- Women Modernists and Fascism
Annalisa Zox-Weaver’s Women Modernists and Fascism opens engagingly, with the assertion that “This is not another book about Hitler” (1). It might, rather, be called a book around Hitler and other fascist leaders, notably Hermann Göring and Philippe Pétain, in which Zox-Weaver examines the work of four women artists for whom Hitler served “as a haunting muse figure” (2). She thus expands on books like Laura Frost’s Sex Drives (2001), Robin Pickering-Iazzi’s Politics of the Visible (1997), and my own Thinking Fascism (1998), all of which tried to complicate our understanding of fascism, aesthetics, and gender by suggesting that women modernists—like their male colleagues—appropriated, rebelled against, celebrated, and/or parodied fascist ideology and iconography in ways that cannot be easily subsumed into the categories of “resistance” or “collaboration.” To that literature we can now add this original and intriguing book, in which Zox-Weaver argues that filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, writers Gertrude Stein and Janet Flanner, and photographer Lee Miller consolidated their own identities and authority as artists through complex negotiations with the figure of the Führer in their work.
Zox-Weaver is—happily, in my view—not all that interested in fascism’s or fascists’ powers of erotic seduction; instead, she claims that “identification trumps desire” in the four cases she examines (10). In the fascist leader’s self-fashioning as icon of authority, his literally spectacular self-representation as pure embodied will, these women artists found both “a methodology and a mirror” (194). Working with archival materials such as letters and journals as well as published sources, Zox-Weaver is able to show how even for avowed anti-fascists like Flanner and Miller, “the move to identify with or incorporate Hitler is, among other things, a strategic bid for volitional representation by what is monumental and supremely empowered” (4–5). [End Page 820]
The study begins with a chapter on Nazi propagandist filmmaker Riefenstahl, the only non-American of the four and the one most obviously identified and complicit with Hitler, whose iconography she helped to define in films like Triumph of the Will and Olympia. Riefenstahl’s formally dazzling technique first established Hitler’s image as a charismatic and loving father to the German Volk. Then, after the collapse of his regime, that innovative technical prowess served as Riefenstahl’s alibi: she had never really been interested in politics, she disingenuously claimed, but only in the aesthetic possibilities afforded by the mass rallies and spectacles of National Socialism.
The three American women Zox-Weaver discusses also saw in their responses to Hitler and other fascist leaders “the possibility of establishing their own creative and intellectual agency” (5). But rather than helping to generate an image of fascist totality as Reiefenstahl had, Zox-Weaver argues that Stein, Flanner, and Miller “dissected” it (5), dismembering, projecting, reanimating, and appropriating the image of the Führer. Such appropriations were sometimes startlingly literal, as when Lee Miller (the fashion model turned surrealist muse and then wartime photojournalist) allowed herself to be photographed in 1945 sitting naked in Hitler’s bathtub, disheveled, tired, and un-made-up. The jarring image undoes Miller’s own status as one of the reigning beauties of the day at the same time that it mocks the iconic photograph of the dictator that is perched next to her on the bathtub’s rim. Literally occupying Hitler’s space, Miller displaces both him and herself from the visual roles they had each inhabited, offering “a skeptical appraisal of the icon’s ability to fulfill the many projections it promises” (158).
Stein, too, moved into Hitler’s space after the Nazis’ defeat; in the photo that appears on the book jacket, she stands on the terrace of Hitler’s house at Berchtesgaden making what appears, at first glance, to be the Nazi salute. Zox-Weaver notes that Stein evinced a lifelong fascination with authoritarian male leaders, identifying herself and her own authority as an artist with figures like Caesar and Napoleon. As...