BARONESS ELSA: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity—a Cultural Biography

Irene Gammel, Author, Gisela Baronin Freytag V. Loringhoven, Afterword by
Irene Gammel, Author, Gisela Baronin Freytag V. Loringhoven, Afterword by . MIT $39.95 (568p) ISBN 978-0-262-07231-1
Reviewed on: 04/08/2002
Release date: 05/01/2002
Hardcover - 571 pages - 978-0-262-27343-5
Paperback - 561 pages - 978-0-262-57215-6
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The ongoing feminist refashioning of the dada movement's history continues with this large, detailed and well-researched book, the first biography of the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874–1927), one of dada's most daring and prescient figures. A poet, sculptor, painter and possibly the first practitioner of what came to be called "body art," the baroness (as she was known to all following a brief marriage to a bona fide aristocrat) cut a remarkable swath through the bohemias of New York and Paris between the turn of the century and the roaring '20s. Fearless and relentless in her pursuit of pleasure and cultural disruption, she would appear (here in 90 b&w illustrations of her person and work) with long, lean body virtually nude; shaved head decorated with feathers and long ice cream spoons for earrings; declaiming the urgent collage of her poetry; virtually stalking such intrigued but terrified figures as William Carlos Williams; and fashioning ready-made sculptures from the most humble of materials. The achievements of such a mercurial being are hard to assess (the phrase "you had to be there" comes to mind for many of her performances), and Gammel, professor of English at the University of Prince Edward Island, shows an unfortunate overeagerness to incorporate into the baroness's artistic project what often seems merely erratic behavior. The latter's kleptomania, exhibitionism and anti-Semitism are easily made to fit into a postmodern critical vocabulary, but often this seems more like special pleading than useful argument. Gammel's prose can be pedestrian and cliché-ridden; at one point, figures "plunge" into various activities three times in five pages. All of the basic information is here, however (along with a few of the baroness's hard-to-find poems), and the vast trough of notes will be invaluable for the scholarship this pioneer deserves. (May)

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