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Leonor Fini was born on August 30, 1907, in Buenos Aires. When her mother, an Italian, separated from her father, an Argentine, she returned to Italy with her mother and went to live in Trieste. Leonor was raised in a cultured, bourgeois household, and frequent visitors included James Joyce, Italo Svevo, and Umberto Saba. She started painting at an early age and at seventeen left home to travel through Europe. She never received a formal art education, but she worked with Achille Funi during one of her visits to Milan.
In 1933 Fini moved to Paris and met some of the Surrealists, among them Max Ernst, Paul Eluard, and Victor Brauner. She never officially subscribed to the Surrealist movement, but she experimented with some of its techniques in her work. She was especially interested in automatism, in which artists sought inspiration from the casual juxtaposition of shapes and the chance use of materials. In her pictures are representations of ambiguous creatures set in sinister environments and strewn with enigmatic objects laden with psychoanalytical symbolism.
In 1936 she participated in the group show International Surrealist Exhibition at the Burlington Galleries in London and in Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Her first solo exhibition took place at the Julien Levy Gallery, New York, in 1938; the introductory essay to the show’s catalogue was written by Giorgio de Chirico. During World War II she lived in Monte Carlo and painted numerous portraits but switched in 1945 to designing costumes for the theater, opera, ballet, and cinema, which she did until 1969. She lived with numerous cats, which, along with sphinxes, populate her paintings of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. The artist lived and worked in France until her death in Paris on January 18, 1996.