Literary representations of maternity

Narrative obstetrics: on literary representations of maternity

by Helen Charman, PhD Candidate at Trinity Hall and the Faculty of English, University of Cambridge.

In February— in case you needed reminding— Beyoncé announced that she was pregnant with twins via a heavily symbolic photoshoot that drew on everything from 15th century Flemish portraiture to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus to Queen Nefertiti. Announced on the first day of Black History Month in America, the pictures figure as a twofold celebration of historically marginalised and objectified physicalities. Amongst the inevitable media furore, the celebrations were countered by predictable complaints from the entire political spectrum of the media, backed up by censorious comments from members of the public. Readers all over the U.K. felt compelled to share that they ‘couldn’t care less’ about the announcement, urging the papers to ‘write about real news’ instead. In fact, many commenters professed to care so little about Beyoncé and her belly that they composed quite lengthy rants about it. Perhaps, as seems to have been the case for one visitor to The Sun online, the photographs were the final straw: ‘Yet another preggie publicly flaunting that ugly bump. Why cant these people wear sensible clothes and cover up, keep the naked pics for their own eyes.’

beyonce P1

A photo from Beyoncé’s photoshoot

The desire to censor the pregnant female body is nothing new, and it goes hand in hand with our inability to discuss things like the menstrual cycle without deferring to the delicate sensibilities of actual or imagined listeners, particularly male ones. Beyoncé’s photographs were accompanied by a poem by Warsan Shire, making the link to Venus— goddess of love— explicit, and reinforcing the sexual aspect of the images: ‘in the dream I am crowning / osun, / Nerfetiti, / and yemoja / pray around my bed’. The photograph that seemed to incense people the most was the one posed sitting on the roof of a car: a hyper-sexualised pose familiar to many from calendars and glamour magazines. Critics were also vocal about the ‘exploitative’ nature of the photographs, suggesting that there was something unseemly about Beyoncé— who, as of March 2017, has a net worth estimated by Forbes to be over $290 million — ‘using’ her pregnancy to contribute to her lucrative personal brand. The announcement illustrated a familiar truth: the intersection of female sexuality and economic power— and its mirror image, commodification— touches on deep-seated societal fears. Although the smattering of tight-lipped comment pieces framing their disapproval of the photograph’s lavish celebration of the pregnant body as concern for childless women were mostly disingenuous— this concern doesn’t usually seem to bother tabloid newspapers who mine ‘fertility’ dramas for exposure— they served to illuminate the paradox of maternity: censorship goes hand in hand with idealisation. Some of the positive responses to the announcement were deceptively conservative in their valourisation of motherhood as a woman’s ‘true’ purpose, something all too easily appropriated by exclusionary and harmful discussions about what ‘real’ womanhood is or should be.

My doctoral research evidences that these conflicting attitudes to motherhood are far from a new phenomenon. I am a PhD student in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge, and my doctoral research uses the novels of the prolific Victorian author, translator and essayist George Eliot as a focus through which to explore the changing attitude towards maternity in the nineteenth century. In her seminal study of ‘motherhood as experience and institution’, Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich asks how have women given birth, who has helped them, and how, and why? These are not simply questions of the history of midwifery and obstetrics: they are political questions.’[1] My project contends that by the time Eliot published her last novel, Daniel Deronda, in 1876 the political aspects of these questions had become issues of economic and literary production, too: like the furore around Beyoncé’s baby bump, the response to pregnant bodies in the nineteenth century demonstrated subversive power they held over every aspect of society.


George Eliot

In the Victorian period the mother was idealised as, in Coventry Patmore’s phrase, ‘the angel in the house’: the pressures of the new industrial age created a divide between the public, masculine workplace and the feminine, domestic domain of the home, which was seen as place of moral stability in a changing world. Yet the domestic idolisation of the mother was closely linked to the rapid economic and political advancements occurring in ‘masculine’ society. From the eighteenth century onwards, childbirth itself had become radically medicalized: rather than midwives attending to expectant mothers in their homes— in exclusively female spaces— lying-in hospitals, male obstetricians and the use of forceps became the norm. Wet-nursing turned mother’s milk— and the lactating breast— into a commodity. Throughout the nineteenth century, the effectiveness of these medical advancements was fiercely debated in publications like the British Medical Journal and The Lancet: these discussions were overwhelmingly dominated by men who linked the debates around childbirth to broader political and moral debates of the time. Ruth Perry, Valerie Fildes and other historians of motherhood have made a persuasive argument that this medicalization, alongside the charitable drives to save infant lives in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries such as the establishment of the London Foundling Hospital, links the construction and valourisation of bourgeois motherhood to the Victorian concern with Empire. As Perry puts it,

