member of:Observers of the Interdependence of Domestic Objects and Their Influence on Everyday Life

This group has been active for a long time and has already made some remarkable assertions which render life simpler from the practical point of view. For example, I move a pot of green color five centimeters to the right, I push in the thumbtack beside the comb and if Mr. A (another adherent like me) at this moment puts his volume about bee-keeping beside a pattern for cutting out vests, I am sure to meet on the sidewalk of the avenida Madero a woman who intrigues me and whose origin and address I never could have known...
--Remedios Varo

(Slideshow is of Artwork by Remedios Varo)
By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.
--Franz Kafka

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Art of the Cat

“They made profound bows before her [the Cat] and said: ‘We all wish you to divulge your secrets for our benefit.’ The grand old cat answered: ‘Teaching is not difficult, listening is not difficult, but what is truly difficult is to become conscious of what you have in yourself and be able to use it as your own.’”
--From The Swordsman and the Cat (from a seventeenth
century master’s book on swordplay; my source: Book of
Symbols, p. 300).

(photo by Arturo Ghergo)

Leonor Fini’s life began almost immediately as a creative, theatrical endeavor of clever attempts to thwart the terrifying incursions of a shadowy force. When she was barely a year old, her mother fled the oppressive ogre of her husband and his Buenos Aires to take her infant to her own homeland of Italy. But the distance was not enough; her father, his ego slighted, sent agents across the ocean to snatch her off the streets. Leonor remembered the moment, thankfully interrupted by attentive strangers, well into the last years of her life, when she recounted it to Philip Wells : “I was walking down the street in the perfectly normal vertical position of a child moving, and suddenly I was taken in someone’s arms and found myself in a horizontal position. This frightened me very much, and the fear stayed with me for many years after. As a child I felt constantly in the shadow of some dark obscure menace.”(Sphinx, The Life and Art of Leonor Fini)

She couched that dark menace in mythic, but manageable, terms, as “one of those spirits from Assyrian bas-reliefs: terrifying, implacable, and very bogus, all at the same time” (Sphinx). And instead of hiding away inside, she went about her childhood passing as a boy until she was five or six years old. This habit of pretending to be someone else turned from a necessity into a favored past-time, well-fed by the yearly carnivals and masked pageants of her town. As an adult, she was famous for her costumes—both the ones created for theater and ballet and those she created for herself, which she wore to any event she could find. “To dress up is to have the feeling of changing dimension, species, space. You can feel like a giant, plunge into the undergrowth, become an animal, until you feel invulnerable and timeless, taking part in forgotten rituals…I have always loved—and lived—my own theatre…To dress up, to cross-dress, is an act of creativity” (Sphinx, The Life and Art of Leonor Fini).

Above photo by Eddy Brofferio

Above photo by Andre Ostier


Another childhood difficulty she turned into magic was a temporary but lengthy blindness, suffered in her teens. For two months, Rheumatic conjunctivitis left her with her eyes bandaged, and the images that filled her mind were turned into marionettes and sculptures as well as paintings in a flood of activity as soon as the bandages were removed. Her obsessive focus, coupled with her expulsion from school, led to her mother’s concession to her daughter’s artistic dreams (Women as Mythmakers).

Timpe, Timpe, Timpe Tare

Voyage sans amarres

Le Carrefour d'Hecate

As a child, Leonor lived in a large household, with her mother, her grandparents, an uncle, a governess, a servant and, most importantly, a white Angora cat. Her close relationship with Cioci the Angora was the first of many, and as an adult, Leonor preferred to live this way—with many people, and with even more cats; at one time as many as 23 Persian cats shared her home and her bed.

Chats a Cornes


Cats have always played a significant role in art history; recently Sapphire wrote a fabulous post on traveling cat-painters of the Edo period in Japan who would go door to door selling paintings of cats to rat-proof the home. These paintings were to serve as protection for the hours of the day when the real-live cats were out patrolling other territories. She shows many lovely Ukiyo-e prints of cats in the post. Much later, in England, a little black kitten guided Alice into the world beyond the Looking Glass and back again.

French Cat Devil from Life Magazine
("Underneath the fanciful feline mask above is a Parisian surrealist painter named Leonor Fini who is also known for her passion for weird hats, skeletons and Persian cats. In headdress and bright red satin gown, Leonor attended an artists' ball in Paris on June 19 as an eye-catching cross between a cat and a devil." from the magazine Life, July 12, 1948)

In her review of the history and meaning of cats in art history in The Book of Symbols, Kathleen Martin says: “From the moment they [cats] first emerged from the wild and forged their wary affiliation with human beings, they have largely defined the terms of their self-domestication.” This power of self-definition may be where the symbolic importance of cats in Fini’s work finds its source: both in the general social arena, where women were pretty heavily domesticated second-class citizens, and in the Surrealist arena [which Fini emphatically refused to completely identify with], where females were permitted only the two roles of muse and femme-enfant, the desire to be one’s own woman, to grow into herself, and to forge relations with others as she saw fit must have been overwhelming.

Domestic? She’s sewing, but it’s magic…

And in fact, for most of her life, Fini lived with two men (though not always the same two): “one…who was rather a lover and another who was rather a friend. And it always worked” (Wikipedia). They would share her home with other friends and her, on average, 17 cats, all 17 of whom were given the respect they demanded: “They shared her bed and, at mealtimes, were allowed to roam the dining table selecting tasty morsels—and woe betide the guest who complained” (Wikipedia)…

According to Dorothea Tannin in Between Lives: An Artist and Her World, "You had to love Leonor a lot (I did) to put up with the cat miasma that accompanied whatever perfume drifted through her beautiful rooms on any given evening..." --an idea she connects to an amazing capacity for self-definition on the same page: "If ever there was a resolute 'dream world,' Leonor Fini lived there and managed, amazingly, never to leave it. In a conversation about a current movie...she said, primly, 'Kot'--one of her two male companions--'says I shouldn't see it. Ce n'est pas adapte a moi' (It isn't adapted to me).'"

