An Interview with Lissa Rivera
Interviewed by Scarlett Davis
Can a woman be an artist and a muse? This was the kind of uphill battle of rhetoric female Surrealists like Leonor Fini encountered in their quest to broaden portrayals of gender, identity, and sexuality in art. Leonor Fini was a pioneer for her efforts to invert the traditional Muse, in which she domesticated her male subjects in more feminine depictions and, in doing so, empowered her female subjects through mythical creatures and folklore, such as her use of the Sphinx. Much of Fini’s art, as with other artistic movements of her era, was a reaction to the horror and inhumanity experienced in the wake of the Second World War. It is possible to posit that this kind of environment offered the perfect conduit for artists to seek a safe space outside of their bodies and to direct their attention instead to their subconscious states, whereby sexuality and identity could be more truthfully realized and honed.
It is of interest, then, that Fini’s art and vast contributions should surface in our current sexuality-fluid Renaissance, generated in part by the wake of the #MeToo movement. It’s a pleasure to have the added layer of meaning to this work from its curation by artist and photographer Lissa Rivera, whose own photography and motifs invite comparisons to Fini’s work—most notably in her collection “Beautiful Boy,” in which Rivera takes on the role of the artist and is careful to render her muse’s vulnerability and femininity, as her subject is both her lover and friend.
Musée Magazine focuses on the discipline of photography. The medium of photography, by virtue of the artist behind the lens, conceals the identity of the artist and somewhat clouds the viewer’s understanding of the artist/muse relationship. In Fini’s paintings, her female subjects which are likened to subterranean animals and godlike creatures, help to serve as an extension of herself and her relationship with her muse whereby interpretations can be drawn. Could you comment as a curator on how Fini paints this relationship to her Muse, as well as comment on how, as a photographer, you photograph your relationship with your Muse in your own body of work?
Fini’s career took off with full force after her move to Paris in 1931. In France, women did not gain the right to vote until 1945. By that year, along with astounding professional accomplishments—Fini had painted a series of erotic male nudes and illustrated Marquis de Sade’s Juliette—she was fully supporting herself and forging a life independent from all traditional expectations of how a woman should behave in her era. Through her art and actions, she built her own world. Fini’s muse was first and foremost herself, and her practice was a catalyst to investigate her own desires—whether the desire to break free from social norms, to consummate forbidden pleasures, or to transcend the human form entirely.
“Firstly, I paint mostly women because they are a projection of myself. That’s a basic truth. Because I am mostly interested in myself…and women are me.” –Leonor Fini (Documentary by Yvan Butler, 1966)
To be interested in one’s self is a form of honesty. Fini’s work is an extension of her own psyche, drawn from her personal story, full of the positive and negative aspects of her own human struggle. Her work is also a tale of magic, in which she is able to use the power of symbolism and metamorphosis to transcend.
Oftentimes, the men that Fini painted were invited to experience the feminine. Whether they were her own lovers or models of her physical ideal—such as “Nico,” or Nikos Papatakis—Fini allowed the men in her paintings to safely enter a traditionally feminine position. Within the position of the muse, they not only escape the toxic elements of masculinity but enjoy a sensual vulnerability and the satisfaction of occupying a space of visual pleasure.
In my own work, I also feel that focusing on myself, my personal relationship, and my own desires create a space of honest expression. Although I am photographing my romantic partner, they are often performing projections of my own persona. Through the artmaking process, the finished image becomes a marriage of both of our personas. As in Fini’s paintings, my work aspires to both reflect my own reality and to build new worlds, as by-and-large we still do not live in a world where feminine expression is universally normalized or accessible to all genders.
In Fini’s The Alcove (1939), Fini’s contemporary artist and friend Leonora Carrington is dressed as a warrior with armor. The book Farewell to a Muse (2017), by Whitney Chadwick, details the two female artists’ friendship through their exchange of letters. Chadwick describes the nature of the letters, “The world they describe is neither that of the surrealists in Paris nor one in which women propel the male imagination. Instead, they delineate a harrowing mental universe that parallels and intersects with a real world.” In your curation, is there an element of Chadwick’s words beneath the surface of Fini’s art? Also, as an artist who collaborated with a friend in creating a world for “Beautiful Boy” do you see this kind of intersection of a ‘mental universe’ with the ‘real world’ which Chadwick describes?