… motherhood was a colonial form—the domestic, familial counterpart to land enclosure at home and imperialism abroad. Motherhood as it was constructed in the early modern period is a production-geared phenomenon analogous to the capitalizing of agriculture, the industrializing of manufacture, and the institutionalizing of the nation state.[2]

In the nineteenth century, the emergence of the maternal ideal was, rather than a positive or empowering development for women, a means of co-opting the female reproductive body into the service of a patriarchal societal and economic system.

So how does this link to the literature? By the end of the nineteenth century, the novel had become the most prominent literary form in Britain. The revival of serialisation increased accessibility and, combined with the dominance of social realism, meant prose fiction was a highly relevant and reactive art form. In the first half of the century, economists had reformulated traditional concepts of value according to the ability to generate financial returns. As the novel became increasingly concerned with an explicitly capitalist system of value, the figure of the mother became symbolic of these ongoing debates about worth: the commodification of care. The reproductive bodies of the female protagonists in George Eliot’s novels, as well as in the work of her contemporaries like Charles Dickens, are embedded in a complex value system in which their idealized virtue is directly related to their economic function as producers.

Maternal virtue, however, was inconveniently linked to sexuality. The female body was most acceptable when it could be rationalised as fulfilling the function of maternity, but the physical reality of pregnancy was a threat to repressive norms that governed Victorian society. As Carolyn Dever notes, novels of this period were struggling of an impossible reconciliation of ‘a maternal ideal with the representation of the embodied—and potentially eroticized—female subject.’[3] Consequently, the idealised mother loomed large in Victorian fiction, but more often than not these texts feature mothers who are absent, or dead: psychologically overwhelming, but physically absent. Although recent developments in historical thought suggest that the maternal mortality rate in the nineteenth century was not as high as was once assumed, it is true that the medicalization of childbirth brought with it an epidemic of puerperal fever, or ‘childbed fever’. Maternal death in nineteenth-century fiction, however, far exceeded the actual rates of childbed death, which consistently remained well below 1%. Dever and others have linked this trope to Freudian psychoanalysis, and the destabilising effect the idea of the sexual maternal body could have upon the identities of children raised in a culture that linked female sexuality with hysteria and disorder. In nineteenth-century narrative, the tragic death of the mother ensured her virtue: free of the troubling aspects of her embodied existence, she could fulfil the symbolic role society required of her.

Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich

In a letter of 1866, George Eliot referred to her fiction as an attempt to ‘make certain ideas thoroughly incarnate, as if they had revealed themselves to me first in the flesh and not in the spirit’. This notion of ‘incarnation’ is undermined, however, by the fact that Eliot largely avoids any engagement with matters of the flesh. Indeed, Eliot seems to want to avoid biological maternity altogether. In her novels mothers either die young— often in childbirth— or are comically incompetent or grotesque and replaced by substitutionary maternal figures who are able to provide moral guidance uncomplicated by the problem of physical maternity. The few female protagonists in her work who do go on to have children have to sacrifice something of themselves in the process: Dorothea Brooke, the heroine of Middlemarch (1871-1872), lives happily with her husband and two children, but we learn in the novel’s final passage that although her husband is an active social reformer, Dorothea’s own ambitions remain unfulfilled. It could be argued that the reason for the dearth of maternal characters in Eliot’s novels is the narrative dead end the circumstances of maternity provided for so many nineteenth-century women. We’ve got a long way to go before we can honestly say that this isn’t still the case for many women today. In Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich— writing in 1986— comments on the metaphorical resonance that death in childbirth retains:

Even in a place and time where maternal mortality is low, a woman’s fantasies of her own death in childbirth have the accuracy of metaphor. Typically, under patriarchy, the mother’s life is exchanged for the child; her autonomy as a separate being seems fated to conflict with the infant she will bear. The self-denying, self-annihilating role of the Good Mother (linked implicitly with suffering and with the repression of anger) will spell the “death” of the woman or girl who once has hopes, expectations, fantasies for herself—especially when those hopes and fantasies have never been acted on.[4]

The valourised, idealised Good Mother is a trope that works against women, not for them. If we want to change it, we need to understand where it came from, and how inherently linked it is to our economic and political systems, and we need more ‘preggies’ like Beyoncé to ‘flaunt’ their maternity in a way that includes, rather than denies, their autonomous, sexual identities.

