- Rosmarin Heidenreich (Author)
Baroness Elsa. Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity: A Cultural Biography. MIT (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Rosmarin Heidenreich
With her shaved and lacquered head, tomato-can brassieres, teaspoon earrings and coal scuttle hats, Baroness Eisa von Freytag-Loringhofen made an indelible impression when she burst upon the art scene in New York’s Greenwich Village. That she was a powerful influence on the American modernist avant-garde of the early twentieth century is well documented: she was promoted by Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, editors of the Little Review, who published Elsa’s sexually explicit and esoterically encoded poems in spite of opposition. Other supporters were writers as diverse as Djuna Barnes and Ernest Hemingway. Berenice Abbott and Man Ray produced photographic portraits of Eisa in her stunning costumes; Ezra Pound praised "Eisa Kassandra, ’the baroness / von Freytag,’" in his Cantos, and William Carlos Williams said he drank "pure water from her spirit." Thanks to Irene Gammel’s splendid "cultural biography," the role of the extraordi nary baroness in exploding the various boundaries that defined art, writing, and gender at the beginning of the twentieth century can now be clearly understood and fully appreciated.
Although she is often designated as "the mother of dada" in America, the Baroness’s dada inventions actually preceded the first dada performances in Zurich’s Café Voltaire. Gammel makes a strong case that with her aggressive sexuality and playful, witty sculptures, assemblages, and poetry the Baroness was actually subverting the conventions of high modernism upon the proponents of which she exerted such a powerful influence. With the androgynous sexual identity she exhibited in her "performances," in her use of found objects, and in her cryptic, cross-cultural allusiveness, Gammel sees the Baroness rather as a precursor of postmodernism, transgressing the established borders of gender and genre, life and art.
In Canadian studies, "Baroness Eisa" became known in the 1970s when Douglas O. Spettigue identified her as the one-time wife of the Canadian novelist Frederick Philip Grove, who, in his former identity as the German writer and translator Felix Paul Grève, had written two romans à clef describing the extraordinary life of the former Else Plôtz. As Gammel recounts it, Else’s life was as remarkable as her groundbreaking art.
Born in the Baltic coastal town of Swinemunde, Else escaped her problematic family by running away to Berlin, where she lived a colourful bohemian life as a model and chorus girl before entering the artistic circle around art nouveau artist Melchior Lechter.
Grève first met Else in a Munich salon, when she was married to the art nouveau architect August Endell, a marriage which soon ended due to Greve’s and Else’s passionate affair. Despairing of ever being able to escape crushing debts and grinding poverty, Grève faked a suicide in 1909 and went to America, where Else joined him a year later. Little was known about the couple’s life together in the new world until Klaus Martens’s recent biographical research on Grève alias Grove unearthed a wealth of new material that sheds some light on this period. We know that in 1911 Greve/Grove abandoned Else (whom he had married while they were still in Germany) in Kentucky, while he himself turned up in Manitoba. A year later, Else settled in New York.
Intimately connected with the avant-garde circles of Munich and Berlin, exposed to the major contemporary literary movements of all of Europe through her liaison with Greve/Grove, Else, who had begun writing herself, would seem to have been well equipped to make her way in New York’s literary world. But she had daunting handicaps: "I spoke no English, had no working skills, was arrogant, and was considered crazy," she says in marginal notes made on one of her sheets of poetry. Abandoned and destitute, she married the German Baron von Freytag-Loringhofen, who soon returned to Germany to serve as an officer in World War I, committing suicide after the war.
In spite of his title, the Baron had been destitute, and "the Baroness," as she was now known, subsisted on the meagre fees she earned from modelling in art studios and on hand-outs from artists and supporters. The originality and intensity of her own art may have won her a prominent place in the memoirs of many famous artists and writers as well as the undisputed title of New York dada queen, but it did not earn her any money. When many of her American benefactors established themselves in Europe, her poverty became desperate. A campaign for donations from artists and writers enabled her to return to Europe. She went first to Berlin and then to Paris, where she died in her apartment of gas asphyxiation, possibly a suicide.
Gammers meticulously researched and eloquently written book not only chronicles the vie mouvementée of the Baroness herself, but also defines and interconnects the diverse art movements on both sides of the Atlantic that gave rise to contemporary postmodernism. For Canadian readers, given Elsa’s one-time relationship with Frederick Philip Grove, the book offers the added bonus of illuminating the life and European milieu of one of Canada’s most famous and mysterious novelists.
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MLA: Heidenreich, Rosmarin. Baroness Elsa. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #180 (Spring 2004), (Montgomery, Carson, Bissoondath, Goodridge). (pg. 133 - 134)
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