Dada's Mama

Baroness Elsa makes Vanessa Beecroft's chorus line of vaginas and Karen Finley's canned-yam act look downright dull. She showed up at the bitter end of the 19th century with her antennae tuned to the music of some distant future and made her life into an anarchic performance. Marcel Duchamp, Ezra Pound, Djuna Barnes, and Ernest Hemingway all saw something visionary in her; some called her the mother of Dada. So how come no one remembers Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven?

Irene Gammel's Baroness Elsa mounts an enthusiastic case for her as one of the great unsung modernists. Elsa's aesthetic was virulently uncompromising and explicitly anti-commercial: She made sculptures out of fragments salvaged from the gutter and crafted poetry from linguistic flotsam and jetsam. But most of all she was a walking performance piece too explosive for her times. Little Review editor Margaret Anderson offered a glimpse of the baroness's shambolic style: "Her head: shaved and occasionally shellacked in striking colors like vermillion red. Her makeup: yellow face powder, black lipstick, and an American stamp on her cheek. . . . An electric battery taillight decorates the bustle of her black dress in imitation of a car or bicycle."

Elsa Plötz was born in 1874 in Prussia, and by age 20 she was working as an "erotic artist" at Berlin's Wintergarten vaudeville theater, grooving on her own budding exhibitionist tendencies. Androgynous but also boy-crazy, she quickly penetrated the Berlin avant-garde by screwing her way through a circle of pretty male aesthetes dedicated to revolutionizing German culture. Elsa briefly became the group's model and inspiration before moving to Munich, where she infiltrated a milieu of male feminists who worshiped ancient female power and cross-dressed.

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Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity
By Irene Gammel
MIT Press, 521 pp., $39.95
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Elsa was an unconventional muse. Neither passive nor pretty, her androgyny confounded traditional expectations of femininity. She played this role throughout her life for various movements, despite her caustic personality: "Males' fascination with Elsa Plötz was mingled with fear and dread; her sex partners routinely reacted with impotence or sexual withdrawal." By the time she reached New York in 1913, she had already been married three times—the last to a baron who died in WW I, leaving her a title but no cash.

Elsa's desires were rampant but puzzling—she had a penchant for gay men and others who didn't reciprocate, and she stalked her reluctant targets with the unselfconscious ferocity of a tiger in heat. One of those pursued was poet William Carlos Williams, but Elsa's attempts at seduction sent him into a panic. Williams supposedly taught himself to box in self-defense and "flattened her with a stiff punch in the mouth" when he met her on the street one day. (She got revenge, damning him in an 11-page prose poem as a "wobbly-legged business satchel carrying little louse.") Years later, Williams admitted, "She was courageous to an insane degree. I found myself drinking pure water from her spirit."

Marcel Duchamp was another failed conquest and compadre. Elsa was already in the habit of making accessories and sculptures from trash before she met him in 1915—the very year he coined the term "ready-made"—and Gammel collects all kinds of speculative evidence to support her supposition that Elsa was "R. Mutt," the pseudonymous female friend who supposedly sent Duchamp his famous urinal. Even if this were true, Duchamp is the one who defined a pissing pedestal as art and who wove sophisticated theory around the everyday object.

Baroness Elsa provokes (but doesn't answer) some crucial questions about the nature of authorship and modern art. How much should we credit the proto-gesture, the intention, when modern art is all about the framing and the discourse surrounding the art? There's real pathos in Gammel's attempts to trace Elsa's influence on the avant-garde. She declares that Elsa was braver than more celebrated Dadaists because she transferred her performances from the stage to everyday life. There are countless examples of Elsa's drive to skewer convention, even when it had life-wrecking consequences. Ford Madox Ford recalls a meeting he organized to prevent her expulsion from France; she turned up at the British Embassy "dressed in a brassiere of milktins . . . wearing on her head a plum-cake." Not surprisingly, she was banished and spent several destitute years back in Berlin selling newspapers on street corners.

Elsa's will to disrupt and offend didn't help her career any, but the main reason she hasn't been canonized or rehabilitated until now is that the work itself is so hard to categorize. She made a handful of very good sculptures with found objects and wrote a lot of experimental, sub-Gertrude Steinian poetry. But her originality is largely rooted in the way she lived her life, which retrospectively looks like an early precursor to modern performance artists from Carolee Schneeman to Karen Finley, though Elsa never called her actions performances and never profited from them.

Unfortunately, Gammel's otherwise fascinating book is marred by unnecessarily histrionic hyperbole; she is continually arguing her case for Elsa as "a daringly original artist, a crusader for beauty, as well as a catalyst and an agent provocateur." (In the same paragraph, she also christens her "the quintessential Amazonian warrior in the modernist war against Victorianism.") After recounting an anecdote in which Elsa rubs a newspaper clipping about Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase over her nude body in front of a friend, Gammel declares this "her pioneering act in New York that would effectively give birth to . . . performative dada."

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.

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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