Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity--A Cultural Biography

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Overview

Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874-1927) is considered by many to be the firstAmerican dadaist as well as the mother of dada. An innovator in poetic form and an early creator of junk sculpture, "the Baroness" was best known for her sexually charged, often controversial performances. Some thought her merely crazed, others thought her a genius. The editor MargaretAnderson called her "perhaps the only figure of our generation who deserves the epithet extraordinary." Yet despite her great notoriety and influence, until recently her story and work have been little known outside the circle of modernist scholars.In Baroness Elsa, Irene Gammel traces the extraordinary life and work of this daring woman, viewing her in the context of female dada and the historical battles fought by women in the early twentieth century. Striding through the streets of Berlin, Munich, New York, and Paris wearing such adornments as a tomato-soup can bra,teaspoon earrings, and black lipstick, the Baroness erased the boundaries between life and art,between the everyday and the outrageous, between the creative and the dangerous. Her art objects were precursors to dada objects of the teens and twenties, her sound and visual poetry were far more daring than those of the male modernists of her time, and her performances prefigured feminist body art and performance art by nearly half a century.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Irene Gammel's Baroness Elsa mounts an enthusiastic case for her as one of the great unsung modernists." Joy Press Village Voice

"The Baroness could not have asked for a more thoughtful and engaged monument thanGammel's book." Holland Cotter New York Times

"The Baroness could not have asked for a more thoughtful and engaged monument thanGammel's book... a dense, passionate book." Holland Cotter The New York Times Book Review

Publishers Weekly
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 clich -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) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
One of the early innovators of the Dada movement, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874-1927) a.k.a. the Baroness has remained in relative obscurity until the publication of this biography, the result of intensive research by Gammel (English, Univ. of Prince Edward Island). Born in a German-Polish border town, the Baroness moved within a vast interconnecting circle of writers, artists, and social innovators in Europe and the United States, including Djuna Barnes, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and others. As an artist, she made startling collages and sculptures from found objects, metals, fabrics, and other varied materials, and her poetry was filled with the unconventional tone for which she was noted. As an individual, she pushed sexual boundaries beyond comfortable limits, lacquered her shaved head with vermilion, and wore tomato soup cans as a bra all generations before punk, performance art, and Andy Warhol. Although her unhappy childhood, early artistic and Dada expressions, and countless unorthodox sexual exploits are presented with scholarly precision and certainly illuminate her personality, it is the later chapters such as the one connecting her with William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound that most satisfyingly blend personal, artistic/intellectual, and social contexts. Gammel's work prompts readers to ponder whether the Baroness was a groundbreaking modernist, feminist, dadaist, artist, or merely a true eccentric of her time. Recommended for libraries with large collections on modern art and popular culture. Carol J. Binkowski, Bloomfield, NJ Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780262572156
  • Publisher: MIT Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2003
  • Pages: 561
  • Product dimensions: 7.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.35 (d)

Meet the Author

Irene Gammel is Canada Research Chair in Modern Literature and Culture at Ryerson University,Toronto, where she directs the Modern Literature and Culture Research Centre. She is the author ofBaroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity (MIT Press).

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


By 1906, at age thirty-one, Elsa Plötz's early life (from age eleven to eighteen) had already inspired a thinly veiled biographical novel: Maurermeister Ihles Haus (The master masons house), written by Felix Paul Greve, one of Germany's leading and most prolific literary translators and Elsa's common-law husband since May 1904. On 16 March 1906, Greve wrote a letter to André Gide, not to offer his services as translator to the French novelist but to proudly announce his own fiction publication, his second novel. By 1909 Maurermeister was in its second edition. Ironically, this novel gained retrospective notoriety in 1978, when its discovery by Canadian literary scholar Douglas O. Spettigue revealed the German identity of Canadian Governor General's award-winner Frederick Philip Grove, who had successfully deceived Canadians about his true identity as Felix Paul Greve. The novel's topic, Greve wrote to Gide, was the study of an "unconscious Übermensch" ("une sorte de Übermensch inconscient"), "a wild animal turned bourgeois" ("une bête fauve devenue bourgeois")—not a very flattering description of Elsa Plötz's father. The novel takes enormous risks, for it exposes the Plötz's family problems, the names of its characters explicitly referring to members of Elsa's family in Swinemünde. Even the novel's title was suggestive of what was to come. The Plötz residence housed a theater of aggression, and Greve's male perspective, sometimes critical and at other times complicitous with his male protagonist, wrestles with giving expression tothe abusive family context.

