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A Mod Muse

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Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy
By Carolyn Burke
University of California Press paperback; 503 pp.; $18.95

The wild life of the first 20th-century woman

By Mary Spicuzza

THAT SHALLOW LITTLE inner child within each of us should rejoice--finally a book has emerged that can be judged by its cover. Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy begins with a cover photograph of Loy, a beautiful fin-de-siècle artist casting a sidelong, distant yet direct glance at the camera. She leans forward, Auguste Rodin sculpture in hand, boldly challenging her viewers while her half-closed eyes offer an aura of mystery.

Except for presenting her as an object rather than a creator of art, this first image perfectly captures the essence of local author Carolyn Burke's ruthlessly detailed yet sensitive biography of Loy. The forgotten "poets' poet" and virtual patron saint of sassy women, Loy constantly rejects narrow artistic movements.

Just as passionately, she refuses to mold herself to fit society's expectations of women. Burke demonstrates that Mina Loy has no interest in becoming another Edna St. Vincent Millay. Instead of poems reveling in the beauty of love, the rebellious artist paints nudes and writes of physical passion, nitty-gritty sexuality and disillusionment with sharp-tongued wit.

Burke's biography traces the life of the revolutionary artist from Loy's stifling childhood, being raised by her controlling, anti-Semitic mother and Jewish father in a conservative working-class British neighborhood. Like many talented artists, Loy struggles throughout her life to overcome her repressive childhood (nothing like a dysfunctional family to get those creative juices flowing).

Burke weaves stories of Loy's artistic studies abroad and numerous affairs with brief, inoffensive psychoanalysis, tying her rebellious spirit to those early years spent under the control of others.

As Mina Loy, perpetual jet-setter, travels between Britain, Italy, New York and Paris, Burke pieces together her scattered journal entries, poems and friends' accounts into a nonjudgmental portrait of one woman's journey of self-discovery.

Unlike most of her early-20th-century contemporaries, the free-thinking artist never blindly adopts her day's trendy male-defined theories, such as pure "art for art's sake" or futurism. Loy dabbles in painting, verse and playwriting as well as less respected arts like fashion design and hat-making. As working-class Loy sifts through different theories and art forms, she experiments with different high-society lovers promoting them.

Because Loy spent her days with famous movers and shakers like Gertrude Stein, Carl Van Vechten, Isadora Duncan and Marcel Duchamp, gossip about her friends' torrid affairs and petty back-stabbing becomes all the more juicy. And Burke gets every last embarrassing detail, down to a wealthy German acquaintance of Loy's who, obsessed with Duchamp, often wandered through parties loudly muttering, "Marcel, Marcel, I love you like hell, Marcel."

In a perfect world this well-written biography would be a page turner, but the thoroughly researched piece is really one meant to be savored as its years of research are absorbed. Becoming Modern may be dense and packed with details, but Carolyn Burke's tone toward her subject makes it far more readable than most 500-page biographies.

The author never claims to have all the answers about the complex and contradictory Loy, nor does Burke adopt the judgmental tone often found in biographies of famous people. Instead of deifying Loy, who struggles through multiple neurotic affairs and leaves her children in Italy to make her fortune in New York, Burke tells a sensitive yet perceptive tale of a very human artist.

Ironically, Burke's well-researched book proves much can be learned from looking back into the life of a woman so ardently opposed to worshipping the past. But as ever-impassioned Mina Loy writes, "There is no past or future, only intensity."

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From the February 26-March 4, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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