Bright Lights Film Journal

Surreal Women: Leonor Fini and Kay Sage Documentaries

“All there is to do now is scream.”

One view of “outsider art” is that it’s often the product of a hyper-productive, typically male naif who’s closer to his own teeming unconscious than most of us would dare to be to our own. Howard Finster, with his endless eruptions of angels and devils on privy doors, and Henry Darger, master of the 19,000-page handwritten novel, are two of the most prominent examples from recent times.

But there are, and surely always have been, women outsiders as well, and it’s possible to be an outsider even when you appear to be insideof a major art movement. Surrealism, like outsider art, has been seen as mostly the product of male minds, with Andre Breton doing the conceptual work and self-promoters like Salvador Dali delivering the goods as well as the mainstream audiences. Histories of the movement have little to say about the many women who were also creating this kind of art, sometimes literally right alongside the men as wives or lovers. Mostly they’ve been relegated to the place Breton and Dali created for them at the beginning, as exotic muses who inspired the “important” work the men were doing. (Financial patronage, of course, was welcome from any sex.)

Two of these women, Kay Sage (1898-1963) and Leonor Fini (1908-1995, right), are major visual artists wrongly lumped in as minor lights of the surrealist movement. In fact, both were simply too idiosyncratic to be comfortable in this or any kind of movement. Sage was married to Yves Tanguy, one of the stars of surrealism, and worked in his shadow, in spite of having what many now believe was a greater talent. Fini had both friends and lovers among the group, including Paul Eluard and Max Ernst, but made it clear early that she had no interest in being anybody’s muse. Sage and Fini are distinctly different in worldview. Fini’s work has a dreamy, Dionysian feel, with sensual, erotic landscapes more mysterious than threatening. Sage’s inscrutable futurescapes are existential and abstracted, trapping the human element in a suffocatingly objectified, architectural mise-en-scene. Yet they share a visionary approach, creating compelling, detailed alternative worlds that are instantly recognizable and unmistakable for anyone else’s.

At first glance, Chris Vermorcken’s Leonor Fini: Portrait of an Artist (1987) looks too narrowly focused to encompass the rich life of its subject. It’s a feature-length (97 minutes) interview with the artist, with additional comments from friends and associates, scenes of Fini at work, and extended viewings of individual pieces. Aside from the requisite biographical data that’s loosely interpolated, there’s little attempt to place her in a historical context. As the film progresses, the purpose of this strategy of letting Fini define herself becomes clear. Her talent, her ability to conjure up detailed dreamscapes of imaginary matriarchies and less definable realms, owes less to those painters and trends the work recalls — Klimt, Munch, the pre-Raphaelites, Italian mannerism — than to her own powerful imagination. In resisting all labels and movements, she could perfect her art according to her own ideals.

Like Sage, who was also a poet, Fini excelled in other areas besides painting, doing book illustrations, designing sets for Italian operas, creating bizarre and elaborate couture, and even devising a perfume bottle for Schiaparelli’s “Shocking.” Still, it’s her paintings that she will be remembered for, and these figure prominently in the documentary. “I paint things that don’t exist and that I’d like to see,” she says. The things that “don’t exist” are strange worlds of sphinx-women, female doppelgangers, and curious creatures engaged in mysterious activities, all rendered with the kind of classical painterly detail that brings them to gorgeous life. Some of her tableaux are erotic, quasi-lesbian (though Fini might have bristled at the word “lesbian,” another label). In “Night Conquered” (1967), two ghostly women embrace on the floor in what appears to be a marriage of sex and death.

Fini rejected the overtures of feminists, but the absence of men from her work is one of its hallmarks. In an early piece like “The Alcove” (1942), a nearly nude woman stares down at a nearly nude sleeping man on a bed. By 1967, with “Fait Accompli,” the male is reduced to a chalk drawing on the floor, with beautiful, stylized women moving obliquely through the space and showing little interest in him. Between these works are paintings like “World’s End” (1949) and “The Guardian of Phoenixes” (1954), in which totemic female figures preside over a kind of quiet apocalypse. Some of the pieces show a playful wit that’s also part of Fini. “The Useless Dress” (1964), for example, is an amusing take on the pre-Raphaelite Ophelia, drowning not in water but in a massive red-orange gown.

In spite of the cool sensuality of her imagery, Fini was an unabashed intellectual and could articulate her aesthetic strategies better than most. The film shows her at work in her studio, doing a portrait in watercolor. She talks about the “disobedience” of the medium with poetic power: “I strike it, stalk it, try to make it obey me. Then in its disobedience, it forms things I like.” It’s surely significant that she uses the same terminology in discussing her dislike of Andre Breton: “Breton found me irritating because I wasn’t obedient.”

Kay Sage, perhaps because of her wealthy, repressive background, was more “obedient” than Fini, not only marrying Yves Tanguy but financially supporting him and other surrealists, including Andre Breton. Marilyn Rivchin and Kells Elmquist’s short film Kay Sage (1977) describes, through quotes from her writings, comments by associates, and a survey of her works, a fragile woman with a depressive temperament for whom obedience may have been a way to maintain mental order. Eventually, the same dire worldview that drove her art to its bleak extremes caused her suicide with a bullet through the heart in 1963.

She began painting “seriously,” as she said, in 1936, so her productive period lasted for a quarter of a century and encompassed some 200 paintings and collages. Like Fini, she was concerned with some of the same goals as the surrealists, namely the “non-rational juxtaposition of objects.” Breton, among others, found it hard to believe her work was done by a woman, deeming it “too strong.” With their echoes of the airless spaces and indistinct horizons of de Chirico and Paul Delvaux, Sage’s paintings were in some ways so strong that they are more fundamentally disquieting than the obviously weird work of some of her male counterparts like Dali.

Her most famous work, “Tomorrow Is Never” (1955, right), shows a kind of architecture of doom, a dead world marked by strange, cagelike constructions that appear to contain trapped, suffocating figures. Most of Sage’s paintings lack recognizable human beings, thus there’s none of that sense of playfulness or pleasure or connection that marks the work of Fini. Where a possible human figure exists, as in “I Saw Three Cities” (1944), it’s as much like a structure wrapped in cloth as a person, a kind of inchoate humanity fated to be hidden and suppressed. In “On the First of March Crows Begin to Search” (1947), hints of a figure exist but merely as an eye and some drapery trapped on a flat triangular object in a typical landscape of boxes and boards and meaningless structures. In a rare break from this, “Le Passage” (1956), Sage painted what may be considered a self-portrait. But here the woman, naked to the waist, is significantly seen from behind, staring out at an endless lonely expanse consisting only of broken blocks of earth.

Sage’s writings, not surprisingly, show the same kind of despairing vision as her paintings, and the film quotes quite a few. In 1955, she wrote, “There will always be the long shadow of myself before me.” Another of her phrases could serve as an epitaph not just for her but for modern life: “I have said all I have to say. All there is to do now is scream.”