The Original Cat Lady

John William

I was born one hundred and eleven years ago in Buenos Aires. I am the original cat woman. Eartha Kitt came twenty years later. I died at nearly ninety years in Paris, a man either side of me and shrouded in a big peaceful blanket of Persian cats.

What becomes a legend most? Nothing as dull as the truth. “Faction!” Diana Vreeland would exclaim, red lacquer fingernails splayed. The facts of Leonor Fini are as gorgeously fluid as her watercolours. In an eponymous (and fabulous) 1988 documentary by Chris Vermorcken we see Leonor padding through her apartment, splashing around with paint wearing Royal Blue robes fastened with a diamond brooch (probably Bvlgari … a gift from some lover or other.) She’s a bit Liz Taylor (White Diamonds era) a bit Holly Woodlawn and a lot feline.
“The water plays tricks on me. It does what it likes. The water runs away… so I strike it I stalk it.
In its disobedience it forms things that I like.”
Search out the Ophelic inky heads Leonor formed in this style: utterly modern and painted when Marlene Dumas was just a kid. Fini called the easel a guillotine. Henri Cartier-Bresson decided to chop off Leonor’s head in a photograph he took of her floating in a pool of water. Exactly 100 years after her birth this photograph sold for a record breaking 305,000 dollars. It’s the Fini effect. So paintable. So photogenic. And so photographed! Bresson, Dora Maar (Picasso’s Weeping Woman,) Lee Miller (the woman who made Man Ray weep glass tears,) Georges Platt Lynes (a favourite of the Kinsey Institute,) Horst, André Ostier, Cecil Beaton… they all had a go on her, and I would like to think she had a go on all of them (although I can’t imagine she coaxed Cecil out of his lilac trews.) Art dealer Julian Levy described Leonor “her parts did not fit well together: head of a lioness, mind of a man, bust of a woman, torso of a child, grace of an angel, discourse of the Devil . . .”
I am a child. I’m given a basin of water to play with. I swirl the water with my fingers and figures emerge. A woman with the hindquarters of a wild cat is shrouded in gossamer clutching her breasts. Her veil falls and she has no face just a skull crowned with a garland of pink roses. I am a grown woman dressed in a red corset, brown velvet and a scorpion scurries under my single white glove. It nestles in my palm. I am a child again, wearing Sunday best. I am pointing at something? A shelf before me holds two Tiffany vases, and inside one is a fat baby, growing like a potato. 
Leonor tells a story about coming home from drama school as a child in a bad mood, stomping up the stairs to her room. She slams the door and the patchwork of the kitsch postcards she has tacked to the wall ruffles. She lies in bed and one by one cats come out of the cupboards to lay on top of her. She describes it “like the inside of a dawn.”
“I like cats because I find them calming and harmonious. And I know exactly what type of person likes cats and what type of person does not. Generally loners and rebels, those who are in some sort of solitary situation, are those who like cats. Of course I think that like Auto-da-fé and everything to do with witches, cats have always been linked to women, to femininity. That has to do with religion. Cats were seen as an extended concept of ‘sin.’”
In the thirties, Leonor found herself at the fountain of the avant-garde: swinging surrealist Paris. She was not really a paid-up member of Breton’s gang mostly because she wasn’t willing to let the men tell how how to make a painting, and her work defied the confines of a manifesto or rulebook. She shacked up with the artist Stanislao Lepri and writer Konstanty Jeleński, and the three of them basically lived happily ever after. She encouraged Lepri, and together they developed a shared language of painting. His work was full of animal allegory. Stanislao and Leonor would walk on the beach in Corsica picking up basalt pebbles and painting them with the faces of cats and the moon.
I looked over to the man I love. We are painting side by side on canvases. In the place of his nose… a rhinoceros horn! I look in the mirror and from the freckles on my cheeks sprung whiskers made from violin strings.
 Leonor Fini created what some consider to be the first erotic nude of a male painted by a woman. In ‘The Bedroom’ (1942) we see in a taffeta chamber a woman (who has a whiff of the Bacchus about her,) looking lustily at the naked slender and curved body of a sleeping man below her. It’s all in the line of his hip. There are other paintings of tanned nubile boys who lie asleep legs spread like the Barberini faun, being watched by female sphinx.
