Exclusive to M/m Print Plus

Leonor Fini’s Surrealist Object and Other Marvelous Precipitates of Desire

"Objet trouvé par Leonor Fini. Couverture dun livre ayant séjourné dans la mer.” (“Object found by Leonor Fini. Cover of a book that has spent time in the sea.”)

Like all object labels, this label tells a story. The first sentence is true. The second, a seductive fiction.

Tablet encrusted in stone
Fig. 1. Leonor Fini’s Couverture d’un livre ayant sejourné dans la mer, 1936, found object. Detail from Cahiers d’art 11, no. 1–2 (1936): 52. / Copy of Carl Maria Seyppel’s Christoph Columbus Logbuch (Düsseldorf: Verlag von F. Bagel, 1884). Courtesy of Gallica/BNF.

The artist Leonor Fini did find this object, but not on a beach. Though seemingly encrusted with mud and marine matter, it has never spent time in a sea. Instead, it is a German-language novelty item created by Carl Maria Seyppel circa 1890, entitled Christoph Columbus Logbuch. An antique discarded object by the time it came into Fini’s hands, Seyppel originally had made the book to look as if it were water-damaged. Though the caption encourages us to imagine Fini having the tides deposit it at her feet, the real moment of encounter would have been far more quotidian: Fini came across it as at a flea market or bookstore.

Nevertheless, the sea story has long reigned—amazing surrealists and frequently confounding and misleading critics and historians. However, rather than seeing its slippery story as a problem, we would do better to understand the sea setting as an insight into criticism that the work, intentionally or not, has generated. Intermingling a story of tides, nonhuman living matter, the accretive stuff of grottoes, and what André Breton calls the “marvelous precipitate of desire” formed by the encounter with found objects, Leonor Fini’s cover conjures up various elemental and chemical processes that speak to the responsive, reactive nature of objects across their critical and curatorial journeys.[1] The book cover’s appearance suggests the myriad ways water can both alter an object—leave watermarks, deposit mud, carry barnacles, precipitate solids—and also serve as a metaphor for how exhibitionary contexts perform similar work: leave traces of critique, deposit new connections, carry certain biases, precipitate new desires.

Some more stable facts: Leonor Fini was born in Argentina, spent most of her childhood in Italy, and by the 1930s was living in Paris, where she befriended various surrealists. Though Fini would first gain renown as a painter, she worked across media including writing and fashion design.

As for the object itself: we know Fini found it several years before she first displayed it. In a 1934 profile of the artist, Henri Héraut describes noticing its strange surface—crucially, not yet as Fini’s artwork but as an old book in her studio:

And it is, in fact, a rare pleasure to be able to leaf through these old books in the artist’s studio. Each stranger than the other. In particular, a certain Journal of Christopher Columbus, which seems to have been fished out by a bibliophile diver at the very bottom of the seas! On its heavy, yellowish cover, there is in fact a veritable carapace of shells and clumped grains of sand.[2]

This evocative encounter between a diver and the object beneath the sea in Héraut’s description is fictitious, but it offers clues as to what Fini may have believed—or encouraged others to fantasize—about the book’s origins. We can never actually know what Fini believed about her object, but we can examine the ways the object inspires modes of analysis that emphasize different creative processes dear to surrealism, including the power of nature, chance, and artisanal craft. 

In May of 1936, Fini exhibited the book at the famed exhibition of surrealist objects at the Charles Ratton Gallery in Paris, where it was reproduced in the accompanying issue of Cahiers d’art with the caption that has since become its title: “Couverture dun livre ayant séjourné dans la mer.” This was a defining moment that established the book as her work and lent further credence to the watery origin myth that has guided future interpretations. Many surrealist objects—especially found ones—rely on a caption, story, or finder to activate their status as art. It can be said of all art objects that galleries and catalogues buoy them along their journeys as they flow from exhibition to exhibition. But surrealism, perhaps more than other aesthetic modes, relies on what Breton described, in Fini’s book’s accompanying catalogue, as the latencies that come from outside the object, which give—and change—its meanings.

