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According to Zox-Weaver, in her book’s first sentence, “This is not another book about Hitler.” Despite this disclaimer, Women Modernists and Fascism’s 200-plus pages richly detail the complex aesthetic and psychosexual dynamics that led filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, writer Gertrude Stein, journalist Janet Flanner, and photographer Lee Miller to identify with, as well as to exploit, deflate, or ironize attributes of Hitler’s charismatic authority. To be fair, while this book is not about Hitler, his singular presence, like the airplane in Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935), casts a long shadow, for Hitler’s advent not only occasions these women’s self-authorship, but also informs their modernist aesthetics and strategies for artistic self-promotion. While Zox-Weaver importantly deepens modernist scholarship on the visual politics of fascism and gender, her book more broadly provides a nuanced and sophisticated account of the technologies and cultural processes informing both Hitler’s iconicity and that of the modernist women who co-opted his charismatic authority for themselves.
In this ambitious book, each chapter’s genealogical approach establishes the important biographical, aesthetic, intellectual, and philosophical underpinnings informing each modernist’s treatment of fascist leadership, before providing substantive and satisfying close readings of primary visual and literary texts. Drawing on multiple print cultural archives, personal correspondence, photographs, and other unpublished materials, Zox-Weaver illuminates the many paradoxes inherent in these women’s identifications and dis-identifications with the fascist authoritarianism of Hitler, Hermann Göring, and Philippe Pétain.
The book’s contrapuntal design brings psychoanalysis, feminist film theory, and literary studies to bear on each modernist’s attractions [End Page 399] to fascism, as Zox-Weaver skillfully teases out the competing visual and textual rhetorics behind the manufacture of totalitarian authority. In so doing, Zox-Weaver draws out the tensions between the women modernists’ private and manufactured public selves as well as the complex artistic, political, and institutional allegiances they each negotiated (and transformed) in the process of constructing and managing their individual public images. The Marxist-psychoanalytic concept of the fetish—as both libidinous devotional object and sacralized commodity—informs much of Zox-Weaver’s analysis of the various ways in which these women modernists were willing victims, seduced by charismatic authoritarian power, while simultaneously aiding and abetting that power, even when they otherwise transgress or defamiliarize it in their work. Zox-Weaver exposes the degree to which these commercially successful women modernists who laid claim to fascism’s aggrandizing aesthetics were also complicit with its politics, thereby exposing the shifting grounds of fascist authority and the limits to both exposing and appropriating its power.
Each chapter is organized by a series of self-dramatizations that illuminates the spectacle of staging a public self. Zox-Weaver’s brilliant first chapter on Leni Riefenstahl’s iconic stature based on her semi-official role as Nazi propagandizer establishes the rigorous theoretical and critical groundwork for the entire book. Using Riefenstahl’s early film The Blue Light (1932) to establish the visual rhetoric and mythologizing strategies that later inform The Triumph of the Will, Zox-Weaver unpacks the complex psychology of identification and masochistic suffering that informed Reifenstahl’s memoir and sustained a broader Hitler cult. Riefenstahl’s genius for camera angle and visual geometry produced what we now think of as the familiar Hitler icon. In visual terms, Hitler’s body serves as the vector of meaning, his perspective functions as the film’s dominant point of view, with close-ups of Hitler that centrally position Reifenstahl as having authorized, privileged access. The book functions like a Cubist painting in that it fractures the Fürher’s monolithic unity (as well as the carefully crafted personae of her women modernists) by presenting multiple and conflicting internal and external points of view.
Each subsequent chapter therefore makes visible that dangerous line whereby fascination shades into moral contagion, where intimacy with and privileged access to dictators leads to dangerous proximity and complicity. The book’s second chapter on Stein, for example, extends recent scholarship on her conservative politics by exploring both...