    Our knowledge of Elsa's childhood is fragmentary and incomplete, however, since we have no direct third-person testimonies from childhood friends, siblings, teachers, or other acquaintances. What we know is based largely on the Baroness's own autoanalysis, her retrospective insight into her own childhood through memoirs, poetry, and novels. In her memoirs she recalled that when living with Greve, "I had already begun to write a 'Story of My Childhood'—for sheer ennui—urge of an own inner occupation—interest." The Baroness retold her childhood story to Margaret Anderson, to Jane Heap, and even to her friend-foe William Carlos Williams during the early 1920s, when she was in her forties and living in New York. Other letters exploring her childhood date from 1923 to 1925, when she was in her early fifties, living in poverty in Berlin. These letters, as well as her memoirs, reflect her rage at her father for having disinherited her.

    While these sources admittedly present us with the Baroness's personal biases, she displays an impressive truthfulness and accuracy in factual details that focus on psychological turning points and provide vivid memory pictures. The tension at home strangely contrasts with the pastoral images of her island home. Yet Swinemünde was also a Prussian military town, a base for marines and land troops, with its downtown garrison (Kaserne) and Kommandantur. Under its new Polish name, Swinoujscie, this town presently marks the Polish border, a symbolic signpost for post-World War II territorial divisions: the neighboring towns of Stralsund and Anklam remain in Germany, and the towns of Stargard and Stettin now belong to Poland. Because of the town's strategic military location, it endured devastating destruction during the war, and few of the buildings that Elsa would have seen on her daily promenades remain. Here Elsa and her sister grew up during a watershed period that took the Victorian age to the cusp of modernity.

    In 1874, the hot July sun and the heather- and marigold-covered dunes near the Baltic Sea made Swinemünde a paradise for children on vacation (figure 1.1). Tourists sauntered along the beaches, happy to catch a breeze in the summer heat, the women's long skirts trailing in the sun-glowing sand. Attractively situated on a group of East Sea islands including Usedom and Wollin at the mouth of the River Swine (pronounced Swena), Swinemünde was an idyllic island community with a characteristic small-island sense of deeply rooted locale, while just 200 kilometers away Germany's brand-new capital, Berlin, provided a whiff of a more cosmopolitan world. Here Else Hildegard Plötz was born on 12 July 1874 in her "father's own house" on Kleine Marktstrasse 5 (today Jósefa Bema), a centrally located street seen on the left in a 1930 photograph of Kleiner Markt (Plac Wolnosci) (figure 1.2). Elsa's home was located just a few houses further down from the large corner building (Kleine Marktstrasse 1) seen on the left. On 11 August, the baptism took place in the Evangelische Kirche in the presence of her three godparents: the sculptor Franz Stiebler (from Stettin), the architect Wilhelm Schindler (from Swinemünde), and her maternal grandmother, Constanze Kleist, née Runge. Elsa was the elder of two daughters; her sister Charlotte Louise was born on 10 November 1875.

    In a rare memory picture the Baroness takes us on a promenade through her Swinemünde childhood haunts. "In the marketplace of my own town, that small seaport of my birth, I used to slink close to Hostile Market house walls—past the only friend Beckoning Pharmacy—sadness of smalltown holiday dusk" she recalls. Since Kleine Marktstrasse was an extension of Lotsenstrasse (Karola Swierczewskiego), Greve's identification of Suse Ihle's (Elsa's) home on "Obere Lotsenstrasse" was remarkably accurate, as was his entire description of Swinemünde. From Kleine Marktstrasse, we accompany her to the true heart of this Baltic sea-town home: the river with its beautifully picturesque bulwark (Bollwerk) (figure 1.3), a marina that could not be imagined any more poetical, as Theodor Fontane (1819-1898) wrote in his childhood memoir Meine Kinderjahre (1893). Germany's foremost realist writer spent his boyhood in the same marketplace pharmacy that the young Elsa passed every day on her way to school. He described the steamships that came and went on their way to Stettin, then Pomerania's capital. Marine officers, seamen from foreign countries, and soldiers wandered the streets, giving this town a faintly exotic cosmopolitanism. The sensuality and earthiness of this Baltic seashore were remarkable: Fontane recalled the freezing of the river in the winter, the spring thawing, the fall storms, and the Saturnalian festivals that included an annual slaughter of geese and pigs, a grim task generally carried out by the "slaughter priestesses" (Schlachtpriesterinnen). This late-night, Gothic death spectacle was a powerful memory for him, while the Baroness was more realistically blunt: "My father loved animals—But naturally, we slaughtered pigs. That's what the pig is for." For Elsa, this Pomeranian world of horses, dogs, geese, and seabirds developed her love for nature, animals, and the water.

