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Modernism/modernity 10.3 (2003) 582-584
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Baroness Elsa. Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity. A Cultural Biography. Irene Gammel. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002. Pp. 24 + 534. $39.95 (cloth).
Most of what we know about the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874-1927) is limited to the ten year period, 1913-1923, during which she involved herself in the social and artistic activities around Greenwich Village designated as New York Dada. The concentration on this period of her life is due, in part, to the Baroness's own growth as an artist, which accelerated during her time among the Arensberg circle and the Little Review crowd (it was in New York, in fact, that Elsa Plötz met and married Baron Leopold von Freytag-Loringhoven, becoming, in turn, New York Dada's first and most notorious outlaw-artist aristocrat). The Baroness's development also took place amongst such artists and editors who later recorded their versions of American modernism through the writing of memoir (Margaret Anderson, George Biddle, Man Ray, W. C. Williams). These accounts of the Baroness's outrageous exploits have been re-inscribed through quotation in the many biographies and cultural studies of modernism that have issued forth in the past fifteen years or so.
By calling her study "a cultural biography," Irene Gammel hopes to make the strongest case possible for the Baroness Elsa's importance to the historical moment of radical modernism. That is, just as the Baroness sought to collapse the space between the notion of art as such and the arena of life, so Gammel wishes to collapse the distinctions between a singular life-story and a cultural history straddling two centuries and two continents. The form of "cultural biography" has also become a useful one for scholars of modernism, generally, who wish to revise a history that has neglected important women such as Mina Loy, Juliette Roche, Florine Stettheimer, and Katherine Dreier. These biographical trails are broken and have grown cold as a result, in part, of the difficulty of being female in a masculine arena.
Elsa Plötz's difficulties began in childhood. Her bourgeois, nouveau riche, German father was strict, overbearing, and physically violent, while her Polish mother was sweet, noble, indulgent, and incapable of protecting herself or her children against the father's rages. The result was a traumatized youth from which Elsa emerged having rejected the mother's "female" strategies of "slyness and withdrawal" in favor of the "masculine open fight" (34). Elsa's androgyny is fixed, in this account, in response to family conflict; Gammel suggests that Elsa's psychological reaction to an explosive family life is also linked to the collective trauma of the Great War and the various artistic reflexes of an entire generation.
Elsa's story unfolds, then, as a narrative of switched gender identities triggered by distress. Gammel links this sexual ambiguity with Elsa's proclivity for psychological unraveling, a result of her mother's eventual madness (for which the father sent her to a sanatorium). While the combative father stands as a gendered type Elsa seems to have adopted as proto-dada warrior, she combines it with the model of the mother as a kind of crazy anti-artist, who had given up feminine "handiwork" for strange assemblages that "spoiled elegant material with cheap trash" (42). Elsa's adoption of masculinity, we discover, was not an anomaly, for it fed into the tributaries of New Woman sexuality: her boldness and independence encouraged her to find work as a chorus girl in fin-de-siècle Berlin. Further adventures in the sexual theater led to flirtations with lesbianism, the adoption of a trendy monocle, and an affair with the Jugendstil artist Melchior Lechter, who was a member of the esoteric homo-social circle of poet-dandy Stefan George.
If it was within the George circle that Elsa first became a subject for art (through her modeling), it was there, as well, that she began to sense a male avant-garde's sentimental, conventional notion of women. Much as Mina Loy would confront...