I do agree with Chadwick’s interpretation of The Alcove (1939), in that Fini was empowering Carrington as her compatriot and fellow warrior (as described in Chadwick’s Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement (1985)). The letters between Fini and Carrington in Farewell to a Muse (2017) really bring out the human story of the battles these women had to fight for artistic and individual autonomy. In that sense, their symbolic armor was a response to all too real threats, both physical and mental, including those associated with living through a very real war. Carrington’s Down Below—an account of her experience of forced institutionalization—can be interpreted as having elements of magical realism, but in my opinion, the fantastic experiences she describes are as real as anything, despite their hallucinatory quality.
In ‘Beautiful Boy’ I do feel that I am documenting real fantasies and that our fantasies take up as much space cognitively as ‘reality.’ I am documenting my psychological interpretation of the ways that photography and cinema present fantasies and ideas that relate to all aspects of my life and identity.
Fini used her morbid interests to fuel her inspiration and as a teenager, she liked to visit the morgues of Trieste. As death always is, the artist’s contemplation of her mortality was linked to her own sexuality. She did not depict maternity in the traditional sense in her art. Instead, Fini’s maternal nature was more circuitous than that of other artists like Dorothea Tanning and Frida Kahlo, and it has been argued that her depiction of cats is a reflection of an embedded maternal nature. There is a similar divergence from the domestic or the path society dictates for women within your own work, with reference to your photograph Motel, Virginia 2015. There is a quality of the postmortem akin to Fini, as the subject in the image appears to be a woman lying alone on a bed in a solitary motel room—the end of the road, so to speak. Do you agree or disagree, with Fini’s work or your own, that death and immortality can be used as vehicles to introduce larger thoughts about women’s roles and what it means to be maternal?
Fini self-identified with cats and saw them as free beings–free from gender norms and social constructs. Fini idealized cats. In her words, cats represented a “lost paradise, of grace, of innocence, [and] total ease.” Fini was also very drawn to images of death and decay. She was interested in metamorphosis and transformation, as well as in the forbidden duplicity of the internal versus the external; the way that people associate blood and organs—which are the essence of life, more so than skin—with death and decay.
The place of death in my own work, in images such as Motel, Virginia 2015, stems more from my personal interest in the history of photography. For three years, I worked for one of the foremost collectors of postmortem, medical, and crime photography. Postmortem photography was a normalized genre until the early 20th Century. In Roland Barthe’s Camera Lucida, death and photography are presented as inseparable. For me, photography and life are also inseparable. Through ‘Beautiful Boy’ BJ is indeed objectified in the still image, but also reborn a dozen times over in each scenario, which alludes to a multitude of lives. As the maker of these images, I am able to experience and thus invert the classic Pygmalion/Muse narrative.
What can we learn from Fini’s photographic self-portraits about who she was as an individual and an artist? And In your self-portrait collection “Cabinet Secret,” what was it like to be both artist and your own muse?
Photographs of Fini were taken by others (both famous and friends, and often famous-friends), therefore they are not exactly self-portraits—though there is little doubt that she was in control, acting more as a director than a passive muse. I have been told that Fini had final say in all edits from her photoshoots. In the exhibition, I pose her relationship to photography as ‘Performing Identity.’ In Fini’s words, “Nothing is more false than the ‘natural’ snapshot. It’s the ‘pose’ that is revelatory, and I am curious and amused to see my multiplicity—which I think I know quite well—affirmed by these images.” For Fini, photography was a space to experiment with multiple personas. In looking at the magnificent photographic legacy she left behind, all that is visible is a record of a multitude of masks and performances, rather than any traditional notion of photographic truth.
In my series “Cabinet Secret,” I used my own body and experimented with costume, wigs, and multiple identities. I would say that although the photographs are drawn from my flesh, they are at once not me and yet they are all me. My body provided accessible material and allowed for greater self-sufficiency. Identity in these images is reduced to props and signifiers. At the same time, doing this work did help me to feel more at home in my body, as it forced me to look at myself from all angles, in a methodical way. To make each photo, it took a composite of 10-20 images.
Lastly, in both Fini’s art as well your own body of photography we see how gender, sexuality, and identity are imbued in all things, from the objects to the symbols and the settings; there is latent eroticism to virtually everything. Could it be possible, in an exhibition with “Theatre of Desire” in the title, and housed in a museum dedicated to the subject, for this collection to actually have nothing to do with sex? If so, in your opinion, what is the larger impetus behind Leonor Fini’s work?
Though Fini’s oeuvre encompasses many themes and explorations, I have found that desire, free and unfettered, is the driving force. It is quite extraordinary to behold a body of work spanning 60 years that reflects the uncompromising investigation of sexuality, gender, and identity from the hand and full life force of this truly spectacular and unique woman.