Notice: Leonor Fini: Catalogue Raisonné

NB: This is a notice, not a review. It is derived from the final version on PDF, not a published copy of the book. Hence, I cannot provide a complete review as I am unable to discuss print quality, binding, etc. All information below is accurate to the PDF I have viewed.

Leonor Fini (1907-1996) was an Argentinian-born Italian Surrealist painter. She grew up in Trieste and received no formal training as an artist, teaching herself. She joined the Surrealists in 1933. She was part of the oneiric (or dreamlike) strand of Surrealism, led by Dalí, who became a friend, although it would not be until 1938 that she would produce her first mature Surrealist paintings. These feature women in elegant dresses inhabiting fantastic invented settings, with mythological references. Throughout her career, invented female portraits and self-portraits would be a major part of her oeuvre. Her art would centre on women, sensuality and sexuality. She portrayed male lovers nude and painted scenes of lesbianism in later years. The atmosphere of her scenes is mysterious and often sinister. Her art developed through different phases. In the 1950s, her art became more decorative and abstract, with figures floating in fields of organic patterning. These verge on the psychedelic. In the 1960s and 1970s, Fini’s figures become paler and less modelled. The increasing stylisation, flattened forms, area of strong colour and shallower picture plane indicate the influence of Pop Art. In the 1980s the backgrounds darkened and her art becomes more serene and less playful. She painted until a few months before her death in 18 January 1996.    

This catalogue raisonné is in two volumes. The first volume contains essays on various aspects of the life and art of Fini, with illustrations including photographs of the artist, her famous ball costumes and sketches, along with a selection of colour plates of paintings. The second volume contains a catalogue of all Fini’s known paintings, with colour images and information, concluding with a detailed chronology, bibliography, exhibition list and other source data. The texts are informative and thorough, with Overstreet and Webb already proven Fini experts. The bibliography is extensive but not complete. The illustrations (judging from the digital file) are high quality. This publication will be a vital resource for collectors and dealers, though its price will put it out of the reach of many enthusiasts.

Richard Overstreet and Neil Zukerman (eds.), with Peter Webb and Rowland Weinstein, Leonor Fini: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings, Scheidegger & Spiess, 2021, hardback, 2 vols. in slipcase, 648pp, 1082 col., 339 mono illus., €350, ISBN 978-3-85881-843-0

(c) 2021 Alexander Adams

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Piranesi Unbound

In Piranesi Unbound Carolyn Yearkes and Heather Hyde Minor reframe discussion of Piranesi not as solely or principally as a printmaker/artist but “as a writer, illustrator, printer, and publisher of books”. They posit that the product was ultimately the book rather than individual prints or – in our age of catalogues raisonnés and universal access to a lifetime’s oeuvre – a body of prints, and that consequently it was the individual books that provided Piranesi’s a metric of his own success. Our consumption of Piranesi’s art has distorted our appreciation of it and left us ill-equipped to understand how Piranesi saw his work.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) arrived from Venice aged 20, with an ambition to become an architect. His skill for as an architectural draughtsman led to him recording the ruins of Rome in his painterly, exaggerated picturesque style in drawings and etchings. His books of etchings – mainly the Views of Rome and Imaginary Prisons – presented architectural views and fragments of antiquity, which came from Piranesi’s efforts as an archaeologist-antiquarian.

Piranesi produced prints for authors but soon moved to producing prints of his own subjects, both individually and bound as books. He collaborated with scholars on texts for his books, later writing alone. The texts assisted in selling bound collections of prints by adding intellectual coherence to views of disparate buildings and antiquities. The authors outline Piranesi’s career and method of operation. His drawing on the spot before motifs was complemented by invented and observed figures. Piranesi etchings often have diminutive figures to demonstrate the size of buildings; they also exhort viewers to behold the wonders of the ancients. Numerous illustrations show us sketches where the artist refines ideas and improvises.

