Dada queen--Irene Gammel's Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity. (Essays)

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Author: Linda Lappin
Date: Spring 2003
From: The Literary Review(Vol. 46, Issue 3)
Publisher: Fairleigh Dickinson University
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,515 words

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Recent feminist readings of modern art history have emphasized the dynamic role of women in promoting, financing, and documenting Dadaism in the US. Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, editors of The Little Review, were among the first to publish Dada poetry and artwork, Katherine Dreir financed Marcel Duchamp; Peggy Guggenheim provided generous funds to several artists connected to the movement; photographer Berenice Abbot recorded the artists' faces and environments in her photographs. The confrontational spirit of Dada attracted many women artists as well, including Suzanne Duchamp and Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. Despite the important contribution of these and other women to the Dada movement as patrons and artists, their achievements were frequently underestimated by their male colleagues and have hence been overlooked by art historians. Feminist scholarship has brought one of these neglected figures to light again: Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, whose work was "rediscovered" by the public in 1996 thanks to the Whitney Exhibition, "Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York," which featured several of her pieces. Now hailed as America's Dada queen and the great aunt of contemporary performance art, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven is the subject of an exhaustive cultural biography.

Irene Gammel's biography is the only comprehensive biography to date of this enigmatic woman--artist, poet, and model--who flits and, at times, streaks naked through the memoirs, correspondence, and artwork of many artists and writers of the period: Man Ray, Margaret Anderson, Jane Heap, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Marcel Duchamp, Berenice Abbot, and Hart Crane. Before the arrival of Gammel's book, published sources concerning the Baroness were mainly limited to these period memoirs, concentrating on her New York phase, 1913-1923, when Elsa earned her living as an artists' model and was chiefly known for her eye-opening "art-to-wear" costumes.

Tall, slim, stern-featured, with a haughty bearing and a dancer's grace, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven strutted the New York streets and popped in at public events with her head shaved and shellacked in vermillion, postage stamps glued to her cheek, a brassiere made of tomato cans and string, a coal scuttle clapped like a helmet to her head, a dress made of a crepe stolen from an undertaker. Margaret Anderson recorded this description in her autobiography, My Thirty Years' War:

She wore a red Scotch plaid suit with a kilt hanging just below the knees, a bolero jacket with sleeves to the elbows and arms covered with a quantity of ten-cent-store bracelets--silver, gilt, bronze, green and yellow. She wore high white spats with a band of decorative furniture braid around the top. Hanging from her bust were two tea-balls from which the nickel had worn away. On her head was a black velvet tam o' shanter with a feather and several spoons--long ice-cream soda spoons ... (240-241).

The Baroness created these astonishing costumes from rubbish picked up in the street, or odds and ends pilfered from the dime store, for which she was frequently arrested, spending weeks at a time in "the Tombs," the New York jail. The source of materials...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A102206590