    By all accounts, Elsa's father, Adolf Julius Wilhelm Plötz (1845-1923), was a handsome man with a magnetic personality: virile, muscular, with light blue eyes, blond curls, and a full reddish beard; romantically dashing with his large hat and cigar smoking; and tearfully sentimental in his pleas for forgiveness after his "bad boy" transgressions. The youngest of three children, he was born in small-town Anklam, a picturesque city at Germany's eastern border, where he was baptised in the attractive thirteenth-century St. Marien church (figure 1.4). Rising fast from his low social background, he was an important mover and shaker in Swinemünde, a maverick entrepreneur, builder, and contractor. The title of Maurermeister (master mason) accompanies him like an epithet in the Swinemünde address book, while his quickly accumulated list of properties reads like the road map of a monopoly game—an impressively modern villa on the beach, his own home on Kleine Marktstrasse, as well as a large hotel built in 1900. By 1890, he was listed as a city councillor (Stadtverordneter), rubbing shoulders with the community's leading businessmen, professionals, and consuls. Their meetings took place near the harbor in the old town hall built in 1806 with its beautiful bell tower added in 1839 (figure 1.5). One of the few buildings to have survived the war, this architectural heritage site now functions as a museum.

    Socially Adolf Plötz had come a long way, his success all the more remarkable as he had to live down the dark legacy of scandalous family violence. His father, Friedrich Wilhelm Plötz, also a Maurermeister, was a heavy drinker, whose alcoholism was blamed on his irascible wife, Friederike Wilhelmine Plötz, neé Zilligus, a bookbinder's daughter who was rumoured to be an avaricious kleptomaniac. The two had married in July 1841, just one month before the birth of their eldest son, Richard. According to family lore, one day Friedrich Plötz attacked Friederike with an axe but was stopped from killing her by the intervention of the teenage Adolf, who took the weapon out of his father's hands. The episode split the family, as father and son left for Russia to make money. Here Adolf was presented with yet another twist in his inauspicious family saga, when his father deserted him, disappearing forever, yet not before adding insult to injury by stealing his son's money. Penniless, Adolf returned to Pomerania, settled in Swinemünde, and threw himself into building his career at the very opportune time when Germany's economy began to boom during the Bismarck years. And around 1872 he fell in love with the refined beauty and sensuality of Ida-Marie Kleist, his complementary opposite.

    Born in Stargard, a small-town south of Anklam and Swinemünde, Ida Kleist (1849-1892) was sensitive and spiritual (feingebildet), a woman of "strange culture and beauty," who had been brought up by her widowed mother "within the near radius of Goethe and his time, aiming to become a musician by choice and gift." Ida's mother, Constanze Kleist (1815-1876), herself raised in a high-school teacher's family, had instilled in her daughters the values of Bildung, elegance, and social grace. Inspiring respect rather than love, Constanze was an impressively strong and strong-willed family matriarch but was also convention bound and constant—true to her name. She was the pillar who held the family together even in the face of calamity.

    The young family's tragic tale can be gleaned from the crossed-out Kleist names in the Stargard town register (figure 1.6). Elsa's grandfather, Franz Karl Kleist (1806-1864), a baker, had lost his first wife, Amalie Louise, on 2 October 1846, a few months after she had given birth to Maria Elise Franziska (born 18 April 1846). Left with the responsibility of caring for two young children and running his bakery, widower Kleist swiftly married Constanze Runge in what their granddaughter, the Baroness, described as a match of convenience. They had three children (Georg, Ida, and Hedwig), but doom continued to haunt them. In 1858, Ida's young sister, Hedwig Franziska Kleist, died at age four. And on 8 June 1864, at age fifty-eight, Franz Karl Kleist, a gentle soul and dreamer, committed suicide, leaving his family impoverished. Ida was just fourteen years old but regarded the suicide in highly romantic fashion, passing on to her daughters a cherished fable about her father's tragic clash with bourgeois life, a fable that the Baroness summarized like this: "My mother's father shot himself for melancholia—life embitterness—and he had a business and family well founded. Something broke in him—for he was not made for a bourgeois file—after all these years it broke out. He was an orphan of impoverished Polish nobility adopted by prosperous tradespeople—they had a bakery." For the Baroness's retrospective fable of identity, her parents' marital divide—Adolf Teutonic, bourgeois, nouveau rich; Ida Polish, noble, impoverished—was deeply emblematic for a violent culture clash. "My mother—as I recall her now—and know—was entirely Slavic-Polish," the Baroness wrote. "She had that sweetness and intensity—passionate temperament." More than merely temperamental, she alluded here to a cultural split, Nietzsche's polemical critique of the bourgeois Teuton who is incapable of appreciating cultural expressions.

