Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity—A Cultural Biography
562 pp., 7 x 9 in, 90 illus., 16 color
- Published: August 29, 2003
- Published: May 3, 2002
The first biography of the enigmatic dadaist known as "the Baroness"—Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.
Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874–1927) is considered by many to be the first American dadaist as well as the mother of dada. An innovator in poetic form and an early creator of junk sculpture, "the Baroness" was best known for her sexually charged, often controversial performances. Some thought her merely crazed, others thought her a genius. The editor Margaret Anderson called her "perhaps the only figure of our generation who deserves the epithet extraordinary." Yet despite her great notoriety and influence, until recently her story and work have been little known outside the circle of modernist scholars.
In Baroness Elsa, Irene Gammel traces the extraordinary life and work of this daring woman, viewing her in the context of female dada and the historical battles fought by women in the early twentieth century. Striding through the streets of Berlin, Munich, New York, and Paris wearing such adornments as a tomato-soup can bra, teaspoon earrings, and black lipstick, the Baroness erased the boundaries between life and art, between the everyday and the outrageous, between the creative and the dangerous. Her art objects were precursors to dada objects of the teens and twenties, her sound and visual poetry were far more daring than those of the male modernists of her time, and her performances prefigured feminist body art and performance art by nearly half a century.
Irene Gammel's Baroness Elsa mounts an enthusiastic case for her as one of the great unsung modernists.
The Baroness could not have asked for a more thoughtful and engaged monument than Gammel's book.
The New York Times Book Review
An impressively researched biography about the most startling Dada woman personality ever to explode on the avant-garde scene in New York, Philadelphia, Berlin, and Paris, this book offers a new and invaluable perspective on several sides of that scene. The strong odor of scandal, far removed from many watered-down emulations of it, permeates every page. Crossing every erotic boundary, this Dada-gothic phenomenon called the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven lived the heartbreaking existence of a woman more than on the edge.
Mary Ann Caws, Distinguished Professor of English, French, and Comparative Literature, Graduate School, City University of New York
The Baroness cut the most compelling modernist figure. She literally wore New York dada, thus inventing it as a pattern of aesthetic costume to be worn so tight that it was her skin, her self. She was, as Irene Gammel puts it in this remarkable biographical study, an 'assemblage of paradoxes embodied in one body.' That the Baroness knew and inspired or inspiringly repelled nearly everyone associated with the rise of modernist practice in New York has been already part of the story, but it has never been so richly detailed. In Gammel's presentation the Baroness emerges as far more than an ingenue. She became a mature, self-conscious, dynamic, artistic force—and remarkably productive in her own right, not despite but because she exhausted herself from the inside out.
Alan Filreis, Class of 1942 Professor of English, University of Pennsylvania
Irene Gammel's Baroness Elsa is a thorough and measured rendition of a life that was anything but thorough and measured, and it bears witness not only to the trials and triumphs of a major woman artist but also a truism that never ceases to astound: that one small shift in historical perspective can yield a completely different (and much more interesting) story than the one we have always been told.
Shelley Rice, author of Parisian Views and editor of Inverted Odysseys: Maya Deren, Claude Cahun, Cindy Sherman
This book is a true discovery. To find the outer limits of avant-garde performance, we need not look forward, but back, for when it comes to boundary breaking and gender crossing, today's artists can find no more daring example than the long lost Baroness Elsa. Thanks to Irene Gammel's own unprecedented study, she is back.
Marina Abramovic, artist, Academy of Fine Arts, Braunschweig
Gammel successfully revivifies the life and work of this maverick feminist, who wrote evocative experimental poetry, constructed vibrant assemblage art, and enacted herself dramatically throughout the streets and salons of New York in the WWI period. She convincingly demonstrates the Baroness's impact as an original artist, poet, and performer of Dada. This book is a must for all scholars of literary modernism and the Dada movement, but is also terrifically entertaining to read.
Amelia Jones, Professor, Department of Art History, University of California, Riverside
In histories of early twentieth-century Euro-American avant-gardism, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven—poet, visual and performance artist—is often considered a freakish, eccentric, though fascinating personality on its margins. With Irene Gammel's meticulously researched and engaging biography, the Baroness finally takes her rightful place in the avant-garde's core.
Naomi Sawelson-Gorse, editor of Women in Dada: Essays on Sex, Gender, and Identity
Baroness Elsa presents a fascinating framework for Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven's participation in the constellations of international Dada. Gammel's cultural biography sustains the suspense of a mystery tale, revealing unexpected influences and conceptual interchange between major artists.
Carolee Schneemann, visual artist, author of Imaging Her Erotics: Essays, Interviews, Projects
As a language and performance artist, I have the highest respect for the early avant-garde and for dada artists. In Gammel's biography, the Baroness emerges as a truly groundbreaking force.
Scholars of modernism in its intersections with feminism and anticipations of post-modernism have long been fascinated by the idiosyncratic Baroness Elsa—body artist, multi-lingual poet, and tragic advocate for artistic and sexual freedom. Irene Gammel has written the book that we were waiting for: its exhaustive research, rich detail, and wide-ranging cultural critique place the Baroness in the company of her peers while honoring her uniqueness.
Carolyn Burke, author of Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy and Lee Miller: A Life
With perfect aim, Gammel lobs the Baroness Elsa like a hand grenade back into the melee over the nature and duration of the avant-garde legacy.
Marisa Januzzi Thomas, Institute for Research on Women and Gender, Columbia University