Diana Ferlini Duncan (1911-1983) was part of the Mid-Century wave of women surrealists. She was born in Basel, Switzerland to Italian parents. She immigrated to the U.S., specifically to the Bronx borough of New York City, as a child in 1922. After World War II, she and her family resettled in Hollywood, California, where she began to seriously pursue painting as an adult around 1950. Forced to quit school after the eighth grade to work, she was a self-taught artist, primarily self-educated in general, and a voracious reader.
Ferlini shared much in common with fellow surrealist artists of the mid-20th century, including Frida Kahlo, Remedios Varo, and Gertrude Abercrombie. Like many surrealist artists after World War II, Ferlini's themes included a feminine perspective on the nuclear family, the isolation of the new American home, the objectification of the female body, and left-leaning perspectives on war and the environment.
From the early 1950s through the 1970s, Ferlini created a body of work that depicted a dreamscape reflecting what was important in her life: opposition to war and nuclear testing, advocacy for healthy food and clean water for the children of her time and future generations, women's liberation from the power held by the masculine agenda and the patriarchy. Throughout her work, she blended a mix of surrealism with social realism, all filtered through an outsider art aesthetic. Additionally, one can sense her strong Italian heritage, even though she never lived in Italy. Most of her paintings were done in her kitchen, within a small home studio that allowed her to paint late at night and fall asleep on a daybed when she was too exhausted to continue.
Over her lifetime, Ferlini produced a remarkable collection of eighty-eight known paintings. In an enigmatic twist, she chose not to exhibit, sell, or give away her art, with only two exceptions - a painting that found its place in the Basel Fine Arts Museum in 1977 and a tribute piece to John F. Kennedy Jr., which was presented to the John F. Kennedy Library.
Ferlini's oil paintings are characterized by a mesmerizing interplay of open and dense spaces, areas of intricate detail, and an eerie blend of common objects in uncommon situations. She invited viewers to immerse themselves in the surreal atmospheres she meticulously crafted.
Ferlini's personal biography helps illuminate some of her painting subjects and the specific references she made within them. In Switzerland, her mother worked in a dressmaking factory. Both of her parents suffered from asthma and other ailments likely linked to the pollution in their industrial neighborhood. She was raised Catholic by a father who once aspired to become a priest, though she herself did not follow the Catholic religion into adulthood. Her close cousin was shot and killed in World War II while serving in the Philippines. She desperately did not want her only child, John, to be drafted into the Vietnam War. She began painting around 1950, shortly after her mother moved out of the Hollywood home she shared with her husband and son. Like many immigrant families, Ferlini shared her home with her parents until well into adulthood. When her mother moved out, it was the first time she had lived without her in the house for thirty-nine years. Ferlini's husband, John Duncan, worked as a mechanic, and the two chose to have only one child due to economic conditions. Ferlini loved arranging flowers, maintaining a garden, and cooking, but her meals had to be kept very simple due to her husband's ulcers.
In her lifetime, Ferlini painted a total of eighty-eight known paintings. They were the pride of her life. She often said to her son with much humility that she would be like Van Gogh, only to be discovered and acclaimed after her death. She knew that she had poured into them a great deal of thought and emotion, and that her soul would be leaving a much needed imprint on the world.
She might have painted more if her life had not been unexpectedly cut short by a fatal gunshot from a mentally unstable neighbor in 1983. It's chilling to think that the early end of life she feared for her son in war actually happened to her. She and her husband were shot after the man had lost his own wife. Diana died, but John survived. For nearly four decades, her paintings were packed away until her only child, John Jr., finally began the project of introducing the world to his mother's beautiful and mysterious works. We are so grateful to John Jr. Duncan for trusting Lost Art Salon with the legacy of this pioneer woman artist exposing her life and dreams in such a fantastical surreal way.