Who is Stanislao Lepri, the painter and lover of Leonor Fini? As the surreal market heats up, it’s suddenly in the spotlight
The magical world of Italian surrealist Stanislao Lepri (1905-1980) is filled with hybrid creatures, toppled towers and apocalyptic scenarios that seem eerily contemporary.
The artist is the subject of a solo presentation by Milan’s Galleria Tommaso Calabro at the Independent 20th Century art fair, which opened September 8 at Casa Cipriani in New York. The new venture focuses on overlooked modernist artists and lesser-known works by masters such as Giorgio de Chirico and Joan Miró.
Lepri, who gave up a career as a diplomat to devote himself to his passion for the surrealist artist Leonor Fini, fits in perfectly. His last solo exhibition in New York was at the Iolas Gallery in 1970. Only 127 lots by Lepri were auctioned, according to the Artnet price database. The most expensive reached $26,400 in 2007. Most traded for less than $10,000.
This minimal mercantile activity may be the result of Lepri’s late arrival on the surrealist scene. He was not part of the original movement and much of his initial language is derived from other artists, including Fini, Max Ernst and René Magritte, according to David Fleiss of the Paris-based Galerie 1900-2000, which specializes in surrealism and Dada. . “There’s a bit of everyone.”
As the new generation of young contemporary artists have embraced surrealism – with prices reaching millions of dollars for works relatively fresh from the studio – dealers are eager to rediscover historical works, which can cost considerably less.
“There’s so much value,” said Elizabeth Dee, the fair’s founder.
Second-generation art-world insiders, including independent exhibitors Joseph Nahmad and Alma Luxembourg, are “deeply interested in discovering new materials because they’re so invested in modernism,” Dee said. “Markets are going to be moved because of this generation’s advocacy.”
Lepri’s career resurfaced through his association with Fini, whose market had also been overlooked until recently. As museums and collectors seek to diversify their collections, modernist women have grown in prominence and value. This year, Fini, a painter, illustrator, designer and author, was among the stars of the Venice Biennale’s main exhibition, “The Milk of Dreams”, which was rooted in the unsung female artists of the surrealist movement. In 2021, Fini’s self-portrait from 1938, Self-portrait with scorpionfetched $2.3 million at auction, nearly four times its high estimate of $800,000.
Fini’s sudden popularity helped Lepri, a curious reversal of a more common power dynamic in which women benefit from their associations with more successful men. Fini and Lepri became lovers in the 1940s. After settling in Paris in 1946, the couple were soon joined by a Polish writer Konstantin Jelensky. The trio spent the rest of their lives together in a threesome or, in contemporary parlance, a throuple. Even in death they are inseparable, buried in the same grave outside the French capital.
Art dealer Tommaso Calabro brought 15 works to the fair, where they cost between $40,000 and $80,000. Two canvases were pre-sold and one found a buyer during the VIP opening.
“He developed a set of images that belonged to him,” said Tommaso Calabro. “There was a game between animal and human forms. The rhinos were his alter ego. This unique vocabulary sets him apart from his Surrealist predecessors, he adds.
It looks like prices are already moving for Lepri. A first job The man with the cracked face (1953), fetched $25,171 at Sotheby’s London in May, the artist’s second-highest price at auction. At the Independent, the same work is priced at $45,000. It remains to find a buyer.
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