featured photo

Go Home

Art Investment News Gallery, 3-7: Surreal Surprises
Morgan exhibition excludes a master

Left: Joan Miro (1893-1983), "Composition," 1930. Charcoal on paper. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Gift of Oveta Culp Hobby. Copyright 2012 Successio Miro / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy Morgan Library and Museum. Right: Leonor Fini (1907-1996), "La Danseuse aux chats," between 1948 and 1952. #2161. Ink on Paper, 15" x 12." Copyright Estate of Leonor Fini, Paris. Courtesy CFM Gallery.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2013 Paul Ben-Itzak

"Tout ce surnaturel lui est naturel."

-- Jean Cocteau, introduction to the Leonor Fini exhibition at the Museo Correr in Venice, 1951. (Cited in "Leonor Fini," Editions Hervas, Paris 1981.)

"Surrealism might one day be passé, but intelligence never will be, whether it's the intelligence of Leonor Fini or others."

-- Alberto Moravia, "Leonor Fini and Intelligence," from "Leonor Fini," Sansoni, Rome 1945. (Ibid.)

Much as I'd like to be enthusiastic about the Morgan Library and Museum's current exhibition Surrealism and the Art of Drawing -- an impressive kaleidescope of more than 160 works including by Dali, Miro, Ernst, Carrington, Cornell, and Magritte, on display through April 21 -- it's hard to stomach yet another supposed all-encompassing survey of Surrealism that excludes one of the movement's most adventurous and rebellious agents of change and accelerators, Leonor Fini, particularly when the Morgan's director, William Griswold, contends that "one of the principal goals of our exhibition program is to present new insight and fresh perspectives on the medium of drawing." Where exactly is the insight and 'fresh perspective' in perpetuating the historical informal boycott of Fini by most major museums, no doubt initiated by Griswold's male predecessors who felt threatened by a strong, sensually adventurous and sometimes sexually ambiguous (in her work anyway) lioness of a woman who deferred to nobody?

Museums are supposed to be living, evolving universities of art history, not simply maintaining that hagiography as it's been subjectively handed down to them with the prejudices, biases, and petite enmities of previous eras, but constantly revisiting and, when called for, amending and correcting it. My point here is not simply pedagogic. In an epoch where the institutions of the so-called 'popular culture' feed us the same comfortable diet of familiar foods, museums have a higher responsibility (and privilege!) to not just parade before us figures we already know about to confirm our taste and predilections, but to startle us with the unfamiliar and uncomfortable (and Fini can definitely make the sexually and psychologically insecure squirm). In the PR for this exhibition, the Morgan boasts of having culled "more than 165 works on paper by 70 artists from 15 countries, offering important new understanding of Surrealism's emergence, evolution, and influence." Where is the 'new understanding' in perpetuating an old slight? If the curators at the Morgan were able to scour 15 countries, why couldn't they be bothered to take a short jaunt across town to Chelsea, home to the most important repository of Fini work in the United States, the CFM Gallery, and whose director, Neil Zukerman, would, I'm sure, have been happy to propose and loan some paramount examples? How can Griswold pretend to explore the movement's 'evolution' and ignore a shape-shifting artist who constantly tested its borders and transgressed its frontiers, prodding public sensibilities while at the same time maintaining its human appeal? (Rare among Surrealists, Fini usually offered a figurative anchor in her work.) Making the omission all the more ironically egregious is that in addition to her work in her own medium, Fini produced a separate and singular body of work in the medium for which the Morgan's collection is best known, literature, instantly turning oeuvres like Pauline Reage's "Story of O" into collectibles with her illustrations.

Leonor Fini, "Le Sabbot Ressuscite," Presentation Dinner Menu. Original Drawing and Printed Menu for the Societe des Amis Des Livres, 1957. Pen and ink, 12" x 8" each (2). Framed size is 21.5" x 27.75". Copyright Estate of Leonor Fini, Paris.

"In her drawings and in particular in the collection executed to illustrate the oeuvre of the Marquis de Sade," wrote Alberto Moravia in 1945 (citation above), "Leonor Fini abandoned and revealed herself much more than in her paintings. Not only did she reprise this mixture of the grace of the 18th century and of furor, of systematic cruelty and elegance, of reason and dream, integral to the author of 'Juliette,' but she at the same time gave the text an interpretation of her own, complete and free." It's this freedom that frightens timorous museum curators because it can't be boxed into simple explanations, its frank sexuality is not subjugated by male interpreters.... But this is not the fault of the other artists featured in the Morgan's exhibition, so to give them their proper due, herewith some examples -- proper company for the artist whose work inspired Jean Genet to pay tribute to "these magnificent images ... of which each one might be the projection of that which I would like to become." ("Letter to Leonor Fini," 1950, published in an illustrated plaque by Loyau, Paris, 1950. Reproduced in "Leonor Fini," Editions Hervas, Paris, 1981.)

Left: Giorgio de Chirico, "The Poet and the Philosopher," 1913. Pencil on buff-colored paper Copyright Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome. Thaw Collection, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York. Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2012. Right: Max Ernst (1891-1976), "La femme 100 tetes ouvre sa manche auguste." Collage: cut and pasted wood engravings mounted on paper. Copyright Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. The Menil Collection, Houston. Photography by Paul Hester.

Left: Francis Picabia (1879-1953), "Olga," 1930. Graphite pencil and crayon on paper. Bequest of Mme Lucienne Rosenberg, 1995. CNAC / MNAM / Dist.RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource. Copyright 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Right: Andre Breton (1896-1966), Jacqueline Lamba (1910-1993), Yves Tanguy (1900-1955), "Exquisite Corpse," 1938. Collage. Gale and Ira Drukier. Copyright 2012 Atists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Copyright 2012 Estate of Yves Tanguy / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Left: Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), "La table surrealiste," 1933. Ink. Copyright 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Copyright Alberto Giacometti Estate /Licensed by Vaga and ARS, New York. Collection Michael and Judy Steinhardt, New York. Right: Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), Untitled, 1930s. Collage Copyright The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York. Private Collection, New York. Courtesy James Corcoran Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo copyright 2012 Museum Associates / LACMA, by Michael Bodycomb.

Salvador Dali (1904-1989), Study for "The Image Disappears," 1938. Pencil on paper. Copyright Salvador Dali, Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dali, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2012. Photo copyright 2012 Museum Associates / LACMA, by Michael Tropea. Private Collection.

Rene Magritte (1898-1967), "La Tempete," 1927. Graphite. Copyright 2012 C. Herscovici, London / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Gale and Ira Drukier.

Arshile Gorky (1904-1948), "Nighttime, Enigma, and Nostalgia," 1931. Ink on paper. Copyright 2012 Estate of Arshile Gorky / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Bequest of Caroline Wiess Law, 2004.17.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1873), "Women at the Seashore," November 25, 1932. India Ink. Collection of Gail and Tony Ganz. Copyright 2012 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society, (ARS), New York.

Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), "Chambre d'Enfants a minuit," 1941 Graphite. 8 1/2 x 12 in.. Copyright 2013 Leonora Carrington / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Private Collection.

Andre Masson (1896-1987), "Ville Cranienne (Skull City)," 1940. Copyright 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. The Morgan Library & Museum, New York. Gift of the Modern and Contemporary Collectors Committee, 2011.6. Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2012.

Go Home