[1] Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (London: Virago, 1976, reissued with a new introduction by the author [1986], reprinted 1992), p.128.

[2] Ruth Perry, ‘Colonising the Breast: Sexuality and Maternity in Eighteenth-Century England’, (Journal of the History of Sexuality,Vol. 2, No. 2, Special Issue, Part 1: The State, Society, and the Regulation of Sexuality in Modern Europe (Oct., 1991), pp. 204-234), p. 205.

[3]Carolyn Dever, Death and the Mother from Dickens to Freud: Victorian Fiction and the Anxiety of Origins (Cambridge: CUP, 1998), p. 19.

[4] Rich, p.166.


From The Taming of the Shrew to 10 Things I Hate About You: taming wild women in European culture

Don’t kiss him, Kate: Shrew-Taming Traditions in European Culture

by Dr Florence Hazrat

Before she is allowed to leave the house for a Friday night date, her father makes her wear a plastic apron with a big belly attached to the front. This is how it would be if she became pregnant. And does she want to become pregnant? Never trust boys! She complies begrudgingly, familiar with her father’s peculiar protectiveness. She needs to humour him, the prom is fast approaching, and the hottest guy of the whole high school has asked her out. If only there wasn’t her elder sister! Their father lets Bianca go to the proms upon condition that Kat goes too. But she’s a wild one, and has never had a date in her life. Only that mad boy, Patrick, could perhaps be bribed into asking her out…

This scene stems from the beginning of the 1999 teen film Ten Things I Hate About You, featuring future Hollywood actors Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger in the leading roles. The film, however, is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s late sixteenth-century comedy The Taming of the Shrew in which a recalcitrant young woman, Katherine, is getting married off to a robust character, Petruchio, who starves her high spirits into wifely obedience. But Shakespeare’s piece is itself a spin-off of previous versions of the well-known theme of shrew-taming across diverse cultures, languages, and times. Scholars propose at least 400 of such stories in European literature alone, including oral versions, proverbs and story collections. Shakespeare’s play is among others inspired by an anonymous ballad called ‘A merry jest of a shrewd and cursed wife, lapped in Morrelles skin, for her good behaviour’ in which the husband cowers his wife by beating and wrapping her in his horse’ skin.


A Louis Rhead ink drawing of Katherine breaking a lute over the music master’s head, from a 1918 edition of Tales from Shakespeare

Modern audiences struggle with the physical and emotional violence of the tale, particularly in the case of Shakespeare whose celebration as moral paragon sits awkwardly with the seeming misogyny, racism, and anti-semitism of some of his plays such as The Shrew, Othello, and The Merchant of Venice. Critics either denounce or attempt to salvage the playwright from such charges, arguing he writes within the traditions and genre conventions of his time, indeed  wringing subtlety from them by pushing and pulling their limits. The Shrew, it is said, is a satire on domineering male behaviour, emerging from a social trend towards the romantic companionable rather than arranged marriage. That the inequalities suggested were unpalatable even to early modern sensitivities is, perhaps, shown by a play written as sequel to Shakespeare’s, The Tamer Tamed by John Fletcher: Petrucmisohio has bullied Katherine into the grave, re-marrying a supposedly mild young girl who turns out to be a wilder wife than the first. As in Shakespeare’s play, the couple eventually makes peace after many hilarious tricks played upon each other. As in Shakespeare’s play too, we’re left not entirely sure what to think, but that may just be the point.


A caricature by Williams from Caricature magazine (1815), entitled ‘Tameing a shrew; or, Petruchio’s patent family bedstead, gags and thumscrews.’

The Taming of the Shrew complicates the difficult business of “are we to take the misogyny seriously?” by setting it apart as play within the play. The piece doesn’t actually start with the shrew story but with a framing device: a drunkard is duped into believing he is a lord for whose amusement the story about wife-taming is being staged. It is introduced as farce, and we are supposed to laugh at what it so obviously proclaims.

