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Fiore de Henriquez - 'All woman and half a man'

She was a renowned sculptor then Fiore de Henriquez withdrew from the public eye to conceal an extraordinary secret: she was, in fact, a hermaphrodite. Jan Marsh on art and androgyny

Jan Marsh

Saturday August 4, 2001
Just before Easter this year, friends from Europe, America and the Antipodes gathered in Tuscany to celebrate the 80th birthday of Fiore de Henriquez, sculptor and creator of the unique hillside hamlet of Peralta. As they mingled under the olive and lemon trees, or climbed to the ruined medieval keep above the cluster of houses, guests also celebrated the extraordinary life of their host.

It is a story that Fiore now wishes to reach a wider audience, as a unique record of artistic creativity and androgynous identity. "I think it is time, now," she says. "It is something quite natural, after all. But I used to be shy, you know, careful." She laughs, loudly. "When I was young, I was not always so careful, because I thought it was quite a normal thing. Then I discover it isn't."

The window of her bedroom looks across the valley to the sea and the distant outline of Corsica. Three decades ago, this was an abandoned village, which Fiore has quixotically restored, over the same period effectively withdrawing from the competitive London-New York art world. The name Fiore de Henriquez has consequently faded from view. But from her London debut in 1950, and a special commission for the Festival of Britain, Fiore was an internationally known sculptor, with numerous public and private commissions. The list of sitters is long and eminent, starting with Giovanni Cuomo and Carlo Levi, proceeding through Igor Stravinsky, Augustus John, Margot Fonteyn, Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, Sibyl Thorndike, Shirley Bassey, Wilfred Thesiger, Odette Churchill, Field Marshal Auchinleck, and including President Kennedy, Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia, Shigeru Yoshida of Japan, and the Queen Mother. Lost somewhere in Chicago, there is also a portrait bust of the young Oprah Winfrey.

Alongside these prestigious but essentially breadwinning works, Fiore's creative career has ranged widely over six decades. It encompasses carved crucifixions and pietàs done in the fraught conditions of occupied Italy, expressionistic masks of ragged metal, joyful life-size leaping dolphins, and figures of famished mothers that speak of pity and anger over starvation in Europe and Africa. "This is La Donna Calabrese, the woman I saw in Calabria, carrying her dead child to be buried, a long time ago. I make it for the town there; and here, in concrete, I place it in front of the chapel."

Like many artists, Fiore has difficulty describing her work, recognising only the strong impulse to create. "Suddenly I'll see something in nature, or in my dream, and I have to do it," she explains. "I feel these demands inside of me, like I am, how do you say, lavorativo [in labour], with something that must come out." This is most true of the central strand of Fiore's art, the part-figurative, part-abstract sculptures of protean subjects. There is a giant tree with eagle's feet, a seductive oceanic flower, a wounded chimera, a three-headed horse like Cerberus, a merman opening his heart, a phoenix rising.

All belong to more than one realm, or evoke the ambiguous beings of mythology. "I was two years old when I start drawing, always strange things. They say I was crazy and maybe it's true. I always have periods of suffering, of feeling too much, like I want to throw myself down the mountain." Twins, doubles, siblings and pairs are another repeated motif, in stone and bronze sculptures dotted all around Peralta's narrow pathways and steps. Together, these dyads and polymorphic figures provide the key to their creator's hermaphrodite nature. For physically as well as psychically, Fiore is part-female and part-male; or, in her own words invoking Ovid's account of the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, "semi-gods: halfway between the gods and man".

"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's androgynous identity encompasses more than gender duality. Italian-born, she has been a British citizen since 1953, and divides her time between Tuscany and London, where she has a small studio near Sloane Square. Hermaphroditism is a rare and seldom-documented condition. Today, children with uncertain sexual identity owing to ambiguous genitalia are subject to early medical intervention involving surgery and hormones, although some have subsequently become angry with such imposed "gender assignment", which often resolves nothing. Fiore's case is different from this and from transsexuality. Raised as a girl, since puberty she has had the characteristics of both sexes, simultaneously. "My poor mother did not deserve to have a child like me. She always wanted to dress me in velvet, with bows in my hair that I hated. Then, when I was 13 or 14, I woke up one night with a peculiar pain in the abdomen. I thought, this must mean menstruation is starting. Which indeed it was, but together with this, came out another thing, like a small penis. I thought, 'Oh, my God, what is that?' It was most extraordinary. After that, I felt like a boy, never like a girl. Some of the time, this thing stayed inside; but if I needed help, if I was in trouble, if I was angry, yes, then it came out. No, I kept it secret, from my mother, my father, everybody. I must say I didn't like it later when these bosoms developed; I thought it was very undignified: I wanted to cut them off. But no! You don't change what God has made. I prefer to let nature take its course. So from then I decided to be proud."

