Mina Loy & Househunting,
or Biography as Restoration

by Carolyn Burke

 

Note from the Editors
This talk was originally delivered at “Mina Loy: Radium of the Word,” a symposium held at New York University, April 9-10, 2015; organized by Patrick Deer, Peter Nicholls, and Sara Crangle; and co-sponsored by the Center for Modernist Studies at the University of Sussex and the Modern and Contemporary Colloquium at NYU. Carolyn Burke gave the talk to the scholars in attendance because, as she put it, she “wanted to give it to them”—as a gift. In the same generous spirit, she gave the Carolyn Burke Collection on Mina Loy and Lee Miller to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, sharing her meticulous research and rich findings with all the scholars who follow in the wake of her groundbreaking biography, Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy (1986). She also devoted her time and energy to working with us to reconstruct and remediate her talk here, so that we can share it with you.

Preface

view of Venice Grand canal with large water taxi and St. Mark's Basilica in distances
view of Venice Grand canal with large water taxi and St. Mark's Basilica in distances
View from the Accademia bridge towards the mouth of Canal Grande, (c) Teresa.

This talk takes us on a series of voyages looping backwards and forwards, all in the past.  At the same time it is an emblem or allegory of how the life of a modernist—a modernist life?—may get written, given the accidental, even unlikely nature of the materials that survive, and their fragile, fragmentary, damaged condition.  It will illustrate, I hope, the way this biographer worked to restore such materials, to recompose them into a plausible whole.

Grand canal containing water taxes with St. Mark's Basilica looming
Closer view from the Accademia Bridge in Venice, the white Guggenheim building on the far right. (c) Photo by Teresa.

À la recherche du temps perdu

Let us begin in the 1970s, when I first came across the name Mina Loy.  I was living in Paris, reading memoirs of the 20s expatriates, including Peggy Guggenheim’s Out of This Century. In 1976, after I began my research on Mina, I wrote to Peggy to say that was coming to Venice and hoped to speak with her about their relations during the 1920s, when Peggy backed her lampshade business in Paris.  We are making our way, as I did down the Grand Canal toward San Giorgio for our first view of Guggenheim’s home, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni.

The Guggenheim museum from the Grand Canal
Canal Grande seen from the Accademia bridge toward the Guggenheim Collection (white building on right) and the Santa Maria della Salute, (c) photo by Teresa.

An interior view from the Palazzo to the Grand Canal, to my mind one that evokes a quintessentially Loy-ian image, Mina’s memory of the colored glass in the fanlight of her London home—the shards of glowing color that she yearned to possess.  In this case, the blue of Venice, like that of Loy’s retrospective exhibition of 1935, looks into the past, to introduce both Mina’s and my own.

Arrangement of blue glass figures against a window with iron latticework at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. (c) Photo by Teresa.

 

Reconnaissance, 1977

interior of Loy's lamp shop
Mina Loy and Peggy Guggenheim, 52 Rue de Colisee, Laurence Vail paintings on wall. ca. 1926 Image by © Underwood & Underwood/Corbis

I prepared for my trip to Venice at the Bibliothèque Forney, Paris, in an effort to find out more about the missing lampshades.  In tattered issues of Art et Decoration from 1927 and 1928 I found black and white pictures of several of them, including “L’Ombre Féerique,” “The Corvette,” and “La Galère,” and had them photographed. But I could not find any originals. It seems that none survived, due to the fragility of their materials—most of which Loy found at the marchés aux puces (flea market).

Peggy Guggenheim at the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, Venice, Italy. Photo by David Seymour (Chim), Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

I had written in advance to Peggy Guggenheim with questions about them but learned when I arrived at the Palazzo, where she received me courteously, that she could remember nothing at all about those days except that they had been friends.

Peggy Guggenheim, 81, in the sculpture garden at her 18th-century palace, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, in Venice, Italy, in 1979.Credit Jerry T. Mosey/Associated Press

She did, however, own a Mina Loy.  Would I like to see it? She took me to the private wing of the Palazzo and into her pink bedroom, where I saw for the first time the assemblage Househunting.  Peggy left me alone; I meditated for a long time on the central image before I could return to my scholarly preoccupations and start taking notes.

Paper assemblage of human figure with large, round headdress that contains household items, surrounding by house fronts.
Mina Loy, “Househunting,” assemblage c. 1950, as seen in 1977. (c) The private collection of Carolyn Burke.