The authors analyse Piranesi as a book producer. A chapter covers the way Piranesi used off-prints, faulty sheets and test proofs as waste paper on which he would sketch. (Over 60 sketches on printed sheets are extant.) It is significant that Piranesi had to send sheets to a book printer in order to have text printed. Although specialist engravers could cut letters on to figural plates, for whole pages of text, moveable type was required, which was under the purview of a text printer. “No matter how successful he became, Piranesi never owned a letterpress. Printing with movable type set in trays and printing from copperplates were two distinct specialities in eighteenth-century Rome, requiring different presses and teams of skilled laborers.” Type printing was relief matrix and copperplate was intaglio (recessed) matrix.

The printed sheets used for sketches are analysed, with sources identified. (Not all the sources are Piranesi’s books.) The artist designed his own letterforms and etched decorative vignettes of initial capital letters. The authors note that cataloguers have paid inconsistent attention to these vignettes, the plates for which have been lost. “Reference works on Piranesi’s prints typically divorce images from their texts, summarizing his books as lists of illustrations, and organizational problems abound within them.”

Copies of Piranesi’s books were bound once they were sold, with presumably sample books held by Piranesi’s publisher-bookseller. Many collectors had books bound to their own specifications, sometimes with a family escutcheon. There is discussion of the various patrons who supported Piranesi. Many were British gentlemen on the Grand Tour. Researchers will welcome the list of dedicatees of extant (and some lost) copies of Lettere di giustificazione scritte a Milord Charlemont (1757), which forms a summary of Piranesi’s patrons. “From the individual copies emerges a sweeping panorama of the artist’s professional world. Patrons and clients, printers and artists, nobles and clergy: all of them appear within the small frame of Piranesi’s dedicatory print.” Thumbnail biographies are accompanied by portraits. Fittingly, Piranesi Unbound is profusely illustrated and well designed.

The author’s note the way Piranesi reflected objects of antiquity and cast letters (from Roman inset inscriptions and contemporary cast type) in his prints, playing with illusionism. This is also seen in Piranesi’s texts illustrated as carved inscriptions on ruined stonework. On the title page of Lapides Capitolini sive Fasti Consulares Triumphalesque Romanorum (1762) has the form of a carved tablet with seals and coins placed on it. “When Piranesi etched or engraved a coin, he almost always showed it life-sized, or near life-sized, reveling in the verisimilitude of having an impressed object appear as if set down on the paper.” Piranesi was forever etching real and invented inscriptions on depictions of objects, demonstrating his playful creativity and visual wit.     

Hampering appreciated of Piranesi as book maker is the fact that many books have been split up and pages either separated for display or dispersed. Piranesi himself sold individual sheets to buyers who did not want or could not afford entire books. The chapter on the binding of Piranesi’s books includes photographs of the sumptuous bindings: leather with gilded figures and borders. There is a photograph of a copy that has had most of its pages cut out. These are aptly called “carcasses”. A chapter deals with the fate of prints, books and plates following the artist’s death. It seems Piranesi’s books were acquired by antiquarians, historians and numismatical experts, as well as by artists and architects.

There is a point here that applies to all art. We are becoming accustomed to the dematerialised digitised art work. Even if we are consuming art on the printed page, the image has been through digitisation and tweaking. Sizes have been adjusted to suit the page, tones altered to be optimised through a printing press, margins have been trimmed and straightened. Viewing art on a computer screen may allow greater flexibility in viewing and increased resolution, but it further translates a physical item into an arrangement of pixels. Even those of us who have seen or handled original prints, there is a certain relief about the printed illustration or computer file. We do not have to take care handling a printed sheet; we do not have to make an appointment and travel to a library to study an image; we can flip instantly between pictures and access unique works we could never see in person. There is a certain eager resignation to accept that art-as-object can be viably supplanted by art-as-image and there are advantages that cannot be gainsaid in the advances in printing and internet image access.

Piranesi Unbound is a thoroughly researched and stimulating discursive study of Piranesi as a creator and seller of books. This will be a valuable book for students of Piranesi, book arts and patronage in Eighteenth-Century Rome.  

Carolyn Yearkes and Heather Hyde Minor, Piranesi Unbound, Princeton University Press, 2020, hardback, 240pp, fully illus., $65/£54, ISBN 978 0 691 20610 3

(c) 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit

[i] P. 4

[ii] P. 15

[iii] P. 72

[iv] P. 125

[v] P. 110

Claude Cahun: Paper Bullets

he life stories of Suzanne Malherbe (1892-1972) and Lucy Schwob (1894-1954) are the stuff of fiction. Jeffrey H. Jackson’s Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy the Nazis is a new telling of a tale that has received increasing attention in the last two decades.