Fini encourages such shifting interpretations with her choice of an enigmatic cover. But she also guides the flow of associations with her choice of water as a governing metaphor. Water is particularly salient for Fini’s story, since her object has absorbed the marine rhetorics that have surrounded its display. Looking at the words, objects, and other images that have swirled around Finis cover reveals the different immersive contexts into which her cover-that-had-once-been-in-the-sea has been submerged. Its true origins have faded, but various interpretations seem to have stained and stuck to it, like the faux watermarks on its pages or the shells on its cover. Fini’s book cover thus reveals water as a key surrealist element, as both a source of fascination and a methodology.

Found: Ocean Detritus and Storytelling

In the issue of Cahiers d’art focusing on the 1936 exhibition, Fini’s book is presented as if it were simply found (true) but altered by the sea itself (untrue). Alongside it we see two stones smoothed by water, a root of an olive tree dropped out of the waves, and an object found in a fire (fig. 2). Like the story Fini attached to her book, elemental media shaped these other objects into forms that fellow surrealists then picked up.

Page with images
Fig. 2. Found objects published in Cahiers dart 11, no. 1–2 (1936): 52. Public domain. Courtesy of Gallica/BNF.

Pointedly, three of the objects were subjected to the slow process of watery transformations—smoothing corners, floating to new destinations, and (only allegedly, in Fini’s case) accreting living matter. Emerging out of oceans, the rock and branch are almost literal incarnations of Breton’s marvelous precipitate[s] of desire”—his famous term for the experience of encountering found objects (Mad Love, 13–15). Dropping out of solution, a precipitate is the solid left behind after a chemical reaction. Similarly, miraculous shapes are produced out of the reaction between debris and water, then left behind on beaches. Another reaction then follows: this time between artist-wanderer and the world who brings these natural objects into the gallery. And finally, reactions abound between objects, visitors, and their exhibitionary environments.

Though the surrealists embraced the story of Fini’s object also being found on the beach, subsequent art historians have instead focused on seeing Fini’s cover as somehow altered by human hands. For example, one surrealist survey edited by Mary Ann Caws cautiously suggests that the cover is only “seemingly mineralized by a submarine existence” (my emphasis).[3] Yet this entry also embraces the object’s marine rhetoric, comparing the book to Fini’s later practice of beach combing on a 1943 visit to the Italian island Giglio. The description also seems to imply this cover is an assemblage by noting its “affinities” with Eileen Agar’s Maritime Object (1939), which incorporates an ancient, ocean-damaged amphora Agar found. This object entry appropriately recognizes the cover was not wholly made by a submarine sojourn, but leaves room for the incorporation of found marine matter.

By contrast, two recent catalogues emphasize the cover's constructed character. No longer raising doubts about whether the book was ever in the ocean, Hélène Leroy, in a catalogue accompanying a show at the Centre Pompidou, emphatically states that Fini simply made it to look like the damaged beach finds she had painted in other canvases.[4] In another catalogue, Peter Webb similarly describes it as a faux objet trouvé.”[5] With this approach, the cover becomes artisanal and conceptual—no longer a found object (the surrealist framing) or incorporating found objects (Caws’s survey book) but instead given a surface treatment that builds up a fictional story for the object. If the cover is understood to be Fini’s conscious evocation of marine wreckage, then it becomes a precedent for a project like Damien Hirst’s Treasures of the Wreck of the Unbelievable (2017) in which manufactured statues, seemingly covered in marine matter, were “found” and excavated in the ocean (fig. 3). Hirst explicitly fostered the ambiguity and pushed the unbelievability of his statues in his fake documentary and installation. Fini seems to have done something similar to Hirst with this selection of object, whose lifeworlds she might have herself also wondered about. Did Fini ever believe it had been in the sea? Did chance or human hands produce this book? Was it 400 years old or 40? Fini’s object was perhaps impenetrable to the surrealist collector and is doubly so to us today, now that these other interpretations cling to it.

