The Art World's a Stage
“Leonor Fini: Theatre of Desire” at the Museum of Sex
“Leonor Fini: Theatre of Desire” revisits (or maybe simply “visits,” as this is the artist’s first retrospective in the United States) the work of the Argentine-Italian Surrealist painter. “Theatre of Desire” is precisely and subtly named, though perhaps too subtly for the goonish frat boys who stormed shouting through the exhibition on my visit there, which I suppose is the necessary collateral when staging a serious exhibition at a museum that also contains within it a bouncy house constructed of balloon-like breasts.
That it is staged at the Museum of Sex is perhaps misleading, not least because of the aforementioned clientele. Though an erotic expectation is certainly fulfilled by the illustrations Fini made throughout her life for literary works like the Marquis de Sade’s Juliette (1777) and the lewd costume designs for some of her playwright friends’ productions, the more subtle forms of sexuality are performed here, and like any good performance a push and pull plays out across this exhibition’s two floors. The “desire” addressed in the title, after all, burns within, always a step removed from consummation. Though many bodies lie prone with little to conceal them, the erotic within them is one in which the woman holds the power, and it is her desire that drives the plot forward. That a museum that contains such a bouncy house has flipped the power structures of the erotic (for the most part avoiding the dominatrix trope) is an indication that, despite our possible prejudice, we should be paying attention to the Museum of Sex as an important curatorial voice.
Leonor Fini was born in 1907 in Argentina and moved with her mother to Trieste, Italy as a teenager. Self-taught, she exhibited her work with members of the Surrealist circle in Paris, where she was well-known for her elaborate displays of costume. In this exhibition she plays many roles, including the sphinx, the seer, the guide, and the goddess among them, and if she is not the only character on stage in her paintings, she is certainly always the central one.
In In the Tower (1952), she calmly leads her lover (one of the two men of her decades long ménage à trois) into the light beyond a doorway, as if guiding him to spiritual fulfillment. In Woman Seated on Naked Man (1942) she sits contemplatively on her lover’s naked form, a rare Déjeuner sur l’herbe where the woman is clothed while her male counterpart is not. Fini robes his body in her own skirts, suggesting the body of this man is for her eyes and not the viewer’s. And if her painting is not enough to suggest this woman’s confidence, she certainly was always the center of attention at her annual costume balls, where she played hostess in a crumbling castle off the coast of France. The exhibition presents one such costume, a golden gown complete with an ancient crown with horns. A nearby video show her presiding in her castle, as dramatic as an opera set, an aging queen among the ruins.
The performance, of course, is not confined to the works themselves, and whether for the sake of engaging an audience perhaps less keen on reading wall labels (though the ones included here are extensive), the exhibition is meant to be more immersive than most. The lights are kept low, a sensual music plays, and the floor and walls are painted in deep pinks and purples, evoking a harlequin’s boudoir.
It is startling to think about the way this show would have been staged elsewhere (say, at MoMA), and I can’t help but be glad that it was staged here, on this unexpected corner near Madison Square Park. The point of the white cube gallery’s spareness is to convince the viewer that the work presented within is neutral, inevitable and therefore, correct. Judging by the fact that I had never heard of Leonor Fini, who was acquainted with and sometimes close to the figures who dominate Surrealism (and whom MoMA certainly reveres), is a clear indication that the white cube is itself a theater, which perpetuates certain untruths. Its blank walls ask us to suspend our disbelief and embrace the spectacle it presents us with as its only truth. Fini, a constant shapeshifter, would know better than to believe it.
Museum of Sex
Until March 4, 2019