In the memoirs, autobiographies and biographies of those who were central to the development of Modernism, Mina Loy turns up with a Zelig-like ubiquity. She studied art in Munich at the same time as Kandinsky and Klee. Her paintings were exhibited in the 1905 Salon d’Automne in which the first Fauvist works were shown. While living in Florence, she became friends with Gertrude Stein and Mabel Dodge, and had affairs with Marinetti and Papini. She spent the First World War in New York as part of Walter Arensberg’s circle, which included Duchamp, Picabia, Varèse, Man Ray and William Carlos Williams. She sketched Freud in Vienna and lived among the avant garde in postwar Berlin. In the Twenties, when American expatriates flocked to Paris, Loy was there too.
In accounts of those years, Loy’s charm and wit are emphasised, and her beauty and sense of style attested to by photographs: her poetry and her art are mentioned almost as afterthoughts. While she was clearly an intriguing presence, the unavailability of her poetry and the disappearance of most of her art have made it difficult to assess her achievements. Was she a Modernist groupie? Or an important poet and artist whose contributions have been underplayed by her contemporaries and neglected in our own time? Carolyn Burke’s meticulously researched and richly detailed biography goes beyond the beautiful face and behind the obscure poetry to try to answer these questions. Most impressive are her recreations of the various milieus in which Loy lived and worked: the book is filled with social, political and cultural history as well as miniature biographies of many of Loy’s friends and acquaintances. But despite Burke’s best efforts, Loy remains an enigmatic figure.
She was born Mina Lowy in 1882, the daughter of a working-class Englishwoman and a Jewish Hungarian immigrant who worked as a tailor. Her parents aspired to middle-class status and wanted nothing more for their daughter than a socially advantageous marriage. Loy had other ideas, however, and was able to escape from the strict and repressive atmosphere of her parents’ home by attending art school, first in London, then in Munich and Paris. While the instruction she received was hardly innovative, the lessons she learned from her friends and fellow artists were a lasting influence. She discovered to her delight that among artists ‘bohemian’ was a term of approbation, ‘bourgeois’ an insult, and soon came to believe that the only life worth living was that of the artist, and the only kind of artist worth being was a genius. She also learned that she was considered exceptionally beautiful, and that her beauty endowed her with enormous power. As her paintings (in the style of the Decadents of the 1890s) began to be noticed in the annual salons, she also began to work on what Burke calls ‘the creation of a mannered self-image corresponding to the stylisation of her art’. Following in Oscar Wilde’s footsteps, Loy decided to become a work of art.
Her first marriage, to Stephen Haweis, an English painter and photographer, was unhappy. The strain of Haweis’s numerous affairs and the death of their daughter, of meningitis, two days after her first birthday, led to their separation. However, when Loy became pregnant as a result of an affair with a French doctor, she was unable to get a divorce from Haweis – her father had made her income contingent on the success of her marriage. So she allowed Haweis to take her off to Florence and accept the child, Joella, as his own. Their son Giles, born two years after Joella, was conceived, according to Haweis, to make up for Loy’s ‘lapse’.
In Florence, Loy became friendly with Stein and Dodge. Dodge introduced her to American artists and intellectuals, and inspired her with her flamboyant presence, her sexual freedom, and her spiritual quests. Stein provided inspiration of another sort: her writing revealed to Loy that words did not have to be referents, but could be employed as things in themselves, and Loy began to consider how she might use words instead of paint. But while her drive to create was undeniable, what Burke calls her ‘double gift’ sometimes left her unable to decide whether to pick up a pen or a paintbrush. Shortly after the example of Stein prompted her to write, Frances Stevens, a young American artist boarding with Loy, inspired her to try painting again. She was easily influenced by those around her. When Stevens became involved with the Futurist artists in Florence, and started to write manifestos, Loy followed suit with a manifesto of her own.
Although the manic energy and aggressive modernity of Futurism appealed to Loy, she was troubled by its negativity and its misogyny – which makes it all the more curious that her involvement with it was predicated almost entirely on her affairs with its charismatic founder, Marinetti (whom she thanked for adding twenty years to her life ‘from mere contact with his exuberant vitality’), and his rival, the gloomy intellectual Giovanni Papini. When ‘Aphorisms on Futurism’ became her first published work, with its appearance in Camera Work in June 1914, her reputation in the United States was launched. While its bold typography and defiant injunctions to ‘DIE in the past/Live in the future’ were typical of the movement, it impressed American audiences as shockingly original and bold, particularly because it was written by a woman. Although Loy protested to Carl Van Vechten that she was ‘in no way considered a Futurist by Futurists’, he promoted the publication of her poems in Trend, the little magazine he edited, by emphasising her connections with them, and that association became an important part of her mystique.
