‘I’ve always loved my own theatre’ — the riddle of Leonor Fini’s Rasch, Rasch, Rasch, meine Puppen Warten

Alastair Smart unpacks the mysteries of Leonor Fini’s fantastical masterpiece Rasch, Rasch, Rasch, meine Puppen Warten, offered for private sale at Christie’s

Born in Buenos Aires in 1908, Leonor Fini was the daughter of an Italian mother and a wealthy-but-tyrannical Argentinian businessman. The couple’s marriage ended acrimoniously, before Leonor was one year old, her mother having decided to secretly jump on a boat with her bound for Italy.

In the following years, a furious Mr Fini made frequent attempts to have his daughter brought back to him, sending private detective after private detective to Europe to track her down — but to no avail. Mrs Fini dressed her up as a boy whenever they left the house, and the disguise worked.

Leonor grew up in the city of Trieste before moving to Paris, aged 24, to start a highly successful artistic career. She moved in Surrealist circles — counting Salvador Dalí and Dora Maar as friends — and created work in that style, too. She always refused to join the Surrealist movement formally, though, citing a distaste for its leader André Breton’s ‘misogyny’.

‘It seemed that women were expected to keep quiet in café discussions, yet I felt I was just as good as the men,’ she said in later life. ‘Breton seemed to expect devotion, like a pope, and wanted me to become a sheep in his flock… I preferred to walk alone.’

Throughout her art, Fini showed an intent to challenge established norms about gender and sexuality — in a way that served both as a rebuttal to Breton and an echo of her childhood cross-dressing.

Leonor Fini, Rasch, Rasch, Rasch, meine Puppen Warten, 1975. Oil on canvas. 45 x 57⅜ in (114 x 145.7 cm). Offered for private sale at Christie’s. View Impressionist and Modern art currently offered for private sale at Christie’s
Leonor Fini, Rasch, Rasch, Rasch, meine Puppen Warten, 1975. Oil on canvas. 45 x 57⅜ in (114 x 145.7 cm). Offered for private sale at Christie’s. View Impressionist and Modern art currently offered for private sale at Christie’s

An intriguing example is 1975’s Rasch, Rasch, Rasch, meine Puppen Warten. This dream-like scene features five semi-nude women sitting together in a waiting room, while a girl is ushered by a governess-like figure through an adjoining corridor.

The quintet all wear elaborate headdresses and diaphanous, veil-like garments, none of them communicating with each other. Two of them gaze at the duo in the corridor; three of them gaze at the viewer, implicating us in this scene.

What does it all mean? Perhaps there’s some clue in the fact that Fini loved to don ostentatious outfits herself. She was renowned for turning up at parties with her hair dyed gold, in nothing but boots and a cape of feathers.

‘I’ve always loved — and lived — my own theatre,’ she said. As Fini’s star grew, the likes of Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli began designing clothes for her.

One might see Rasch, Rasch, Rasch’s quintet, then, as self-portraits. Especially as they all seem to have a face similar to Fini’s, if photographs of the artist are anything to go by.

The five also call to mind the voluptuous odalisques in harems depicted in the 19th century by Orientalist painters such as Delacroix. Fini’s figures, though, far from being passive objects of desire, come across as self-confidently erotic beings, aware of the power of their sexuality.

Again, there’s the strong hint of self-portrait about this. Fini took a string of lovers (male and female), both before and after settling down with the Italian count Stanislao Lepri and Polish writer Constantin Jelenski in a ménage à trois  that lasted decades.

Fini was so attractive she ‘immobilised any passer-by in her wake’

In the words of her biographer, Peter Webb, Fini was so attractive that she ‘immobilised any passer-by in her wake’. Photographers as eminent as Brassai and Henri Cartier-Bresson rushed to take her picture; poets as well-known as Paul Éluard wrote her verses.

Interestingly, the girl in the corridor also has a Fini-like face, inviting some to interpret the interaction between her and the older lady in terms of Leonor’s mother whisking her off to Europe.

Having said all that, the image ultimately remains an enigma, tempting us with possible meanings and interpretations but never confirming them.

What does the waiting room symbolise? Why are there a total of six self-portraits in the picture? Might they represent different aspects of the artist’s personality? Or different episodes in her life? Why are the semi-nude women starkly lit, but the figures in the corridor so shady? What’s the viewer’s role in all of this?

The truth is that what makes this painting — like any great Surrealist work — so compelling is its essential unknowability. It produces more questions than answers.

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The two things we can say for sure are that Rasch, Rasch, Rasch meine Puppen Warten  is one of Fini’s largest ever works; and that it tackles many key themes of her career, including female sexuality and the struggle between the apparently conflicting roles of artist and muse.

As for the title, it translates as ‘Hurry, hurry, hurry, my dolls are waiting’, and was a refrain used frequently by the artist as a girl, when she wanted to escape reality and play. Like the painting named after it, it was a call to enter a fantasy world conjured up by Fini’s remarkable imagination.