    Defying the doom of her family's history, Ida Kleist daringly opted for love—and chose Adolf Plötz's joie de vivre and promise of good income to the Kleist's tradition of culture, nobility, and poverty. To Constanze, her boisterous future son-in-law must have seemed like the proverbial bull in the china shop. Yet the couple's sexual chemistry and Ida's gentle revolt triumphed over her mother's fierce resistance. She gave her blessing to the marriage but kept a close eye on Adolf, whom she did not trust. Had the formidable Constanze lived longer, Elsa's young history might well have turned out very differently. But just a few months after Ida gave birth to Elsa's sister Charlotte, and only six months after Ida's only brother, Georg Theodor Kleist, died at age twenty-seven, Constanze passed away on 2 April 1876.

    With Constanze Kleist's protection gone, Ida and Adolf Plötz's marriage began to disintegrate. "You broke every promise—[as soon as] she was cold in her grave," says Ida to her husband in "Coachrider," the Baroness's 1924 autobiographical prose poem, as the Baroness dramatically ventriloquized Ida's marital lament, even using Ida's first name: "He—he even forbade me the piano—except for silly past time—so—I gave it up entirely—Now I can't—can't anymore." A heavy drinker like his father, Adolf blithely continued his bachelor habits of nightly sprees and inebriation, while Ida refused to join his "coarse amusements" with his rich friends and their "vulgar wives." Withdrawing into her secret world of books—Heinrich Heine, Friedrich Schiller, Karl Maria von Weber, and Goethe—she routinely commandeered her reluctant daughters as audience for her dramatic enactments. Subversive and forbidden, Ida's world of books became a separate sphere with its own rules and subterfuges carefully hidden from her husband. Entrapped in unhappy marriage bonds, Ida now ironically took refuge in her mother's stoical marital discipline, complaining but never rebelling against her fate. At the same time, Ida raised Elsa and Charlotte without any conventional restrictions, being very "soft" and overly indulgent in her daughters' upbringing. Elsa was a spoilt princess, yet she was also hypersensitive, introspective, daydreaming, easily upset, and prone to nightmares and explosive weeping fits. On the home front, however, Ida was not able to protect herself, let alone protect her children. The family chemistry was toxic.

    In her poem "Analytical Chemistry of Fruit," the Baroness sardonically described herself as the "brilliant offspring" of "a thousand-year-old marriage manure," attributing her highly charged temperament to her parents' bad marriage. One of Elsa's earliest memory pictures concerns a quarrel that pitted her anticlerical father against her religious mother. Ida was trying to teach the two girls a "formal prayer to be recited before going to bed," and Adolf fiercely opposed the idea. "As long as the children are young, there can be no harm in praying. It will give them a sense of order," reasoned Ida. To which Adolf replied with a crude joke: "Just like going for a pee before bed." To drive home his point that indulgent spirituality was dangerous, he brutally listed all the disasters in Ida's family, including her father's suicide and her uncle's overzealous Catholicism that led to his losing his job. Adolf ended by proclaiming his atheism: "There is no soul." Ida called him a "barbarian," but the religious battle was lost. Adolf refused to go to church, although he did pay his church taxes so as not to offend business clients. Already Elsa was "scandalously [antireligious]" just like her father. "We were impious people—scoffing at church—religion—!," as the Baroness recalled for Barnes. "Not my mother—except that she had—to ease up—from her strict—stern—of course—'comme il faut' religious upbringing." Elsa zoomed in on God as her target for pranks, religion a favorite area of testing and contesting social boundaries and figures of authority: "I was on bad terms with god privately anyway—since long—I scorned a silly thing like that—making animals [but] not taking them into heaven—when often they had such short life—as it was—being mostly eaten." This was also the time of Bismarck's anti-Catholic crusade (Kulturkampf) that would eventually entail the aggressive expulsion of the Jesuits from Prussia.

(Continues...)


Excerpted from Baroness Elsa by Irene Gammel. Copyright © 2002 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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