Scuba diver with statue
Fig. 3. Film still from Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable (Sam Hopkinson, 2017). Screenshot from Youtube trailer.

Outmoded: Desire, Chance, and Grotto Aesthetics

These interpretations have indeed “stuck” and while they clarify or frame certain possibilities, they have also obscured other meanings. Despite the insights raised by considering Fini’s cover in the context of real or faux marine detritus, those readings have also drifted away from a key interpretive framework: the outmoded. In the Centre Pompidou catalogue entry for the object, Leroy even explicitly says Fini’s cover is unlike antiquarian objects found by Breton and Alberto Giacometti (Leroy, “Couverture,” 44). However, by fate of the alphabet, the very next work discussed after Fini’s cover in the catalogue is Breton’s famed found object, the slipper spoon (Cuiller-soulier). Illustrations of both appear on the same two-page spread (fig. 4). Seeing Breton’s antique spoon and Fini’s book side by side exposes the antiquarian interest that brought surrealists to purchase and admire 19th-century crafts—what Breton celebrated as the “old-fashioned, broken, almost incomprehensible, even perverse” finds of the flea market at Saint-Ouen.[6]

Page with french text
Fig. 4. Two page spread of Hélène Leroy, “Couverture d’un livre ayant sejourné dans la mer,” in Didier Ottinger and Centre Georges Pompidou, eds., Dictionnaire de lobjet Surréaliste (Paris: Gallimard : Centre Pompidou, 2013), 44-45. Author’s own scan.

But in the critical and fictitious histories that have accreted to Fini’s object, as well as in its worn and watermarked materiality, the 19th-century architectural fad that the book distinctly evokes is the faux grotto. Beginning in the mid-century, cement grottoes appeared in Haussmann-era public parks (fig. 5), entertainment venues like the cabaret L’Enfer (fig. 6), and grotto aquariums throughout France and, later, Germany. [7] Grotto aesthetics invoke marvelous precipitates in a number of ways. For example, stalagmites and stalactites form when calcite and other chemicals precipitate out of dripping water—an appearance only mimicked by poured cement. That said, nineteenth-century visitors to grotto aquariums noted their damp humidity—an ideal space for dripping water from which further, unplanned transformations occur.

Photo of waterfall and cave
Fig. 5. Charles Gérard, waterfall in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, c. 1860–1870. Photographic stereograph. Public domain.
Ornamental mouth with door in it
Fig. 6. Eugène Atget, Cabaret de l’Enfer, 1911. Photograph. Public domain. Courtesy of Gallica / BNF.

The surrealist exhibition of objects even included one such grotto-like building. The page preceding Fini’s object in the Cahiers d’art issue shows Ferdinand Cheval’s Palais Idéal (constructed between 1879–1912). Composed of rocks and shells that Cheval collected as a mailman in France, the palace takes on the quality of a handmade object since each constituent part was collected and then hand-applied: a surface of precipitates in its own right (fig. 7).

Photo of statues
Fig. 7. Photograph of Palais Ideal in Cahiers dart 11, no. 1–2 (1936): 51. Public domain. Courtesy of Gallica/BNF.

It is no coincidence, then, that during this era of faux grottoes in the 1880s, Seyppel began to produce novelty books with covers and pages that looked ancient and worn—and eventually grotto-like. Capitalizing on a craze for antiquity, Seyppel first made “Mummy Books,” decorative books full of stories about ancient Egypt. To simulate age, Seyppel emulated the ancient technology of papyrus and simulated slower, cumulative changes like watermarks on the inner pages or adding mud and shells to suggest once-living matter. While the fictional Columbus logbook does not capitalize on what at the time were recent archaeological finds, it nevertheless participates in that same interest in the aging effects of moisture and material accretion. The dramatic variation across his hand-decorated series (figs 8-9) exposes an earlier economic world that was paradoxically industrial and yet full of individualistic “useless ornaments”—qualities Claude Lévi-Strauss described observing antiques with surrealist friends.[8]

Sand and shells surrounding text
Fig. 8. Carl Maria Seyppel, Christoph Columbus Logbuch, als Geheimschrift von mir selbst, für meinen Sohn Diego, vom 3ten August 1492, an, geführt und mit Schildereien und Karten versehen worden (Düsseldorf: Verlag von F. Bagel, 1884). Image courtesy of Wilson Special Collections Library/UNC-Chapel Hill Libraries.
Concrete and tablet
Fig. 9. Carl Maria Seyppel, Christoph Columbus Logbuch. Image courtesy of Matthaeus Truppe Antiquariat.

