Dada's Mama

There are more convincing examples of Elsa's groundbreaking performances in the book: Djuna Barnes recalls that the baroness made a plaster cast of a penis and then showed it "to all the 'old maids' she came in contact with." She also snuck into a 9th Street art gallery attached to a department store and re-hung the paintings sideways or upside down to protest the commercialization of art. Hugo Ball described Dada's mission as to "conceive everyday life in such a way as to retrieve it from its modern state of colonization by the commodity form," and Elsa clearly lived it.


Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity
By Irene Gammel
MIT Press, 521 pp., $39.95
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The biography's strongest argument for a legacy is that Elsa was a catalyst. She was a walking, talking spectacle who defied propriety and sexism, who looked for beauty and pleasure where she could find it, and who alienated nearly all of her supporters with her demon tongue. She was an original thinker who influenced some of the most creative minds of the 20th century, and that ought to be enough for Gammel, and for us. But then Baroness Elsa was an inscrutable and troubling figure throughout her life, so why should she cause any less confusion in death?

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