Pig Cupid’s Rosy Snout

Jane Eldridge Miller

  • Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy by Carolyn Burke
    Farrar, Straus, 494 pp, $35.00, July 1996, ISBN 0 374 10964 8
  • The Lost Lunar Baedeker: Poems by Mina Loy, selected and edited by Roger Conover
    Farrar, Straus, 236 pp, $22.00, July 1996, ISBN 0 314 25872 8

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’.

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