It appears that the series was not successful, since no further Mummy Books were produced after the Columbus Logbuch.[9] Regardless of how popular the series was, however, one copy of his print run nevertheless drifted across time and into Fini’s hands, and by 1936, it was aged, strange, and outdated enough for the surrealists to embrace it once again. In their faked muddy surfaces and precipitates, faux grotto forms capture forces of chance and individual whim—processes paralleled by the nonhuman agency evoked by the backstory Seyppel and Fini each gave to the cover. Whether in bars, galleries, parks, or city bookstores, the accumulating forms of grottoes evoke the accumulating desires of producers, consumers, wanderers, and dreamers that embed themselves across the life of Fini’s object.

The Politics of Water

Fini and the surrealists pointed to the cover’s oceanic qualities; surrealist scholars reoriented scholarship towards Fini’s perceived artisanal technique of salvage; and the lessons of studying the surrealist outmoded encourage us to reach back into nineteenth-century spectacular nature to understand its grotto aesthetics. Yet at least one crucial context still remains. At the fair in which it made its first public appearance as Fini’s object, the book cover was not actually situated among natural objects as in the Cahiers d’art spread, nor even among outmoded found objects, like Breton’s slipper spoon. Rather, it found its place in the lower right corner of a cabinet that included an eclectic mix of Alaskan masks, mathematical models, North American pottery, and glasses destroyed by the 1902 Mount Pelée eruption (fig. 10).

Cabinet of oddities
Fig. 10. Entryway, Exposition surréaliste d’objets, 1936, photograph. Courtesy of Archives Galerie Ratton-Ladrière, Paris.

Breton’s catalogue listed Fini’s contribution as an “objet trouvé,” with no reference to the book’s title. But Columbus’s name is the largest legible word on its surface and is almost certainly part of what drew Fini—and the anti-imperialist surrealist group—to the book.[10]

Fini’s book cover shifts the terms of the European conquest of the New World from landing on the shore to voyaging at sea. In its suggestion of long-term submersion and encrustation—its fiction of having fallen to the bottom of the ocean instead of having reached its destination—the book cover also imagines a shipwreck. It turns the story of Columbus from a world-destroying arrival into an unsuccessful oceanic transversal. Fini’s book cover thus suggests a fictional alternative to the very real history of transoceanic slavery, genocide, ecological exploitation, and contemporaneous French imperialism, whose marine and corporeal traces and global consequences scholars of the Black Atlantic and the blue humanities have carefully examined.[11]

Fini’s ambiguous cover evokes snippets of stories and raises even more questions which open space for dreaming up possible futures. Its presentation amidst objects from around the globe especially encourages postcolonial lines of thought—perhaps to forge a world like the one Belgian surrealists had dreamed when they reordered a world map to celebrate (and literally center) Oceanic cultures (fig. 11). In its ambiguous fictitiousness—the speculative uncertainty of its origins and outcomes—Fini’s book offers a crucial point of contact between the shifting lives of surrealist objects and the oceanic histories of colonial and settler-colonial brutality those objects both evoke and obscure.

Stylized World Map
Fig. 11. Anonymous, “Le Monde au Temps des Surréalistes,” Variétés (June 1929), 26-7. Public domain. Courtesy of Gallica/BNF.