The Schwob and Malherbe families were friends and their daughters played together. Suzanne was a talented artist and Lucy wrote prolifically from childhood onwards. They collaborated on a book of drawings (Suzanne) and poems (Lucy), published in 1919. The book was published pseudonymously.

Professionally, Schwob adopted the gender-ambiguous name Claude Cahun; Malherbe chose the masculine nom-de-plume Marcel Moore. They would be professionally known by those names, though their everyday and legal names remained unchanged. As this review is biographical rather than artistic, I, like Jackson, will use their given forenames. Jackson is alive to the way the pair have been appropriated as cons of transgenderism. He points out that although they presented themselves in ambiguous ways (Cahun shaving her head), “they always talked about themselves as women” and used female pronouns. Suzanne and Lucy arrived in the early 1920s from Nantes in search of fulfilment; mainly artistic and literary….

Read the full review of Jeffrey H. Jackson, Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy the Nazis, Algonquin Books, 2020 here:

The Naked Truth: Viennese Modernism and the Body

In The Naked Truth: Viennese Modernism and the Body Alys George, a specialist in German culture at New York University, applies an interdisciplinary approach to the thesis that conceptions of the body were central to the up swelling of avant-garde culture during the period of Viennese Modernism.

George defines the Viennese fin de siècle as 1870-1938, contrasting with the usual definition as 1870/80 to 1914. Nominating the Anschluss as the cut-off of the beaux-arts period implies a level of continuity between pre-war and post-war periods in Vienna that diverges from the way other countries are assessed. The classification suggests Viennese society had not adjusted to its loss of empire and was still strongly attached to its pre-war culture, something reflecting Austria’s naturally conservative culture. It is paradoxical, of course, that the Vienna that was so critical of Modernism, clung to pre-war Jugendstil, Symbolism and Expressionism when much of Europe sought new styles and new political paradigms. Defeat shattered German society, yet that same defeat seemed to entrench and isolate Vienna in its pre-war culture, almost a rejection of defeat. However, Vienna’s reputation as the cockpit of Modernism (especially in Jugendstil and Expressionism) decreased dramatically, with attention increasingly focused on Paris during the inter-war period.  

The central concern of Viennese modernism is, according to Werner Hofmann and Hilde Spiel, “to recognize the flesh, to apprehend the human being in its creatureliness”. George claims the materialism of contemporary Viennese science centres culture of that location on the body. Vienna was a centre of medicine and the nascent science of psychology/psychotherapy, as well as anthropological criminology. One of the leading criminolgists was Italian Cesare Lombroso. Criminology was intimately associated with physiological and psychological research that ranged from the soundly evidence led to the crank pseudo-science such as physiognomy and racial classification. Sexology developed in Vienna in this period specifically so that normative sexual behaviour could be classed as legal and deviant behaviour classed as illegal. Study of disease, hygiene, exercise and naturism were interlinked, mixing science with fad, frequently crossed into areas of law-making, public policy and discussion of sex (both sexual activity and the innate characteristics of the two sexes).

Anthropometry and phsysiognomy flourished. Reproduced in the book is a page of head types drawn by Egon Schiele for a scientific textbook in 1917. Ethnography and anthropology were used to advance knowledge and to categorise races. George discusses the 1896 public presentation of an Ashanti village – transported from the Gold Coast, complete with wood-and-thatch huts and natives in traditional garb – set up in the Prater, the zoological park, in Vienna. It did booming business, with 15,000 visitors on the opening afternoon. Berlin took up the model by setting up an Abyssinian village in 1905. While George presents the range of responses to the event – more public spectacle than scientific demonstration – and inferences that can be drawn, she is rather too forward with her contemporary moral position than some readers will wish.