        In production as in interpretation, much depends on Katherine’s final speech in which she berates disobedient wives, advertising the complete submission of women to men in marriage.

Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace;
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey. (Act 5, scene 2)

What sounds at first as almost intolerably cruel – the speech ends with Katherine’s offer to place her hand under her husband’s foot – may be a beautifully effective piece of subversion when staged: the 1967 Zeffirelli film with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton has Katherine storm out of the hall after her earnest speech, leaving Petruchio to run after her, severely casting doubt over just how tamed she is.


A pre-Raphaelite painting by Edward Robert Hughes from 1898 (‘The Shrew Katherina)

A fascinating response to this particular ambiguity of Shakespeare’s play is a seventeenth-century German version called The Art of all Arts: How to Make an Evil Wife Good. Between the 1590s and 1620s, English acting companies travelled across the continent, carrying with them numerous texts by Shakespeare and contemporaries. Some years later, these texts start to appear in, amongst others, Danish, Dutch, and German, sometimes closely attached to the originals, sometimes adapting them according to the theatrical traditions of the different cultures. There is, for example, the clown-figure called Pickleherring with whom seventeenth-century Germans would have been familiar with, dropping into the tragic Romeo and Juliet adaptation.

It is a mystery how these versions came into being: did the English actors learn German? Did they work with translators, or did they marry German women who helped them translate, or with whom they had children who spoke both languages? What is clear, however, is that these plays are an untapped source for insights into the Renaissance landscape of European theatre, attesting to a much more wide-spread exchange than we are aware of. They also bring us tantalizingly close to performance practices of Shakespeare’s own time, considering their date of printing a mere handful of years after the playwright’s death.

        I am part of a team at the University of Geneva that seeks to make early modern German plays available to an anglophone readership, and am re-translating The Art of All Arts into English. Differing attitudes to gender between the German and the English play are particularly striking: although The Art of All Arts does firmly anchor itself in the shrew-taming tradition (Socrates offers the prologue, lamenting his cursing wife Xanthippe), Katherine is accompanied by a robustly practical maid servant with whom she holds conversations that reveal her thoughts about the situation, a privileged access to her situation lacking in Shakespeare. Her final speech also receives radical treatment in shrinking from some 46 lines expatiating on female obedience to a bare two:

This I want to tell us briefly:

You men, love your wives. And you women, obey your husbands (Act 5).

This ‘lesson’, though ambiguous and performance-dependent it is, shifts the poetic weight onto both men and women in the audience through its memorable parallelism. The translator’s decision to cut a speech that crowns the play, particularly considering the sometimes close verbal echoes to the original, is a stunning circumstance which encourages a revision of charges of misogyny with which we encounter early modern ideas of gender.

Today, it seems, we still have not quite outgrown a taste in shrew-taming: films and musicals, notably Cole Porter’s Kiss me Kate, evidence a sustained interest in the subject, if only, perhaps, because it puts under pressure what we think we know about gender relationships. Little known Shrew versions like The Art of All Arts will contribute to complicating and nuancing our notions of marriage in the Renaissance, as well as today.


Sitting in the dark: the importance of light in theatre

I’ve spent a lot of the past year sitting in the dark – literally. For people who work in theatre, this may come as no surprise. In the eight years I spent working full-time as a lighting assistant/production electrician, I could quite easily go for three or four days in a row without seeing any sunlight. I’ve often thought it odd that the people who “create” light for live performance, people who use light as their primary creative medium, spend so much time in the dark. If you’re unfamiliar with the theatre production process, here’s a (very brief and very simplified!) rundown:
In most regional and London producing theatres, work on a production begins about four to six months prior to the first preview. This can be significantly longer on larger shows, particularly those in the West End. About a week before the first preview, the cast, director, and design team move into the theatre space itself to start technical rehearsals. By this stage, the set has been built, costumes made, lights and speakers rigged, etc. The technical rehearsal is the start of what is called the production week (also known as “hell week” in some American theatres on account of the long days). Technical rehearsals are the only time the entire company is together in the performance space, and they are – as the name suggests – focused primarily on the technical and design elements of a production. Technical rehearsals are often very “stop and start” as cues, scene changes, costume changes, etc. are run multiple times until all parties are comfortable. Once the whole production is worked through in this manner, this is followed by a dress rehearsal (often two or three, plus notes sessions) before the first public performance.