In the sixties Leonor started painted a series of women sat opposite each other on trains. These brief encounters are very close in composition to Augustus Leopold Egg’s ‘The Travelling Companions’ (1862) all showing women in profile, crammed into the close quarters of a train carriage. Fini captures the claustrophobic thrill of sitting opposite a stranger on a train. Am I the only pervert who has sat on the Central Line picking out who I wouldn’t kick out of bed?
“What is more delimited than a train carriage where, beyond the immobile position, almost everything is forbidden. Train carriages are thus both nerve-wracking and protective. Places of passing complicity where we slumber in false sleep, where we let ourselves be overtaken by claustrophobic, ecstatic or criminal dreams.”
Fini must have been pretty turned on by Egg’s Victorian ladies bumping gowns. She revisits the image many times, sometimes keeping the women tantalisingly buttoned-up, sometimes letting a suspender belt slip out of the bottom of their skirt, and in one painting a redhead is asleep baring both beautiful breasts, which are mirrored by a pair of generous satsumas sat on a shelf between her and her (awake, and curious) companion.
The blog Honesterotica has a digital archive of Fini’s erotic works far more comprehensive than any other I have found, including her 1945 illustrations for an edition of de Sade’s Juliette and 1968 watercolours for Anais Nin’s Story of O. I can’t think of another artist to represent such an open legged celebration of sexuality.
George Melly the nelly wrote my obituary in London. He wrote that in the seventeenth century I would have been burned as a witch. Talk about the pot and the kettle. C’est la casserole qui dit a la poele cul sale.He likened me to Bianca Jagger and I like that. Although, had I attended Studio 54 it would have been atop a panther. Melly says I had echos of de Sade, but de Sade for Vogue. I bet Melly was familiar with the Marquis. He liked boys and girls just like me. I love to sit opposite a girl on a train. I love to watch men asleep. Men love me. They want me. They take a picture… They ask me to sit on their face… but then after… they can’t help themselves. They still need the last word. Jean Genet told me to take off my cat mask. He said I dressed like a Roman Cardinal but he didn’t know I wasn’t wearing any knickers underneath. Just a dab of Schiaparelli round my ankles.
All of you teenagers in the audience are likely too sophisticated to have experienced the locker-room fug of Jean Paul Gaultier’s seminal perfume “Le Male” (or for her: “Classique,”) but you must know the bottle. A Lalique Venus of Willendorf in a Breton or a basque. Well Leonor beat Gaultier to it – designing the bottle for Elsa Schiaparelli’s “Shocking” in 1937 to follow the form of Mae West’s ample curves. Fini also created fashion illustrations for the brand showing models in the new season drag accessorised with tiny deer or miniature feathered dogs on pink ribbon leashes. Idée fixe of the in-crowd for six decades Leonor collaborated with everybody from Harpers Bazaar to the Marquis de Sade to Fellini. There’s even a Madonna video homaging her (Bedtime Story.)
My favourite footage of Fini captures her langouring on the sofa in total glamour puss mode. It’s the 1980s and she has a white Bakelite telephone at her side and she’s doodling whilst taking some calls and pretending to others that Leonor is not home.
I love to talk on the telephone. Yeats had his automatic writing, but with a fistful of felt tips and coloured pencils I talk on the phone and draw and draw… cats dressed in bustles walking in pairs, cats parachuting and trapezing. Cats in elephant masks and human masks. Cats in bed fondling each others breasts.
Until the end she never stopped. Whether in the un-self-conscious doodles on the telephone pad, epic surreal frescos, a cat mask for Margot Fonteyn or a perfume bottle; she dismantles each manifesto, every construct of ‘the artist’, or what it means to be ‘a women’…or a surrealist…or a muse. Her work is not about any of this…it just is. George Melly called her “the lethal yet irresistible sphinx, the vampire we would most like to visit us.” Germaine Greer writes “Fini was convinced that she was inventing her own ideal of femininity: sensual, powerful, merciless. To a jaundiced eye, it is more of the same: huge hair, virginal breasts, tiny waists, long legs, Barbie before Barbie.” Like with Vreeland or Isabella Blow, the artifice and the glamour came absolutely naturally. The lie that tells the truth. She didn’t invent herself … she just was. Leonor Fini did not talk about having sex, or throwing a party, or making a painting. She got on and did it.
This feature is taken from Issue 7 of Puss Puss Magazine, click here to buy your copy!