Visitors to Tommaso Calabro’s booth at the Tefaf art and antiques fair will find themselves confronted by an enigmatic portrait. A young, olive-skinned woman, chestnut hair piled high, emerging from a sea of pastel brushstrokes. She looks off to one side, self-contained and content in her own dreamlike world.

The portrait’s painter, the Italian-Argentine Surrealist Leonor Fini, was similarly self-possessed, a woman who lived and painted on her own terms. An outré figure of the 20th-century Parisian avant-garde, she created hallucinatory canvases and from the 1950s lived in a ménage à trois with the Polish writer Konstanty Jeleński and the Italian painter Stanislao Lepri in a house where her 23 cats roamed the dining table while they ate.

“Everything she did was unprecedented,” says Calabro, who exhibits at the fair for the first time with a selection of paintings and works on paper by Fini, Lepri and their friend and fellow Surrealist Fabrizio Clerici. “She managed to conduct a life the way she wanted even if that meant sometimes the art world didn’t really see her for the artist that she was back then.”

Famous during her lifetime but largely forgotten after her death in 1996, in recent years Fini has re-emerged alongside hitherto under-appreciated female Surrealists such as Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning as a major player in Modernism. In 2021 Sotheby’s achieved an auction record for the artist when her 1938 “Autoportrait au scorpio” sold for almost four times its high estimate, at $2.3mn.

This renewed interest is particularly welcome to 35-year-old Calabro, who opened his Milan gallery in 2018 to focus on 20th-century art but in the past three years has homed in on underexplored areas of Surrealism. This shift, Calabro explains, was prompted by his admiration for the Egypt-born art dealer Alexander Iolas, “the main gallerist for the Surrealists . . . He was a great friend of Max Ernst, he regularly exhibited works by Magritte, de Chirico and Stanislao Lepri.” After staging an exhibition about Iolas in 2021, Calabro has dedicated shows to both Fini and Lepri.

An old ceramic jug rests on a skull, a shell and dry foliage in a darkly-lit still-life painting
‘Nature Morte’ (c1940s) by Leonor Fini © Courtesy Tommaso Calabro

Born in Buenos Aires in 1907, Fini was a toddler when she was whisked away by her mother to her own hometown, Trieste in Italy, to escape her tyrannical father. To foil his many kidnapping attempts, Fini was disguised as a boy in public for several years: this perhaps influenced her penchant for outlandish costumes, which would later cause a stir in Parisian drawing rooms. Moving to the French capital from Milan in 1931, she quickly fell into the Surrealist circle of Jean Cocteau, Paul Eluard, Ernst and Salvador Dalí. But the misogynistic views of the group’s leader, André Breton, led Fini to reject the Surrealist label.

“If you think about the Surrealists, it was a group of mostly male artists that were close and closed-minded,” says Calabro. “We refer to Leonor Fini as a Surrealist artist because it’s easier to define her this way but historically speaking she wasn’t part of that group.”

Although her work was included in major Surrealist surveys, Calabro emphasises that Fini’s shape-shifting oeuvre can’t be defined by a single movement. “Fini changed the style in which she painted throughout her entire career. If you look at her production in the late 1920s or early 1930s, when she moved from Trieste to Milan, her style back then was very influenced by [Felice] Casorati and the Italian masters of that period,” he says.

The broad spectrum of Fini’s influences, which included Mannerism and Flemish Old Masters, comes across in two still lifes presented by the gallery: an early work from 1929 which depicts a scintillating collection of Christmas baubles, and a muted composition from the late 1940s of an animal skull, seashell and jug.

In a painting, a tower made of layers of people standing on top of each other is captured orange against a stormy sky
‘Tour de force’ (1965) by Stanislao Lepri © Courtesy Tommaso Calabro

After the second world war broke out, Fini left Paris for Monaco and started working to commission. “Her style became a bit more realistic and she painted incredible figures of high society because she was very well connected,” says Calabro. One of these figures was Ljuba Rosa Rizzoli, the glamorous wife of the Italian publisher Andrea Rizzoli, whose luminescent portrait — the woman emerging from the pastel sea — Calabro brings to the fair.

Through presentations such as these, Calabro — who opens a new Venice location with a show of American painter Harold Stevenson in April — hopes to expand our understanding of Italian Modernism.

“If you think about Italian art in the 1950s and 1960s, you think about [Lucio] Fontana, [Enrico] Castellani, [Alberto] Burri and Arte Povera. Fini didn’t really fit into any of these groups and therefore, although she was extremely respected from the 1930s to 1960s, she was gradually forgotten,” he says. “I feel we had some role at least in helping to recognise her importance in the history of art.”

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