When World War One began, Loy was initially excited at the prospect, volunteering with the Red Cross and promising Van Vechten: ‘I shall write a poem about it – – you should hear what a tramp calls the Madonna when he’s having his abdomen cut open without anaesthetic.’ But she soon became bored, and in 1916, leaving her children in Italy with their nurse, Loy moved to New York, ostensibly to earn money and obtain an American divorce from Haweis (who had by this time moved to the South Seas). Her reputation as a Futurist opened doors for her, and once inside, her beauty, wit, intelligence and openness to new art and new ideas made her a sought-after presence in avant-garde circles. She perfected not only her poetic style but also her image – designed striking hats that set off her beautiful face, mastered the art of the shocking statement or bizarre epigram, and stepped up the gaiety and flirtation. She thrived in the atmosphere created by Picabia and Duchamp: in an interview following the infamous show in which Duchamp exhibited a urinal as a work of art, Loy announced that artists should be ‘jolly and quite irresponsible’. The war and her children seem to have been successfully forgotten.
The central event in Loy’s life was her relationship with Arthur Cravan, whom she met in New York in 1917. A nephew of Oscar Wilde, a poet and a boxer, the editor of a French avant-garde review, Cravan (whose real name was Fabian Lloyd) was notorious for his extravagantly contradictory accounts of his life, his alcohol consumption, and his propensity for scandal, and was considered by many to be an untrustworthy brute. But the rude and brawny Cravan (whose body Loy would recall with pleasure for the rest of her life) and the delicate, sophisticated Loy fell deeply in love. When Cravan fled to Mexico to escape military service, she followed. They married and lived in poverty in a succession of squalid lodgings. But as the older Loy remembered it, their material circumstances had no effect on the happiness they felt in one another’s company. One day, while testing a boat in which he planned to sail to South America, Cravan disappeared. It is most likely that he drowned, but the absence of proof left Loy in limbo for years. Reports of sightings of Cravan haunted her, as did suggestions that his disappearance was a hoax which allowed him to escape from the authorities as well as from Loy. In her poem ‘The Widow’s Jazz’, written nine years after Cravan’s disappearance, Loy mourns him as a ‘colossal absentee’ but also expresses her bewildered anger: ‘Husband/how secretly you cuckold me with death.’
Suddenly alone, four months pregnant, and with little money, Loy returned to England to give birth to her baby, Fabienne, in spring 1919. She then went back to Florence for just long enough to get reacquainted with her children (whom she had not seen in almost three years) before embarking again for New York (leaving the infant Fabi behind with Joella and Giles). It was a difficult but productive period for her, during which her poems were published in the Little Review and the Dial. Her close friendship with Djuna Barnes dates from this time. But after she received news that Haweis had taken Giles, who was 12, to live with him in the Caribbean, Loy returned to Florence. Deciding that Joella, now a teenager, had grown up disappointingly bourgeois and old-fashioned, Loy whisked her two daughters and their nurse off to Berlin and enrolled Joella in a dance school run by Isadora Duncan’s sister. But once she realised that all the truly interesting artists were congregating in Paris, she was on the move again, leaving her children behind.
Loy’s arrival in Paris in 1923 coincided with the publication of her first book, Lunar Baedeker, a collection of 31 poems. As in New York, she became a popular member of a large and varied group of expatriate and native writers and artists, including Stein, Joyce, Pound, Duchamp and Brancusi. Still renowned for her high spirits, her intelligence and her beauty, she was also venerated by the Dadaists and Surrealists as the wife of the now legendary Arthur Cravan. In the meantime, her son, whose letters she had angrily refused to answer because he was living with Haweis, died of cancer. Burke’s repeated insistence that Loy’s ‘gaiety of spirit successfully masked her grief’ seems to ignore an unmistakeable harshness.
Loy lived in Paris until 1936. Always pressed for money, she came up with one money-making scheme after another; the longest-lived was a shop (financed by Peggy Guggenheim) to sell the lamps and lampshades she designed. But Loy was defiantly impractical (she felt it was her prerogative as an artist) and the running of the business fell to the teenaged Joella, whose desire to continue her education was of no concern to her mother. In 1927, Joella married Julien Levy, a wealthy American, who supplied welcome financial support for many years, but Loy had become dependent on Joella, and was devastated by the prospect of handling her life on her own. After Joella moved to New York, Loy became increasingly distracted, or ‘starry’, as Barnes put it. Fabi’s upbringing and education grew increasingly haphazard, to say the least, and Loy’s business began to suffer financially. Declaring herself at the age of 48 ‘too old for love, too young for death’, she began to retreat into herself, avoiding friends and becoming more and more eccentric. Having always looked and seemed much younger than her age, she suddenly became an old woman. This drastic change seemed to stem from a belief that she could no longer be a work of art, an object of beauty and admiration. Her work seemed to matter less to her than her youth and beauty, the loss of which she was still mourning in her eighties. Her genuine embarrassment at her age and appearance led her severely to restrict her social and professional contacts for over thirty years.
On the eve of World War Two, Loy and Fabi moved to New York. Like her sister, Fabi had to forgo the education she longed for – in her case, so that she could work to support herself and her increasingly dotty mother, who, despite everything, was still writing and publishing poetry. Fabi cared for her until 1948, when she and her husband joined Joella and her second husband in Aspen, Colorado. Loy stayed on in New York, in a rooming house close to the Bowery, where the local bums inspired her final burst of creativity: she depicted these homeless men and their environment in three-dimensional constructions made of rags, bottles, egg boxes, and other bits of trash she collected. The reclusive Djuna Barnes was one of the few friends from the past she felt she could still bear to see.