She is talking in her purpose-built studio at Peralta, looking northwest towards the mountains of Carrara. Maquettes, plaster sculptures and drawings fill the walls, all covered in fine, grey dust. A pair of budgies chirrup in their cage; Diego, the latest of Fiore's dogs, bustles in to keep abreast of events. Working at a slower pace these days, Fiore sits at the swivelling sculpture stand, modelling the latest head with strong, confident strokes, a trademark Tuscan cigar clamped between her lips.

Born in Trieste in 1921, Fiore de Henriquez is paternally descended from Spanish noblemen at the Habsburg court in Vienna, her grandfather and great-uncles being vice-admirals in the Austro-Hungarian navy, while her mother was of Turkish and Russian origin. "I have not a drop of Italian blood," she declares grandly, as if partly regretting the outcome of the first world war, when Austria lost Trieste and its Balkan possessions.

Growing up under Mussolini, she was a sporty, enthusiastic member of the fascist youth movement. "I was leader of the [girls'] gymnastic team", she recalls eagerly. "We went to Rome and won all the competitions." For refusing to Italianise the family name, however, her father was denounced as anti-fascist and sent into internal exile. "All the same, when war broke out, I went to join the army, in the hills above Trieste, dressed as a boy. I felt, you know, like a young carabiniere ."

That escapade did not last long, and by 1940 Fiore was a student in Venice, mixing with those at the Accademia and sleeping wherever she could: in an empty studio, a disused boat, a brothel. From there she moved to the alpine resort of Cortina, where she began to sculpt for some of the rich residents and, later, to steal on behalf of the partisans.

"Just at the end of the war I had a terrible experience of being caught by the Nazi command and taken to be interrogated. Of course I spoke German very well. When they tried to force me, I did not answer, and then they rang a loud, loud bell in my ears and put a blinding light in my eyes. Oh, I shiver now I talk about it: my body remembers.

"In the end they stopped, thinking what to do with me. Then they let me go to the loo. I pulled the chain and jumped from the window; it was upstairs but I fell onto snow and ran like a rabbit. They had motorbikes and searchlights but I hid in the wood and the next night I went up into the mountains. Then very soon the war was over."

Outside the studio window, rampant jasmine scent is flooding the spring air, while the mauve wisteria is starting to unfold. A contour-line of ancient mule tracks links Peralta with other high-level villages, one of which is the site of an infamous massacre in 1944, when 500 inhabitants were shot by the retreating Wehrmacht.

Hitching a lift to Florence with the American Fifth Army, Fiore became studio assistant to sculptor Antonio Berti, who showed her work to Bernard Berenson and encouraged her first exhibition, in 1947. It was an auspicious debut. "I carved a wooden triptych: Christ, Madonna, St John. I remember I took it, and everything else, into the gallery on my shoulder and on my bicycle, walking." There were 36 pieces, "including a centaur, a couple and two sisters", and "everything was sold!".

Shortly afterwards, Fiore moved south, to the bohemian resort of Positano, on the Amalfi coast. Here, she met Margot Fonteyn and her husband. "You know it is steep there, houses climbing up the cliff. I had a little place looking down on this grand hotel, and one morning I saw a beautiful man naked, dancing. I said to myself, "bel culo!", which means beautiful bottom. And you know it was Robert Helpmann. He was there with Margot, and [Frederick] Ashton in the hotel below. I didn't know them at all, but in the evening they would dance, so beautifully, in the courtyard of the restaurant.

