Fiore de Henriquez

Fiore at workThe life of internationally renowned sculptor Fiore De Henriquez was one of duality, excitement, creativity and contradiction. Among the most intriguing personalities of her generation of artists, her life of conflict, travel and turmoil fueled a seemingly boundless quest to create and befriend. She was one of a kind.

Born in pre-war Trieste under the twin sign of Gemini, she discovered during puberty that she was, in fact, hermaphrodite. This theme of duality was to run through all facets of her fascinating and varied life – her art, her friendships, her romances and her self-image; it was possibly this struggle between the warring sides of her nature that gave Fiore’s art its vitality and extraordinary diversity.1

After experiencing an epiphany of purpose in Venice, she developed an enormous talent for sculpting and began working in the male-dominated world of fine art. Her first creation was entered in an anonymous sculpting competition; when she won, the other male entrants, discovering she was female, threatened to blow up her work.

She fled to England and immediately became a consort of the rich and famous, who were attracted to the young, androgynous, provocative Italian sculptor with her perceptive talent and forceful persona. Her impressive list of portraits includes President John F. Kennedy, the Queen Mother, a young Oprah Winfrey, Sybil Thorndike, Margot Fonteyn, Vivien Leigh, Shirley Bassey, Shigeru Yoshida, Ruskin Spear, Carlo Levi and Augustus John. In her portrait sculpture, she could range from craggy vividness - as in her bust of Augustus John - to classical sensitivity - as in her head of Odette Churchill.

Peralta TowerThese commissions brought her notoriety, but did not satisfy her desire for self-expression. Her personal work developed on a path parallel to the commissioned work, and over six decades her creations ranged from carved crucifixions and pietàs done in the fraught conditions of occupied Italy and expressionistic masks of ragged metal to joyful life-size leaping dolphins and figures of famished mothers that speak of pity and anger over starvation in Europe and Africa.2 Compelling examples of these works can be seen at Peralta – the Tuscan hamlet she lovingly restored from a broken-down village into an artist’s retreat.

Fiore seems to have been destined to live a life of two distinct halves. She dressed in masculine clothes and hid under a large floppy hat, often smoking a cigar. It was customary for people to refer to her as “Sir,” leading to frustration once she’d adopted her feminine side. An early attempt to become a boy failed when male hormone treatment left her sick and in pain. Later, in the 1960s, she was treated with radiation to remove her male genitalia. Although a physical success, this seems to have led to a mental breakdown, the double-edged nature of her physicality inciting new extremes in her art. Her self-portraits became disturbingly twisted, reflecting a sad view of her distorted self-image – a mixture of half-human half-beast sculptures. Possibly this struggle between the warring sides of her nature gave Fiore de Henriquez's art its vitality and extraordinary diversity.

A physically striking and powerful individual, she was never attracted to men, "always to girls," she confided in Jan Marsh, her biographer, adding, "I want to protect them, to love them. When men try to have sex with me I hit them, with my fist, with my knee. I am strong, pah! But they soon see nothing is doing.” Reflecting further, she shared, "My mother used to call me a monster. She said to Margot Fonteyn's mother, 'Why have you such a beautiful daughter and I have this?' But I didn't feel like a monster. A third sex, yes; but I was quite honoured: I felt I was part of the Greek legends."

Fiore with Augustus JohnContemporary observations of Fiore provide rich and illuminating images. Augustus John: "Her dark, savage but eminently attractive features under a mop of coal-black hair, might have deserved the epithet 'saturnine', but for the geniality and high spirits which animated her flashing Adriatic eyes. Her stalwart legs were encased in black velvet breeches ornamented with pearl buttons, with white stockings and buckled shoes. A regular Macaroni!"

The documentary film “Fiore,” carefully constructs a view into the artist’s life through interviews, archival footage, and exploration of Peralta, Fiore’s legacy. Those close to Fiore, reminisce about a person whose energy and capacity to understand the human condition were extraordinary. Interviews with Fiore’s devoted followers and friends identify the conflict in her life and juxtapose elements of her private and artistic personae.

1. Daily Telegraph obituary
2. Jan Marsh, biographer, The Guardian