Loy’s unlikely final stopping place was Aspen, still a small mining town when she moved there in 1953. Her bohemian dress and habit of collecting trash quickly established her as a local character. Admirers and fellow poets continued to promote her work, and many made pilgrimages to Aspen: among them, Jonathan Williams, who arranged for the publication, in 1958, of a new edition of her poems, entitled Lunar Baedeker – Time-Tables. Often depressed and still obsessed with such events in her past as Cravan’s disappearance, she died, looked after by her daughters, in 1966.
Burke is at ease analysing Loy’s mother’s psyche or interpreting Loy’s style of interior design, but she is disappointingly timid when it comes to speculating about the motivation or possible meaning of Loy’s behaviour. On occasion, she makes excuses for the troubling contradictions in her words or actions, but they are neither persuasive nor consistent. Does she believe that Loy’s treatment of her children is compensated for by her work? What are we to make of Loy’s decision to retreat from life because she felt she had lost her looks and sex appeal? How can we reconcile Loy’s inability to support herself or manage her own life with the radical proclamations she made in her ‘Feminist Manifesto’ or the striking feminist voice of some of her best poems? There are no simple answers to these questions, but a more forthright authorial perspective would have brought Loy into sharper focus.
Equally frustrating is Burke’s reluctance to assess Loy’s achievement as a poet. How are we to negotiate between effusive praise like Pound’s and brisk dismissals such as Harriet Monroe’s? Burke stresses the biographical and psychological content of the poems, and usefully traces the influence of other Modernists, but she doesn’t discuss the relative merits of the poems, or explore their impact on other writers. She states in her Introduction that Loy ‘did not achieve her goal – recognition as one of the “geniuses”’, a coy circumvention of the issue. However, Burke’s frequent and seemingly unironic application of the term ‘genius’ to Loy and the members of her Parisian circle, and her sympathetic reading of the pretentious ‘Apology for Genius’, seem to indicate agreement with Loy’s own assessment. In fact, Burke’s key argument for her significance is expressed in listings of Loy’s famous acquaintances and her recounting of their achievements. But association, even being published side by side in the same little magazines, doesn’t prove anything.
Fortunately, Loy’s poems are now in print again, in a volume lovingly edited and annotated by Roger Conover, her literary executor. Conover’s Introduction states unequivocally that Loy was ‘great’, possibly ‘the poet of her century’, and that on reading her ‘you become either a sworn believer or a fast enemy’ – there is no middle ground. Why is it imperative that the once neglected be proved to be great? There is no question that Loy’s poetry created a stir when it first appeared. When the first four poems in the sequence Songs to Joannes were published in 1915, readers were shocked by their lack of conventional metre, rhyme or punctuation, their difficult syntax and their archaic language. Most startling of all was Loy’s bold engagement with the physical and the sexual:
Spawn of Fantasies
Silting the appraisable
Pig Cupid his rosy snout
Rooting erotic garbage
‘Once upon a time’
Pulls a weed white star-topped
Among wild oats sown in mucus membrane
In another early poem, ‘Parturition’, Loy writes about childbirth from the perspective of a woman giving birth:
the gurgling of a crucified wild beast
Comes from so far away
And the foam on the stretched muscles of a mouth
Is no part of myself
There is a climax in sensibility
When pain surpassing itself
Loy’s poetry was tailor-made for its age: experimental in style, unrestrained in subject-matter, it epitomised the new when being new was prized over any other quality a poem might have. That she wrote about subjects that were considered off-limits to women gave it an additional frisson.
But the self-consciousness that marked her public persona is, at times, a liability in her poetry. The effort behind her dense juxtapositions of recondite words and repeated sounds often shows, and poems such as ‘Lunar Baedeker’ seem stilted and mannered:
with the chandelier souls
from the Pharaoh’s tombstones
to mercurial doomsdays
in furrowed phosphorus –
Difficult to detach from their historical moment, many of Loy’s poems remain of interest predominantly as cultural artefacts. But still fresh are those in which her wit, satirical feminism and capacity for self-mockery dominate, such as ‘One O’clock at Night’, in which the speaker dozes next to her lover while he argues with another man about ‘dynamic composition’:
But you who make more noise than any man in the world when you clear your throat
Deafening woke me
And I caught the thread of the argument
Immediately assuming my personal mental attitude
And ceased to be a woman
She gave only sporadic attention to her writing, and so it is perhaps not surprising that her poetic achievement was uneven. Many of her poems are brilliantly original, while others seem little more than calculated efforts to align herself with the latest literary trends. Welcome and useful as these volumes are, it is unfortunate that they encourage the canonisation of Loy as Modernist genius. Mina Loy was many different things: a painter, a poet, a designer of hats, clothes and lampshades, an interior decorator, a political theorist, an inventor, a sculptor, an unforgettable presence in the world. Genius is neither here nor there.