The lighting designer

For a lighting designer, the first day of technical rehearsals is often the most difficult. All of the lighting designer’s pre-production research, the conversations they have had with the designer, director and theatre’s head of lighting, and the plans they have drawn and had implemented by the theatre’s lighting department converge on this day, and there is enormous pressure on the lighting designer to “get it right” – funding situations in most UK theatres are such that time, money and resources are at a premium and at this point there is not enough of any of those to start over or make significant changes. This pressure is compounded by the fact that lighting is the sole visual design element that can only be created in the performance space. During the pre-production period, set designers produce a scale modelbox, alongside technical drawings, sketches and storyboards, and costume designers may use artistic drawings in conjunction with fabric swatches, for example, to help articulate their process and creative ideas. For both set and costume design, the actual product is built over several weeks and can be seen as a work-in-progress during this time. Moreover, the materials of set and costume design are tangible and the work can be observed, commented on, tweaked and refined outside and, crucially, before entering the actual performance space. Similar comparisons and tools do not exist for lighting designers. Computer visualisation software may be used; however, these programs rarely provide the detail needed to fully explain, describe or develop the potential of light outside a performance space.
In addition, these days tend to involve the most negotiation and adjustment as creative teams (especially the lighting designer) learn to navigate the “language” and “grammar” of a production, while also refining the spoken language and grammar they use to articulate it. It is this process that my research focuses on. How do lighting designers use language to articulate ideas about light and lighting, a material and a process that is largely intangible? How do they additionally use language to exercise agency and exert influence in situations of creative collaboration?

My research

To answer these questions, I sit in the dark, behind the lighting designer, armed with two recording devices. One of these records the ambient conversation, usually between the director or designer and the lighting designer. The other records the conversation on “cans” (UK theatre slang for the headsets worn by all members of the design and technical teams to facilitate conversation without having to resort to shouting backstage!).
The darkness provides an ideal environment for conducting my fieldwork. Even though I am acting as an “overt insider” (Merton, 1972; Greene, 2014), the darkness makes it possible for me to fade into the background and remain largely unnoticed by the people I am observing – which is simultaneously useful and disconcerting. There is something anonymising about the dark, but it can also be quite liberating. There’s plenty of interesting research on audience behaviour and fascinating studies on people’s behaviour generally in the dark — but for now, I’ll just say what an illuminating (see what I did there?) experience sitting in the dark has been!
Greene, M.J. 2014. On the inside looking in: methodological insights and challenges in conducting qualitative insider research. The Qualitative Report. 19(How To Article 15), pp.1–13.
Merton, R.K. 1972. Insiders and outsiders: a chapter in the sociology of knowledge.American Journal of Sociology. 78(1), pp.9–47.

Sitting with strangers and touching stomach soap: Reseaching Performance Art in Eastern Europe

by Dr. Amy Bryzgel

Imagine you walk into a stranger’s home and he shows you pictures of his stomach being operated on — skin pulled back, a layer of fat being removed. “I took the fat from my stomach, and made a soap from it — here, feel it,” he says, as he takes a piece of soap from the drawer and shows it to me. “Does anyone know I’m here?” I think to myself, “should I be here? Is this dangerous?”

Bryzgel - Albania

Amy Bryzgel meets with artists from the artistic and activist group Montenegrin Alternative Culture, Podgorica, June 2013

A few weeks later, I found myself in another stranger’s home. “Would you like a beer?” he asks. I take a sip from a freshly poured beer and he shows me some pictures. “Here, I tried to urinate into my mouth, and when I couldn’t, I urinated into my hand and drank it.” “Was this really beer on the table?” I thought to myself.

This is my research. For two years, I traveled across Eastern Europe, to 21 countries and countless more cities, and met with over 250 artists, curators, art historians, and arts practitioners to gather research for my forthcoming book, Performance Art in Eastern Europe since 1960.

