Artist Leonor Fini
was the Owl in O

Leonor Fini by André Ostier, 1949
Inspiration for Pauline Réage’s Histoire d’O

"a divine heroine straight out of Edgar Allan Poe" - Jean Cocteau

Fini and Her Masks

Buenos Aires born artist Leonor Fini (1918 - 1996), described by Carlos Lozano rather uncharitably as "an insatiable lesbian... a portrait of bondage in studs, chains and black leather", and known on the continent for her paintings of cats, was a heavily mascaraed beauty as feline as any of her subjects, and a party animal who was the inspiration for the Owl Mask at the close of Story of O.

Leonor Fini was one of the most intriguing figures of the Surrealist movement. She was born in Argentina, raised in her mother's home town of Trieste, Italy, and spent most of her artistic life in Paris, where she had her first one-person show in 1935. Although she was friends with many of the leading surrealists (including Max Ernst and Victor Brauner), she never formally joined the movement though she did include her works in several of their International Surrealist Exhibitions.

Although she is best known for her paintings, prints, and drawings, she also created stage designs for operas and ballets including one of her own, Le Rêve de Leonor (1949), which was choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton and performed to music by Sir Benjamin Britten. Her obituary in the London Times stressed her physical beauty, her erotic art, and her legions of lovers, whose names "read like a roll call of the literary and artistic talents of that brilliant age." Fini's works are to be found in many important collections of modern art.

Pauline Reage [Dominique Aury] writes of Fini in 'A Girl in Love' the preface to Retour a' Roissy;

"Nor did I make up - steal, rather, for which I ask her belated pardon,
but the theft was committed out of adoration - the Leonor Fini masks..."

When I originally penned this article (and with the absence of the long promised Fini monograph by Peter Webb), I wrote; "This implies Aury knew Fini's work well though it is quite possible Aury also witnessed Fini as owl at some fancy dress party or knew Fini through their association with Paris publisher Jean-Jacques Pauvert - which ever, it is clear from a photograph taken of Fini in 1948 (above) that her owl costume existed prior to or at least during the writing of Histoire d'O. It was possibly the costume Julien Levy describes Fini wearing at a Surrealist Ball given by Tristan Zara for which the guests were instructed to appear nude only from chest to thigh."

Thanks to Peter Webb's extensively researched Sphinx - The Life and Art of Leonor Fini (published finally in 2009) we can see that Fini's owl mask originates with the New Year's Eve party called the Bal des Oiseaux given at the Palais Rose on the avenue Foch, Paris, by Vicomte Charles Benoist d'Azy at the end of 1948. Webb writes, "she wore an owl mask of white feathers with headdress and gown of black-and-green-striped feathers. A series of dramatic photographs of her in this costume, as well as in the costumes for other balls of 1947 and 1948, were taken by Andre Ostier and widely published in newspapers and magazines, and Pauline Reage used the same mask in the final scene of her erotic novel Histoire d'O (Story of O), which was later illustrated by Leonor."

Peter Webb continues, "Theatricality was an important part of Leonor's persona, and the revival of "society" life in Paris after the war now gave her a new opportunity to indulge her passion for dressing up." Indeed, Leonor's extensive dressing up wardrobe was evident not long after she moved to Paris to begin her "real life as an artist" in 1931. Leonor was soon in great demand at Parisian parties and providing good copy for the city's journalists.
At a garden party given by the courtier Jacques Heim she met surrealist Max Ernst and the two became lovers. Ernst was seventeen years older than Leonor and had gained a reputation for his fondness for younger women. Patrick Waldberg recalled the fascination that Leonor exercised over Ernst, "Leonor would appear, immobilizing in her wake any passerby briefly wrenched from his dullness."

New York art dealer Julien Levy describes Leonor's extensive "wardrobe of varied masquerades" recalling how he was obliged to dress up in order to join Ernst and Fini at the occasion of Tristan Tzara's roof garden party to celebrate the Witches' Sabbath on June 24 mentioned above. Leonor looked resplendent in "knee-length white leatherette boots and a cape of white feathers".
This was 1936. Ten years later Leonor was just as popular with society photographers as she had been before the war. According to Peter Webb she attended a total of sixteen costume balls between 1946 and 1953, "appearing in magazines and gossip columns on almost every occasion". Little wonder Dominique Aury was aware of "the Leonor Fini masks".
"With costumes and masks I feel I become an extension of myself," reported Leonor, "I really enjoy it, and that is why I go to the balls. Sometimes my costumes were so extravagant that people stood aside to let me pass..."

Where exactly the owl mask originates is still open to conjecture. Several visitors to this website around 2003 suggested Aury was influenced by the Max Ernst painting entitled "Attirement of the Bride" (1940) and that this striking image in paint was, "the true inspiration for this weirdest of scenes in the book". One suggestion that the "obscure subject matter has been interpreted in terms of a Rosicrucian initiation rite", and that the imagery suggests the passage of the psyche to "a new awareness", brings us close to Histoire d'O. The painting's similarities to Fini's masquerades are too striking to be ignored.

