"It is not my mode of thought that has caused my misfortunes, but the mode of thought of others."
Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, better known as the Marquis de Sade, was a free soul who could see beyond the constraints imposed by an age of hypocrisy and double standards. His belief in sexual freedom, total insanity, fierce eroticism, radical political views, combined with his boundless imagination, made Napoleon order his incarceration.
Unable to restrain his fertile imagination, he flooded the world with his envisioned excesses and monstrosities inspired on eighteenth century France. His two books Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue (1791) and Juliette, or The Prosperities of Vice (1796) became an overtly erotic and brutal portrayal of everything that was forbidden –and thus, scandalous– in his society.
The first book centers on Justine, a young girl of unshakeable morality that is forced to face the ruthless and merciless world after the death of her parents. Throughout her story, Sade shows us that virtue is useless in a world dominated by cruel people who use their power to inflict mental and physical abuse on those who are vulnerable.
Meanwhile, the second novel narrates how Juliette, Justine's sister, relies on vice and wickedness to work her way through life. Both books highlight the author's exceptional creativity in his depiction of lurid, detailed, impossible, sanguinary, and exceptional sexual scenes. Sade's atheistic views also drip through the pages of others books, such as The 120 Days of Sodom (1785) and Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795).
It's no wonder that Sade's stories became a source of inspiration for many artists and writers all around the world, like Argentinian surrealist painter Leonor Fini. Her paintings, which reflect Aubrey Beardsley and Gustav Klimt's influence, portray the female body as a powerful universe overflowing with symbolism and eroticism. She also made illustrations inspired on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, Marcel Aymé, and Henrik Ibsen. However, her illustrations based on the Marquis de Sade's stories allowed her to explore the secrets and dimensions of not only of the author's voluptuous and transgressive universes, but also of her own.
Fini's undefined sexuality made her remain unmarried. The only certainty is that her figure can only be interpreted through her art. Her paintings are full of wraiths or ghostly presences, undefined bodies with vacant and contemplative stares that represent the mystery the artist was even to herself. Her fluid and unfettered eroticism was captured by her pictorial masterful representations of Sade's plots. Besides having female lovers, she also had famous male lovers such as Italian diplomat Stanislao Lepri, German surrealist artist Max Ernst, and Polish writer Konstanty Jeleński.
She said that "Any painting can be erotic. Eroticism doesn't necessarily have to permeate its theme. It can be in the form and color of clothing, a delicate hand, or a little pleat."
Juliette, or The Prosperities of Vice was the novel that remained engraved forever in the depths of Fini's subconscious. She was Juliette as the representation of the rebellious woman who attains freedom through transgression. Although I wouldn't assure this, it is most likely that the artist mirrored herself in that character, as well as her ideas about human relationships and, particularly, marriage. She remained unmarried because she was not willing to subject herself to a husband and social conventions. She decided to follow her own course, just like Juliette.
"I never lived with a single person. Since I was 18 years old I knew I preferred to belong to a community; a big house with my own studio, many cats and friends, and a man who is a lover and another man who is a friend. That's how things have always been."
The intangible world of feminine mysteries was always the main topic of Leonor Fini's art. She is considered one of the key figures of female surrealism, along with Remedios Varo, Frida Kahlo, and Leonora Carrington. However, it is important to point out that Fini rejected that label, as she found Surrealism's leading figure, André Bretón, to be a misogynist.
Fini never attained the same popularity as her female contemporaries, yet her work holds a special transcendence. Her portrayal of transgression through the female gaze is like no other. The ethereal quality of her works reminds us that our darkest desires will never cease to haunt our unconscious.
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