"Then, a long time later, in London, I was sculpting the hands of Alicia Markova, and I met Margot again. Her brother Felix took all my photos for about 20 years." Fiore arrived in Britain in 1949, travelling partly on impulse and partly because of what happened to her first major commission, a public statue for the city of Salerno of the humanist Giovanni Cuomo. "This was an important moment in my life, because I won the competition, which was anonymous," she explains. "The ministry of education came to unveil it, in the main square. I thought, I must wear a skirt. But when they saw it was a woman, the sculptors who didn't win decided to destroy it, with dynamite. I was desperately unhappy." A few weeks later she left for London.

As we talk, an old friend from this period arrives and greets her with a bear hug. "Ah Fiore!" he exclaims, "all woman and half a man!" It seems an apt comment. For years now, Fiore has dressed in the same style, with a loose belted smock over knee-breeches and tall, soft suede boots, something between a cossack and a theatrical brigand. She has a resonant voice, and a magnificent scowl. "It looks like I cultivate my eyebrows, but no!" she laughs. "Only one day I discover I can look frightening, so then I begin to use it."

Landing in London with no English, Fiore nevertheless fell on her feet. Her first commission, a portrait of royal sculptor Sir William Reid Dick, opened the door to the Royal Academy, and in 1951 she was invited by Jacob Epstein to create three enormous figures for the Festival of Britain, representing the ages of iron, stone and electricity. "He asked, 'How much do you want? Is £1,000 enough?' I almost vomited; I had hardly arrived, I had no money. He thought it wasn't enough: he said, 'How about two?' Still I couldn't speak. I think in the end I had £4,000. Imagine! And he was such a great sculptor. But of course, sculpture is not really the art of England - especially not from a woman." In London, Fiore subsequently met other artists, including Henry Moore, Francis Bacon and Elisabeth Frink, whose sculptural ambition was surely a model. "But Augustus John was my real friend. We meet at a dinner party and we get on like that!" Fiore puts her forefingers together with an emphatic gesture. "I make his portrait" - a copy in bronze is glowering across the dining room where we sit - "and he paints mine; it is in London."

She has never been attracted to men, "always to girls," she says. "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. There was a German painter in Positano called Kurt, who asked me to marry him. He had polio and was in a wheelchair, so I think about it. And I was fond of him. But how could I marry? I cannot have relations: so I was always careful to stay alone. I love children, but I never wanted to have them myself. I like to be free."

However characterised, Fiore's sexual energies went into sculpture, which she describes in passionate terms. "I begin to embrace a piece of clay; it is soft and pliable, all feminine. Then it goes hard, terracotta, and is cast in plaster, pure gesso, virile and rigid, that I carve with a knife. Next, it is made feminine in wax, all pliable once more, to be caressed and stroked. Then masculine again in bronze, hard and solid. All the time, you must think: will you leave something feminine, or make it more masculine; how will you shape and finish it?"

Art and androgyny are thus aesthetically as well as literally related. What interests me equally is the way all the figures in Fiore's non-portrait works have their author's eyes. Such self-expressive imaging is a feature of post-romantic art, where the habits of fragmentation and distortion are often interpreted as reflecting the disintegration of the self under the pressures of modernity. But how to express a self that is naturally fissured, as it were, yet also naturally intact?

Fiore's self-portraits speak of drastic alienation, the lines and shapes being scrawled and wrenched into violent, ugly forms. The subject sculptures, by contrast, are often modelled with bold beauty: Janus's two-faced couples and lovers with cheeks gently touching, the bronze embrace joining two into one. "These two I knew in New York," she explains. "It is called Impossible Love, because when he discovers he is homosexual he tried to kill himself. She saved him - she called me, and we ran there, just in time."

A second piece was made in Australia. "It is desire: two people who want to love each other, but can't quite, I think. Two souls. No, I don't know in advance; it all comes the moment I take up the clay. I am passionate about clay. If I can't work I begin to pine."