The painting now hangs in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, where it is suggested, "one may perhaps interpret the bird-man at the left as a depiction of the artist; the bride may in some sense represent the young English Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington". Ernst had met Leonora Carrington in 1937 and the two artists occupied a farmhouse in Avignon prior to Ernst's flight from war torn Europe to the USA in 1941 with the help of Peggy Guggenheim, whom he married in the December of the same year.
There perhaps lies within the painting a concealed mystical message of the same nature that is suggested by occultist Stephen Flowers, is to be found in Histoire d'O (see Was 'O' Based On Truth?). It is known that Max Ernst and the surrealists "were drawn to alchemy through its psychological parallels, and through the visual appeal of its bizarre and enigmatic imagery," (M.E. Warlick Max Ernst and Alchemy) and that Ernst practiced a kind of alchemy of the word and image throughout his life and carreer (Warlick suggests the central figure is an Androgyne suggesting the "chemical wedding" of alchemy, "the sexual conjunction of the King and Queen."). And yet Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues, the writer and close friend of Leonor Fini stated, "I do not believe Max Ernst has greatly concerned himself with this science, nor do I think, moreover, that he ever specifically intended his work to have this meaning".

The owl mask featured in Just Jeakin's movie Story of O is so obviously based upon that of Fini that one cannot but wonder if Fini had a hand in that too. Although there is no reason to assume either Aury or Fini were consulted by the film makers (Aury apparently thought the film well done but the acting awful) Fini's costume might well have been the obvious choice considering her reputation as a theatre costume designer. Recently an American Ebay seller maintained that the (two) owl masks used in the film were presented to Aury after the film was released. Later Aury gave one mask to her as a thank-you and in perfect condition the mask was now offered for sale as only having been worn on "three occasions" by a female 'slave'.

Fini wore other masks - but as in the novel it is the owl that is "chosen" by Aury - its associations with wisdom and death must surely have appealed to Aury who for some years hid behind her own 'mask' of anonymity. Aury's Reage 'mask' slipped finally towards the end of her life when her true identity was revealed as Anne Declos.

Fini whose eroticism matches that of Histoire d'O in that it speaks of Thanatos and Eros is remembered as a beauty and a painter of beautiful and intelligent works. Her style was ideally suited to illustrate luxury editions of Story of O in the 1960s. Leonor Fini died in 1996.


Leonor Fini (1908-1996)

"Leonor Fini has died at the age of 87 but it's impossible to imagine her old.
She will always be, for those of us who admired her, the wild, raven-haired,
ill-proportioned beauty who haunts her pictures. The lethal yet irresistible sphinx,
the vampire we would most like to visit us." - George Melly


Notes on OWLS:

Martha Roth has written, "the symbolic flavor of the owl mask is strongly independent, indicating perhaps that O has indeed chosen her fate, or perhaps that the teller herself can choose another. Dominique Aury, the woman who says she wrote Sory of O, manipulated her lover's arousal with a fable of masochism and subordination. Perhaps she wreathed her heroine in owl feathers to signal her own freedom from the thrall in which she netted him, her refusal of O's fate." ( from: Arousal: Bodies and Pleasures)

Two years after Max Ernst painted 'The Robing of the Bride' the surrealist journal Minotaure featured an article on French owls describing their nocturnal habits and mating rituals. The mythic connection between the owl and Pallas Athena, the goddess of wisdom was not overlooked...

from All the Birds of the Air by Francesca Greenoak (pub.1997)

BARN OWL: "All over the world owls are held to be creatures of magic and superstition... The Barn Owl, like most owls, is a creature of the night and for this reason associated with the powers of darkness. Witches were believed to depend greatly upon the owl-kind... Strange powers are often attributed to birds who in some way or another resemble human beings. The face of the Barn Owl, flat and pale, bears this similarity much more than the faces of other birds and its weird unearthly shriek has enough strangeness in it to unsettle even a sophisticated modern ear... Inhabiting ruins, it was by association believed to bring ruin, and from this it was an easy step to the Barn Owl's becoming in a more general way a creature of doom and death... The owl, like most birds of ancient symbolism could also assume a benign influence..." (also once known in Britain as: White Hoolet, Screech Owl, Billy Wise, Jenny Howlet and Hobby Owl)

LITTLE OWL: "In greek mythology, the Little Owl was the bird sacred to Pallas Athene, the goddess of wisdom, and it is from this that we derive the idea of the 'wise old owl'...

TAWNEY OWL: "Many of the beliefs and superstitions which seem to have originated with other owl species are accorded also to the Tawney Owl... it is nearly always attributed with wisdom..." (also known in Gaelic as Cailleach oidhche = old woman of the night)

'O: The Owl Mask'
( drawing by Stephan )

See obituary of Leonor Fini by George Melly

See obituary of art collector Victor Arwas by Peter Webb