Photo by Pilon?

Leonor, whose name means lion, who traveled Europe by car with 17 of her little lions… And lions, in Egyptian mythology, with their glorious manes, were representatives of the sun and the guardians of its rising and setting—and therefore of “the creative energies of dissolution and becoming” (Book of Symbols). Leonor created a whole series of her own Guardian paintings: tall, pale goddesses created especially for the task, often, of watching over destruction and creation. In La Gardienne des Fenix, a gorgeous woman in a flame-colored robe looks out over a wasteland, the fires of destruction, or sunset, or sunrise—it’s not clear—glowing from the distant horizon. She is surrounded by Phoenix of varying ages, from barely visible inklings of a future creature to the skeleton of a bird already passed.

La Gardienne des Fenix

And here, again, a Guardian, the very personification of the sun in her pale yellow gown budding forth beneath clear-sky robes, sits calmly in the midst of a destroyed landscape: she is an emerging sun in an emerging sky—she is life itself in the midst of death, re-creation. In each of these paintings, she holds the alchemical egg, a perfect sphere with everything that is needed for life tucked inside it:

Another major theme in Leonor’s painting was the Sphinx: half-cat, half-woman, often winged, sometimes not, this creature is a mysterious, incredibly flexible (unbreakable) guardian or sentry in its own right. Below, the full breasts and long, graceful neck of a woman grow out of a feline body—the face of a beautiful woman surrounded by a lion’s mane…

Etudie pour Portraits de Famille

Italy’s piazzas were full of stone, larger-than-life, triumphant female guardians in the guise of the caryatids holding up its formidable architecture and also sphinxes flanking entrances and gates. As a child, she often sat upon the Sphinxes Maximilian had brought from Egypt which guarded the entrance to Miramar Castle.

“Among the Egyptians, sphinxes were placed at the entrance of the temple to guard the mysteries by warning those who penetrated within that they should conceal a knowledge of them from the uninitiated. Champollion says that the sphinx became successively the symbol of each of the gods…which…suggests that the priests intended to express the idea that all the gods were hidden from the people, and that the knowledge of them, guarded in the sanctuaries, was revealed to the initiates only” (Wikipedia).

So again, the cat-like creature that guards the mysteries of our creation and our destruction, that guards mystery itself, shrouding it from the eyes of those unmotivated to the struggle “to become conscious of what you have in yourself and be able to use it as your own.”

Golden Sphinx

Sphinx for David Barrett.



  1. Hello,

    This is a very interesting post, zoe! Firstly, I was impressed with the grand old cat's teaching. Hmmmm! And Leonor Fini’s lovely portraits, paintings, and amazing life story. As I didn't know about her at all, everything you've written is new to me. I really love to read your essays on art and photography. You are truly excellent in writing them with a new perspective which I didn't realize. As for "Timpe, Timpe, Timpe Tare", it reminds me of Aoki Shigeru's "Umi no Sachi". And thanks so much for your mention and the link!

  2. I'd never heard of Leonor Fini either, but am so glad that I have now. I will have to look around and see what more I can find out too. It's always so wonderful to find out about about a new person like this, like adding a new window into what was just bare wall before. So thank you Zoe, yet again... I don't know how you do it, but I'm very happy you do!

  3. What an extraordinary woman! I always think that people who inhabit a world so far outside the everyday, make an art out of simply living. By any standard she must have seemed a tad eccentric. I like the idea that she declined to see a film because she'd been advised that it had not been adapted to her. Putting yourself at the heart of the universe in such a way takes unwavering self-belief! I wonder whether she had any streak of irony and self-mocking that might enable one to be playful with her in the face of her oddness. It sounds as though perhaps she took herself very seriously, which might make being in her company a bit of a strain. I don't think I'd like it if the cats helped themselves from my plate while I was eating!

    I once (note the 'once') had a friend who never having had a dog in her life, went a bit dog mad and quite suddenly acquired two, both of which had attitude and were not at all well governed by her. The larger of the two once ate a telephone. And I don't mean a tiny, wafer-thin designer mobile, but a big old-fashioned telephone plugged into the wall! I swear there was nothing left but some splinters of plastic. Anyway, this bouncy dog once bounded over to me as I came into the house, very friendly but too big to be jumping up at my face. I said in a VERY loud, firm voice, ' Betty, DOWN!' Betty immediately lay down, quite happy to be be put in her place (as dogs do) but my friend burst into tears! I don't quite know why I've shared this with you. But it's interesting, no?

    Fifteen cats at any one time. Oh my. That's an awful lot. Thank you for this post Zoe. Fascinating.

  4. i agree, clive,a lot of times it's much better to read about people with such striking behaviors than it is to, say, be a roommate :D but she seems to have been surrounded by friends, from what i've read so far.
    and i have to confess that as much as i love cats, i can't even eat after another person, so the idea of an animal trying my plate before me... no...
    and for the dog story-- people have such interesting relationships with animals, sometimes more informative than their relations with other people..

    jodi and sapphire, i'm so glad i could introduce you to leonor's works! i really find her fascinating as a whole, and it makes me happy to hear that others do, too. i do want to say--
    all the images here were uploaded directly to blogger, and on my screen at least, the quality isn't that great. but if you click on an image, it takes you to one of better quality.

    so:click, click!!

  5. Brilliant post Zoe, thank you! I'm completely captivated!