The man who had his stomach operated on is Zoran Todorović. He is contemporary artist from Serbia, and I met with him to talk about his art. He made the soap for a work called Agalma, the title being a reference to a Greek word meaning gift, and the work was a gesture of intimacy with his viewers—at the exhibition of the work, which documented the surgery and making of soap, he invited visitors to wash their hands with the soap. At one exhibition, visitors were given the opportunity to be bathed with the soap, by two curators, in a private room. The man who urinated into his hand is Siniša Labrović. This performance is called Perpetuum Mobile, and refers to the current position of artists in the neoliberal system, where artists struggle to make a living for themselves. Labrović created a way to be self-sustaining, by creating a performance that enabled him to feed himself

2.31.2 Todorovic-Agalma performance dokumentation photo - Beograd 2003

Zoran Todorovic, Agalma, documentation of performance, Belgrade, 2003. Courtesy of the artist

During the communist period in Eastern Europe, performance art—live art created by visual artists, also known as body art, live art, action art—usually developed unofficially. Painting and sculpture, the traditional art forms, were under government control, and were usually employed in the service of the state. Depending on the country in question, the state’s control over art varied. We are familiar with the propaganda paintings and cult of personality busts and statues from the former Soviet Union, however, in places such as Yugoslavia and Poland, artists had a bit more leeway. Artists were able to create experimental art in artist-run or student venues, but not in official state-run galleries, museums and institutions. Still, performance art was never really recognised as a legitimate art form as it was in Western Europe and North America, and developed, for the most part, underground.

It is for that reason that I had to spend two years traveling through the region to meet with and talk to artists, to gather the oral histories to create a written history that had not yet been written. How did the genre develop? Why did artists create performances? How did they create them? These were the questions I asked. I met with artists who worked both during the communist period and who are working now (and some artists whose work spans both the communist and post-communist periods), in order to gauge how the art form has developed before, during and since the transition.

As an undergraduate student in art history at Boston University in the 1990s, I rarely, if ever, encountered an artist from Eastern Europe in my courses. In fact, I would dare to say that I didn’t encounter one contemporary artist from the region in either my courses or my textbooks. For various reasons, the art of Eastern Europe was largely omitted from the history of art. During the Cold War, travel to the region was difficult, and most scholars lacked the language skills to do primary source research. Those who did would have found few, if any, primary sources for their research, because the state controlled the art history discourse as well. And with most art in the service of the state, the meaning was not open to interpretation—all art served the state ideology of building socialism. So while experimental art in the region developed underground, art history as a discipline was stalled, and art historians have been playing catch-up since the 1990s.


As a 3rd generation American with Polish roots, the omission of Eastern European artists from my discipline was personal. So I set out to fill this gap in my later research. Studying performance and body art from the region not only worked to fill a lamentable gap in the literature of 20th century and contemporary art, but also provides insight into the social and cultural conditions of late socialism in the region. Analysing the range of activities that were allowed and prohibited, where and when, has served as a litmus test for the limits of freedom in state sponsored socialism. For example, Yugoslav Croatia has a strong tradition of street art, public actions and performances in the 1970s and 1980s, yet this type of public display was virtually absent from the public sphere in Bucharest, in Ceaușescu’s Romania at the same time. In 1981, Tomislav Gotovac walked down the main street of Zagreb, completely naked, shouting “Zagreb, I Love You!” in a performance entitled Lying Naked on the Asphalt, kissing the asphalt (Zagreb, I love you!). In Bucharest, however, artists such as Geta Brătescu and Ion Grigorescu created body art and performances in the privacy of their studios, documenting the performances through photography or film. While Gotovac was arrested for public nudity, he was given the minimal sentence, because the judge was understanding of his artistic intentions. In Bucharest, however, an artist even attempting such a display would have faced more serious consequences—so serious that no one even dared try. This is just one example of the different manner in which state-sponsored socialism was implemented across Eastern Europe.

Performance Art in Eastern Europe since 1960 will be the first comprehensive attempt to write the history, chronology and development of performance art in Eastern Europe.