A comparative display was the 1906 General Hygienic Exhibition, also held in Vienna, one of many held in European cities. “Such large-scale exhibits aimed to reach the broadest possible audience by combining medical science about the body and hygiene, targeted at laypeople, with concrete directives about how to best improve one’s physical constitution.” This was a widespread drive for self-improvement through science and pseudo-science. “The notion of reforming the body included several branches: personal hygiene; naturopathy, nutrition reform, abstinence, and drug prevention; physical education and sports movements, including gymnastics, alpinism, and dance; clothing reform; spa and bathhouse culture; and nudism (the latter often subsumed under the rubric of Freikörperkultur, literally, “free body culture”).” It included not only advice, information and models, its exhibits acted as a trade fair for commercial wares in the expanding health-improvement-device market. Scientism and fads mingle easily – and sometimes indistinguishably – with science and technological advances.

There is a chapter on bodies in Viennese literature, centring on Arthur Schnitzler, Marie Pappenheim, Joseph Roth, Carry Hauser and Ödön von Horváth. (The first two were medical doctors as well as authors.) Robert Musil saw himself as a vivisector. Sigmund Freud, the most influential of Viennese Modernist writer, analysed the overlap between culture and body and the constant struggle between restraint and expression and the resultant dysfunction. Schnitzler’s depictions of dissecting rooms were from personal experience and his attempt to lay bare the malaises at the heart of modern life was akin to a medical diagnosis. Pappenheim also wrote a poem about a dissecting room. Journalist Joseph Roth wrote of the plight of the underclass – including the Kriegsbeschädigte (“the war damaged”) – in his articles in the years of deprivation. Horváth’s 1932 play is set in the Anatomical Institute, Vienna. George neatly summarises the bodily-focus of the texts but does not draw an overarching conclusion.

George discusses the position of working-class women as the subjects of medical institutions and research in Viennese medicine. She mentions Klimt’s murals for the university, including one for the discipline of medicine, which featured a pregnant woman nude. She also discusses controversies over abortion in the inter-war period.

George writes well of Schiele’s drawings made at the Women’s Clinic. “His drawings of mothers-to-be exude a candid, radical corporeality, an unaesetheticized physicality that sets them apart from even Klimt’s paintings of the same theme […] Schiele’s drawings call attention to questions regarding women’s sexuality, social marginality, and the more general problem of scopic power in fin-de-siècle Vienna.” George notes that these privileges for artists tells us about the thinking of physicians and senior hospital administrators. “[…] the access of artists to patients in Viennese clinical settings must be read together with concurrent efforts to put the clinics themselves and their modernity on display to the public. A modern type of medical architecture that emerged around the fin de siècle blurred the boundaries between private and public, while facilitating the production of images that could later be deployed in nonclinical settings.”

However, this seems too clear cut. For instance, the people who granted access for Schiele and Mime van Osen probably did not expect that art to become public – after all, there was no appetite at the time for public display of such images. How official was their access? Was it not a case of senior staff sympathetic to artists (who would be undertaking private research not expected to be shown directly to the public) offering access in return for a drawing or a portrait? To what degree was the institution itself sanctioning artist access? George assumes that the access was known and approved by authorities but this may not be the case. For example, John Richardson states that Picasso probably gained access to confined prostitutes in Paris during his Blue Period due to the ministrations of a doctor who had treated one of Picasso’s mistresses. Favours or payment in kind may have played more of a part than official policy, especially if it were tacitly understood that the artists would not display their art or mention where they met the subjects.

A chapter discusses the role of gesture in theatre, mime, dance and silent film. This is framed through the theories of Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Long, flowing clothing was used to emphasise movement; some dancers were photographed nude, taking the expressiveness to new heights by abandoning the conventions of modesty. This relates to naturism and the advent of art photography. The New School for Movement Art operated in Vienna, covering “rhythmic gymnastics and calisthenics, dance, ballet technique, and acrobatics, [also] anatomy and physiology, pedagogy and psychology, instruction in form and harmony, the history of art, music, dance, and gymnastics, costume art, and figural and ornamental drawing.” Expressionism in Austria and Germany involved cinema, theatre and dance, which involved a lot attention to communication through form, gesture and movement.

Overall, The Naked Truth provides a thoughtful and intelligent overview of the role of the body in Viennese science and culture of the fin-de-siècle and modern periods.

Alys X. George, The Naked Truth: Viennese Modernism and the Body, Chicago University Press, 2020, hardback, 322pp + xi, 43 mono illus., $45, ISBN 978 0 226 669984

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit