Modern Muses

Nancy Cunard: Jazz Age Provocateur

In order to make use of the hundreds of biographies I’ve accumulated over the years, and to convince myself that idly flicking through countless magazines and photo books, and surfing the web ‘for inspiration’ is actually productive and not procrastination, I’ve decided to dedicate a little section of post-ism to the people who’ve inspired me throughout history and in contemporary real life.

So, here’s Weekly Muse, a dose of inspiration from women (and men) who’ve lived a life of uncompromising individuality, a life infused with style, passion and creativity, and have inspired countless around them. It’s an antidote to the banality of manufactured reality TV stars/celebutantes/celebrities/branded personalities thrust upon us.

This week, we’ll kick this off with Nancy Cunard.

Nancy Cunard by Man Ray 1926

Nancy Cunard by Man Ray 1926

The American poet, William Carlos Williams, called her “one of the major phenomena of history.” Her influence on the creative and cultural milieu she found herself in was remarkable, but still Nancy Cunard (10 March 1896 – 17 March 1965), writer, translator, publisher, and political activist, is probably one of the most famous ‘muses’ you’ve never heard of.

Born to the Cunard shipping fortune, the British heiress turned her back on the ‘hollow values’ of the world she grew up in, hotfooting it to Paris from London in the roaring 20s with the intention of becoming a writer. Once there Cunard became involved with literary Modernism, Surrealism and Dadaism, and herself became an icon of the avant-garde, embodying the spirit of her time.

The unflappable Jazz Age flapper became a bohemian (before it became a ‘thing’ with the jet set), patron, mistress, and muse to many of the writers and artists of the 20s and 30s, including: Aldous Huxley, Ezra Pound, Louis Aragon, Samuel Beckett, Wyndham Lewis, Constantin Brâncusi and Oskar Kokoschka. Her relationship with Huxley influenced several of his novels, including ‘Antic Hay’ (1923) in which she was the model for Myra Viveash, and ‘Point Counter Point’ (1928). T. S. Eliot put her in an early version of ‘The Waste Land’. Man Ray photographed her with her signature braceleted arms, and later in life the great Cecil Beaton snapped her still looking a figure of unconventional elegance. She inspired a smooth golden Brâncusi sculpture and a Kokoschka painting. But she was no mere passive subject, born to be adored and objectified. She was an accomplished writer and poet herself, as well as a progressive publisher. Through her small publishing company, Hours Press, she supported experimental poetry and published beautiful books by Samuel Beckett (in fact, she was the first to publish the writer), Laura Riding and Ezra Pound.

“I’ve always had the feeling, that everyone alive can do something that is worthwhile,” she once said. And she certainly did, tirelessly devoting her life to an exhausting list of causes she believed in. The 30s saw her attention and efforts turn to political activism. In defiance of the prejudices of her era and class, she became a fierce campaigner for equal rights in the US, devoting much of her time to fighting against racism. Her affair with a black American jazz pianist and sensitivity to racial injustice inspired her to edit and publish ‘Negro’ (1934), a 900-page anthology of black history and culture.

She campaigned against Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, and Franco’s coup in Spain. From Spain she wrote dispatches on the civil war for a handful of publications and organized the relief effort for Spanish refugees across the French border. In 1937, enlisting the help of a number of writers including including W. H. Auden, Tristan Tzara and Pablo Neruda, she published a series of pamphlets of war poetry.

Although toward the end of her life Cunard, penniless and suffering from mental illness exacerbated by heavy drinking, became a tragic shadow of her former self, looking at this remarkable woman’s life we witness her involvement in and influence on some of the most significant events and movements of the first half of the 20th century. Today her spirit of rebellion and her distinct style, with African bracelets stacked up to her elbow, her cropped blonde hair, and black rimmed blue eyes, lives on in the works of the writers, artists and photographers she inspired.

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Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

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