assertion of Fini’s mythical and fantastical imagination. Using herself as a subject, she captures the universal alchemy of women, as the bringers of both physical and metaphorical life and death, and explores the complicated domain of female selfhood - the viewed object and anti-muse, the relationship between motherhood and individual sexual freedom.
The work is inscribed Fée à Beltem in reference to the Druid calendar’s Beltane or Beltaine May Day celebrations. According to Gaelic folklore it is during this liminal time that fairies and otherworldly forces are at their most active.
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