Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity, by Irene Gammel. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 472 pages. $39.95. BUY NOW


The German Dada poet and artist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven had an extreme effect on people: Berenice Abbott placed her "somewhere between Shakespeare and Jesus"; William Carlos Williams punched her in the mouth; and, though he admired her eccentric costumes, Wallace Stevens was reluctant to go below Fourteenth Street in Manhattan for fear of running into her.

In this compelling but overreaching biography, scholar Irene Gammel makes a case for the baroness as a protofeminist artist who "fantasized an entirely new artistic and sexual landscape, while openly confronting the real world of censorship, birth control, sexual sociability" (whatever that means), and "lack of female pleasure" (in sex). Gammel fails to prove that Elsa was a catalyst for New York Dada, mainly because the baroness's artistic outputˇpoems, found sculptures, and pageantlike "performances"ˇwas so small, her vision so vague, and the documentation of her work so scanty.

But Elsa doesn't need the Dada credentials Gammel so desperately wants her to have: She was an original regardless. She once presented herself as an artist's model wearing a hat trimmed with vegetables and a bra made of tomato cans, strung up with a birdcage (canary included). Williams described a sculpture she made that "appeared to be chicken guts, possibly imitated in wax." Her 1917 readymade God (cocreated with Morton Schamberg) was, Gammel writes, "a twist of cast-iron bowels mounted on a miter box and pointing to heaven." She was a punk and a crank and a crackpot whose story is worth telling whether she was, as some called her, "the mother of Dada" or not.

Born to a violent, hard-drinking father and a cowed, bookish mother in Germany in 1874, Elsa Pl÷tz was sexually preoccupied from a young age. When her mother died in 1893, she left her seaside hometown of SwinemŘnde for Berlin, where she became an "erotic artist" in a vaudeville show, exulting in her newfound sexual identity: "I began to know what 'life' meantˇevery night another man. . . . I was intoxicated." Ironically, she was a sexual revolutionary who couldn't get satisfied: She pursued various gay and sexually blocked men until 1913, when she moved to New York and married the voracious Baron von Freytag-Loringhoven. A year later he enlisted in the German army and disappeared from her life.

This is when Elsa's tenure as an artist begins. In Berlin and then Munich, she had served as muse and model, experimented with androgyny and exhibitionism, and committed what Gammel somewhat grandiosely calls "gender acts" (forcing her way, for example, into an exhibit of phallusesˇforbidden to womenˇat a museum in Naples). "By December 1915," writes Gammel, "the Baroness was performing herself." Once, after she had befriended but failed to seduce Duchamp, a friend brought her a newspaper clipping showing his Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912, and she rubbed it all over her body, reciting a poem: "Marcel, Marcel, I love you like Hell, Marcel." Gammel sees more than high jinks in this spectacle:

Tired of waiting for Marcel to respond to her love call, she was effectively "intercoursing" with the elusive artist through the body of his work. This autoerotic act slyly alluded to Duchamp's recent abandonment of traditional painting, for he had dismissed it as "olfactive masturbation." But even more important, the Baroness, a nude model herself, was charging her body as artwork. Using the era's most famous artwork as a cheeky sex toy in this autoerotic performance act, she ingeniously turned the viewer's attention away from Duchamp's abstract representation of the Nude to her living body as work of art, an art charged with kinetic energy, presenting her original kinesthetic Dadaˇa truly new form of art.

  1 | 2 | Next>>