It covers over 200 artists in 21 countries, working from the 1960s until today. It fills an unacceptable gap in the literature on performance and contemporary art, which traditionally only includes the history and development of performance art in Western Europe and North America. Beyond that, it tells a range of compelling stories of artists finding ways to create experimental art in unfavourable conditions—not only under censorship, but with a deficit of materials and support for their work. Putting this history together required months of travel to and through the “other side” of Europe, meetings with artists in their home, cafes, bars; numerous cups of coffee and glasses of beer, and hours of engaging conversation. And it was anything but boring.



by Lottie Whalen

‘On or about December 1910, human character changed’ Virginia Woolf famously suggested, as she considered the radical changes in art, everyday life, and human consciousness and perspective that appeared at the start of the twentieth century.

Likely 1910 stood out to Woolf as this was the year of Roger Fry’s exhibition ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’, which showcased work by Cezanne, van Gough, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso to a largely unimpressed London audience. However, many other dates stand out as significant moments in the cultural shift that we now broadly define as modernism – that radical, experimental turn taken by artists determined to break with the past and ‘make it new’. Three years after Fry’s exhibition, in 1913, the first Armory show – or International Exhibition of Modern Art – caused shockwaves in New York and marked a true watershed moment in the history of modern culture. The show brought works of Post-Impressionism, Cubism, and Dada to America for the first time, including ‘shocking’ pieces such as Henri Matisse’s Blue Nude and Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. Art critics, the media and the general public were all utterly baffled, bemused, and captivated by the spectacle. For literature, 1922 proved to be the crucial moment that high modernism truly came into its own: that year saw the publication of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned, and the first English translation of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu.


Portrait of Mina Loy, by Man Ray

We might also add 1915, the year when Others: a Magazine of the New Verse was first published in America. A modest edition at just 18 pages long, the first Others may have gone largely unnoticed if not for an experimental and daring sequence of verses by a certain Mina Loy: ‘Love Songs’.

Loy had already begun to make a name for herself, after her innovative poetry had appeared in a various notable avant-garde little magazines. Yet this poem provoked a scandal that propelled both her and the new forms of ‘free verse’ poetry into the public consciousness; suddenly everyone was talking about – and puzzling over – modernist poetry. Loy’s ‘Love Songs’ was variously praised and parodied in the press, and it even prompted the noted poet Amy Lowell to withdraw her involvement with Others in disgust. Unsurprisingly, Others’ editor Alfred Kreymborg was delighted with this publicity. The opening of the poem may have lost some of its shock value over the century since it first appeared, but its mix of earthy eroticism and sublime lyricism remains striking:

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 mucous membrane

I would   an eye in a Bengal light

Eternity in a sky-rocket

Constellations in an ocean

Whose rivers run no fresher

Than a trickle of saliva

These are suspect places

Two years later, in 1917, the New York Evening Sun newspaper declared Loy to be the archetypal ‘modern woman’: intellectual, sexually liberated, well dressed and cosmopolitan. She had arrived in New York via several stop offs at various European cities. Born in London in 1882, she left to study art in Munich, and then Paris. After moving to Florence, she became involved with the Futurism movement and had affairs with their leaders F. T. Marinetti and Giovanni Papini. When she moved to New York in 1916, she was already known to avant-garde circles thanks, in part, to the ‘Love Songs’ scandal; as such, she quickly found herself mixing with the likes of Marcel Duchamp and William Carlos Williams in the art collector Walter Arensberg’s Greenwich Village salon.

She would leave the city to marry the enigmatic Dada poet Arthur Cravan in South America (in 1918) and, after his mysterious disappearance the same year, spend the 1920s in Paris, a regular face among the avant-garde crowd. As the outbreak of World War Two became inevitable, she returned to New York, where she wrote poems and made assemblage artworks inspired by the homeless bums who congregated around the Bowery.


ca. 1926, Paris, France — Peggy Guggenheim (standing), well-known American society girl who recently joined the ranks of young American business women in Paris, opened a lamp shop with famous British artist Mina Loy (seated) in the heart of the French capital. — Image by © Underwood & Underwood/Corbis

Over the course of her travels through the capitals of modernity, Loy mixed with everyone who was anyone: Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Djuna Barnes, Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Ezra Pound, Peggy Guggenheim, Man Ray, and Joseph Cornell – to name just a few. Yet Loy was much more than a beautiful and witty guest at modernist parties and salons: as well as her talent for poetry, she was a skilled painter and a member of Paris’ prestigious Salon d’Automn, she made clothes and hats, wrote a novel, acted as a gallery agent, and designed lampshades, objet d’arts, and household objects. In 1920s Paris, she ran a short-lived but successful lampshade design business, with the financial backing of Peggy Guggenheim.