What if Columbus had drowned, the book cover seems to ask, as scores of enslaved people did in the middle passage, explicitly making space for alternative Black and Indigenous futures?[12] Salvador Dalí himself, three years after the surrealist object show, would seem to ask the same question about Columbus, in a more dark and direct way: he produced an installation project consisting of “a taxicab in the interior of which a perpetual rainstorm is drenching Christopher Columbus.”[13] The installation, according to another press release, would “give America the chance to discover Christopher Columbus” (my emphasis).[14]

The framework of submersion and discovery suggested in the terminology of the surrealist “found object” offers a way of conceptualizing patterns and trajectories of interpretation especially salient to surrealism’s constitutively shifting, dreamy, and responsive aesthetics. But Fini’s book cover also suggests that the language of the found—found lands, found peoples—is a fiction worth drowning.


[1] André Breton, Mad Love, trans. Mary Ann Caws, A French Modernist Library (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987), 13–15. Though famously quoted from this 1937 book, Breton had in fact already used the term in a short catalogue essay for the 1936 object exhibition, without the “marvelous” yet. André Breton, Exposition Surréaliste d’objets (Paris: Charles Ratton, 1936), n.p.

[2] Henri Héraut, “Artistes d’aujourd’hui, Leonor Fini,” Sud-Magazine (October 15, 1934), 18–21, 18.

[3] Mary Ann Caws, ed., “Léonor Fini, Cover of a book which has dwelled in the sea (entry),” in Surrealism, Themes and Movements (New York: Phaidon, 2004), 107.

[4] Hélène Leroy, “Couverture d’un livre ayant sejourné dans la mer,” in Didier Ottinger and Centre Georges Pompidou, eds., Dictionnaire de lobjet Surréaliste (Paris: Gallimard and Centre Pompidou, 2013), 44.

[5] Peter Webb, Sphinx: The Life and Art of Leonor Fini (New York: Vendome Press, 2009), 52.

[6] André Breton, Nadja, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Grove Press, 1960), 52.

[7] For the aesthetics and techniques undergirding the concrete parks throughout Paris, see Ann Komara, “Concrete and the Engineered Picturesque: The Parc des Buttes Chaumont (Paris, 1867),” Journal of Architectural Education 58, no. 1 (September 2004): 5–12. The history of grotto aquariums is discussed in Bernd Brunner, The Ocean at Home: An Illustrated History of the Aquarium (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2005), 106–10.

[8] In a discussion of antique stores, Claude Lévi Strauss writes: “As the relics and witnesses of an era that was already industrial, but in which economic pressures and the demands of mass production were not yet urgent and permitted a certain continuity of past forms and the existence of useless ornaments, these articles acquired an almost supernatural quality.” Claude Lévi-Strauss, “New York in 1941,” in The View from Afar (New York: Basic Books, 1985), 263.

[9] Silke Trojahn, “Antike Bücher Einmal Anders—Die Mumiendrucke Des Carl Maria Seyppel,” Archiv Für Papyrusforschung Und Verwandte Gebiete 57.2 (2011): 392-398, 396.

[10] Janine Mileaf, “Body to Politics: Surrealist Exhibition of the Tribal and the Modern at the Anti-Imperialist Exhibition and the Galerie Charles Ratton,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 40 (2001): 239–55.

[11] The framework of the Black Atlantic describes shared cultural practices across the Black diaspora in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas whose links were forged during the transatlantic slave trade. See Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993). Foregrounding the ocean, cultural theorists and historians have written about novel subject formations and widespread cultural consequences of mourning in the “wake” of the transatlantic slave trade. See, for instance, O. N. Tinsley, “Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic: Queer Imaginings of the Middle Passage,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 14.2–3 (2008): 191–215; and Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).

[12] Tiffany Lethabo King has explored water and land metaphors that inform Black and indigenous histories in relation to the slave trade and American settler colonialism. See Tiffany Lethabo King, The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019).

[13] James Proctor and Gerald Goode, press release, New York World’s Fair 1939 and 1940 Incorporated, D.W.F., Inc. Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library, MssCol 2233, b. 540 f. 16.

[14] James Proctor and Gerald Goode, another press release, New York World’s Fair 1939 and 1940 Incorporated, D.W.F., Inc. Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library, MssCol 2233, b. 540 f. 16.