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Book Review: Mina Loy’s Critical Modernism

Book Review: Mina Loy’s Critical Modernism

Diane Drouin, Sorbonne Université.

Over the last thirty years, the British-born poet and painter Mina Loy (1882-1966) has emerged as a flamboyant figure of transatlantic modernism. Given Loy’s cosmopolitanism and versatility, many scholars and readers have found her difficult to locate within the Modernist map and canon. The publication of the collections The Last Lunar Baedeker (1982) and The Lost Lunar Baedeker (1997), both edited by Roger Conover, sparked a renewal of interest in the fascinating avant-garde artist, while Carolyn Burke’s groundbreaking biography, Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy (1996) paved the way for numerous studies on Loy’s brilliant poems and artworks. In her recent book Mina Loy’s Critical Modernism (2019), Laura Scuriatti (Bard College Berlin) convincingly argues that Loy developed a critical stance characterised by ‘skepticism, irony, and distance’ (p. 9).

In the first chapter of the book, Scuriatti analyses Loy’s early poems, plays, and manifestos in the context of the debates surrounding the politics and aesthetics of both Futurism and Italian Feminism. Loy’s extended stay in Florence between 1907 and 1916 led her to reflect on the Italian artistic scene. More specifically, Scuriatti explores Loy’s connections to the Futurist artist Giovanni Papini –who briefly became her lover–, and to the avant-garde magazines La Voce and Lacerba. This chapter traces in particular the influence of Otto Weininger’s ideas on Loy’s critical rewriting of sexuality and genius. According to the Austrian thinker, whose study Sex and Character (1903) became highly influential in Florence, genius could only be masculine and women could not attain it. His work, along Papini’s, prompted Loy’s response to Futurism and her rewriting of genius in her plays ‘CittàBapini’, ‘Collision’, and her poem ‘Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots’. Scuriatti highlights how the Florentine context, with its entanglement of local politics and transnational ideas, shaped Loy’s thought on Futurism, Feminism, and sexology as her ‘Aphorisms on Futurism’, her ‘Feminist Manifesto’, and her early poems made clear. Three distinct influences have to be taken into account: the Futurist movement led by F. T. Marinetti and Papini, the expatriate circles around Loy’s American friend Mabel Dodge at Villa Curonia, and last but not least the works of Italian women writers, among whom Ada Negri, Sibilla Aleramo, and Enif Robert. Close-readings of these overlooked texts offer a deeper understanding of Loy’s position as a woman writer, artist, and critic in Florence. As Scuriatti argues further on, in the writings of Mina Loy, ‘femininity, the female body, and motherhood are fundamental for rethinking genius’ (p. 247).

The second chapter explores the links between the realms of art, economics, and commerce in Loy’s work. Scuriatti examines the materiality of artworks and how their conditions of production and reception transformed the relationship between the artist and her art. Loy was always in touch with the material: she started her career as a painter while she was staying in Paris in the early 1900s – her 1906 drawing La Maison en papier (Paper House), for instance, portrays a community of women whose silhouettes connect the different rooms of the house. She later opened a lampshade shop in Paris in the 1920s with Peggy Guggenheim, and turned to constructions towards the end of her life, making assemblages out of discarded objects she would find in the streets of the Bowery. Scuriatti studies the value and meaning of such artworks and objects, with references to Marcel Duchamp’s controversial Fountain (1917) and to Joseph Cornell’s surrealist collages. This reflection on objects as commodities leads to an analysis of what Scuriatti calls ‘the labor of art’ (p. 82), a creative process ‘involving things, objects, and artworks’ which is deeply rooted in materiality. Transformation, recycling, and craftsmanship were essential components of Loy’s work, as she celebrates ‘the eloquence of objects of daily life transformed by the gaze of the artist or writer’ (p. 83). Loy’s famous ekphrastic poem, ‘Brancusi’s Golden Bird’, focuses precisely on the interaction between the materiality of the sculpture – ‘a lump of metal’ – and its spiritual meaning.

Mina Loy (left) and Peggy Guggenheim (right)
in their lampshade shop in Paris, in the late 1920s.

The idea of network is central to understanding Loy’s modernism. As Scuriatti stresses, Loy wrote many poems and essays portraying a great number of modernist artists, including her friends Gertrude Stein, Picasso, and Brancusi, as well as James Joyce, Nancy Cunard, and Wyndham Lewis. Scuriatti accurately reads these texts as attempts to appropriate and reconfigure the modernist landscape. The process of collecting, identified here as a way to ‘resignify and reevaluate’ (p. 97) artworks, was familiar to Loy, who acted as an agent between her son-in-law, the art collector Julien Levy, and many European Surrealist artists.

Since my own research focuses on Loy’s unpublished autobiographies, I was particularly interested in chapter 3 of the book, in which Scuriatti brilliantly draws on archival material held in the Mina Loy Papers at the Beinecke Library. The main argument builds on Adriana Cavarero’s concept of ‘narratable selves’, to defend what Scuriatti calls ‘dialogic rather than self-contained versions of selfhood’ which are ‘based on the emergence of a self as a result of two main operations: a narration involving speaker and listener in a self-reflexive mode, and the use of a hybrid narrative form’ (p. 133). After a convincing analysis of the long autobiographical poem ‘Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose’ (1925), Scuriatti shifts her focus from Loy’s poetry to her little-known autobiographies in prose, reminding us of Sandeep Parmar’s (University of Liverpool) luminous book, Reading Mina Loy’s Autobiographies: Myth of the Modern Woman (2013). Here, Scuriatti aptly identifies Loy’s process of self-fashioning and self-reflexivity as collaborative, echoing Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) and Carl Van Vechten Peter Whiffle (1922). In the Künstlerroman tradition, Loy’s novel Insel plays, for example, on the interactions between the narrator and the bohemian surrealist painter, operating a ‘fusion of biography and autobiography’ (p. 185).

In the fourth and final chapter of the book, Scuriatti questions the reasons behind Loy’s reputation as an elitist artist and discusses the reception of Loy’s texts by her contemporaries – one of her most striking appearances being as Patience Scalpel in Djuna Barnes’s Ladies Almanack (1928). Scuriatti offers close-readings of Loy’s late poems and of the autobiographical narrative ‘Goy Israels’ to reconsider the questions of affiliation, belonging, and displacement. Loy’s unstable identity as British, American, Jewish, and her constant travels between Paris, Florence, Mexico, Berlin, and New York were essential to what Scuriatti identifies as ‘eccentricity’, following the concept theorised by Luisa Muraro. Loy therefore occupies ‘a stance that is both objective and subjective, critical and self-critical’ (p. 209).

Overall, Scuriatti offers us an innovative take on Loy’s work as a writer, artist, and critic, suggesting that Loy adopted ‘an attitude of critical experimentation, which led [her] to simultaneously deploy and question the fundamental categories of modernist aesthetics and art’ (p. 246). The major strength of the book resides in the thorough and original use of archival material, proving, once again, that Loy’s poems, autobiographies, and artworks still have many secrets to tell.



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