In 1963, Fiore was commissioned to do a bust of JFK for Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. "He came twice to my studio, on the way to and from vacation [in Hyannis Port]. Then he went to Texas, and I had the television on, to see him, so I could continue. And then the tragedy. I couldn't believe it, though later I see from his face that he was close to death. The White House sent me photographs; it was a struggle, but eventually I finish." Why so few exhibitions? Don't all artists require publicity? Fiore ponders for a moment. "I don't like to show off. Naturally, I am definite, decisive, but I don't want to be a big ego. Then I have been always so busy, travelling to America, Japan, Hong Kong, always to get money to build Peralta. I don't have time to make exhibitions." To make money, for something like 20 years Fiore also undertook an annual two-month tour of North America under the aegis of Colston Leigh (the agency that arranged Dylan Thomas's fateful US tour), demonstrating the art of portrait sculpture to diverse audiences - college students, ladies lunch clubs and fine-art fanciers.

Somewhere along the line, Oprah was an adventitious sitter, plucked at random from the audience, an event still to be researched. And on the early trips, the late Jennifer Patterson of TV's Two Fat Ladies cookery programme was Fiore's admin assistant, though sad to relate they travelled by plane and train, not motorbike. "But we laughed so much, all the time," Fiore remembers. "Sweet Jennifer, she was so calm. I would be panicking and she would say, 'Don't worry chickydoo, it will be all right'."

But I suspect it was not just being busy that inhibited Fiore's pursuit of fame. Her professional career suggests impulsive departures, literally and artistically, as if to stay in the limelight was to risk exposure. Just as I am convinced that her sculptural themes are formed by her androgynous identity, so I guess this precluded the self-promotion most artists find necessary. Among her papers are press clippings from around the globe, all remarking on the deep voice, powerful build and "mannish" appearance ("looking like one of Robin Hood's merry men," according to one coded interview). The lurid reporting of early sex changes such as that of April Ashley cannot have induced confidence that bisexual physical attributes would have been sympathetically handled, had Fiore explained as openly to the world as to friends. One would guess that high-earning prestige commissions would not be given to a sculptor known to be hermaphrodite. The command to attend the Queen Mother at Clarence House in 1984 is firmly addressed to Miss Fiore de Henriquez.

Going with Fiore to the del Chiaro foundry in Pietrasanta where the bronzes are cast, I am introduced to the young woman in the office, who has known Fiore all her life. Haltingly, I explain my biographical interest in the story of this "scultore famoso". With a smile, my language is corrected: "scultrice," she says. I accept the correction, with a responding "scultrice famosissima". But I am intrigued. To my observation, the aspects fuse and alternate. If in youth Fiore resembled Hermaphroditos, in advancing years she is Tiresias, in whom the two sexes meet.

All that is "now over", she tells me, meaning that the sexual urges that impelled her to fight and flight have subsided, post-menopause. It is better, calmer now, she says. There is a hint of regret. Yet it must also have been very distressing? Well, sometimes, she concedes. "But more, it was exciting."

"I have lived a very extraordinary life, don't you agree?" she continues. "And now, looking back, I would like people to know. When I was young, there was no one to help; I lived with it all by myself. But maybe my story will help others. And anyway, I am proud of myself, and of Peralta, which I rebuilt from ruins. That is like a sculpture in some ways, putting stone to stone to create."

If reticence is one reason Fiore's name faded from view, the commitment to Peralta is another. One day she climbed the hairpin road to find the buildings, perched as on a ledge, in a derelict state without water, electricity, sewage. Her mother was dying and the move must have represented both a return to Italy and a commitment to posterity. Wall by wall, the village was purchased and restored, becoming Fiore's creative centre and displacing all need for renown. Some of the remade dwellings are now holiday rentals but at Easter, they were filled with friends from all over the world.

In the evening, the sunset makes a shining fairway across the sea. She sits on the terrace by the bar, where her great bronze phoenix is installed, as if ready for flight. Like many of her pieces, it appears maimed yet indomitable, and is an apt figure for the resurrection of Peralta. In the middle of the hamlet is a tall square tower, unfinished because erected without planning permission. "The [old] tower was built here in the 13th century by Castruccio Castracane, to fight against the Pope. So I construct another, and they [the municipality] make me stop. But I must finish: I will go on building until Peralta is complete. And until then, I will go on sculpting also. Until I die."

© Jan Marsh 2001. Jan Marsh is currently writing a biography of Fiore de Henriquez.

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