This leads me, finally, to my own research, which takes as its starting point the response to Loy’s ‘Love Songs’. In his autobiography, Kreymborg reflects on the scandal that the poem provoked, and suggests:

‘Had a man written these poems, the town might have viewed them with comparative comfort. But a woman wrote them, a woman who dressed like a lady and painted charming lampshades’.

He felt that the question that had perplexed the disgusted public was simple: ‘if [Loy] could dress like a lady, why couldn’t she write like one?’. Kreymborg’s comments reveal much more than simply the public’s reaction to a poem by Mina Loy. By highlighting the seeming incompatibility between the writer of sexualised, masculine free verse and the well-presented lady decorator, Kreymborg highlights the dichotomies that increasingly began to define the arts in the twentieth century. Applied arts and interior design were understood to be quaint, staid feminine activities, linked to bourgeois housewives and those concerned with taste and fashion – far removed, then, from the serious business of masculine high-art. It was not, Kreymborg suggests, the words on the page that offended people; after all, the same poem attributed to a male poet would have been accepted with ‘comparative comfort’. As modernism began increasingly to define itself, in critic Christopher Reed’s words, as ‘an heroic odyssey on the high seas of consciousness’, critics, artists and writers rushed to distance the defining work of the period from domesticity and the decorative. The serious business of modernism was men’s work and it did not happen at home.

Kreymborg’s patronising adjective, ‘charming’, also clearly points to the inferior status of the applied arts. Loy’s lampshades are seen as pretty trifles, the result of a quaint feminine hobby that one would expect a lady to engage in. This critical attitude has persisted: in a 1997 review of a biography of Loy and a new edition of her poems, Mark Ford claims that her ‘dilettantish approach to the various arts that appealed to her’ – that is, poetry, painting, collage, novels, and a ‘commercially successful’ design business – make ‘assessing her work a hazardous business’.


Assemblage by Mina Loy titled “Househunting” c.1950

Although Loy was by no means unique in her experimentation with different media, here the combination of gender and commerce prevent her from being considered a serious artist. Ford appears to fall back on the traditional stereotype that connects feminine craft to the trivial, the superficial and the merely decorative. Eighty years on from the ‘Love Songs’ scandal, Loy is still the beautiful, well-dressed creator of pretty lampshades who, consequently, cannot be assimilated in to the modernist canon.

However, this view overlooks the significant ways that these two creative practices (writing experimental poetry and making lampshades) interact with and inform one another. In Loy’s vision, light was synonymous with modernity: her early manifesto ‘Aphorisms on Futurism’ declares that ‘the Future is only dark from outside / Leap into it – and it EXPLODES with Light’. Her lampshades functioned like magic lanterns or cinema screens; they harnessed the power of electricity in order to transform domestic spaces in to the strange, enchanted scenes created in ‘Love Songs’, or the ‘stellectric’ illuminated cityscapes described in later poems. More than simply a way of making money, Loy’s lampshades expressed her creative vision in a different medium. In this way, we begin to see how Loy’s various activities (writing, painting, designing) form part of a wider aesthetic project that cuts across high art and middlebrow culture in an effort to bring art in to everyday life.

Through the process of reassessing Loy’s body of work, my research aims to reveal the peripheral spaces of female creativity – and the alternative strains of modernism – that existed outside of the dominant, masculine realm of high art.

Alongside Loy, I consider women such as Anni Albers and Sonia Delauney, pioneers of textile art, whose work influences aesthetics and art practises to this day; and the surrealist artist and writer Leonora Carrington, whose subversive work disrupts typical ideas of domesticity and homeliness, and foregrounds powerful forms of female creativity, collaboration and magic. Perhaps just as significant are the countless ordinary women who brought modernism and modern art in to everyday life through the clothes they wore and the way they decorated their homes. Although it continues to be an overlooked and underappreciated area, interior design and decorative arts provided women with an opportunity to shape the spaces of modernity and, in the process, forge new artistic identities. Understanding Loy’s transgressive artistic identity allows us to understand decoration and domesticity as vital yet hidden facets of modernity, and to move towards a greater appreciation of the female contribution to twentieth century art and culture.