Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

Biography project: Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

Gammel, Irene. Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity — A Cultural Biography. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003. eBook edition.

Irene Gammel looks at the Baroness’s life through an art history lens, with the thesis that her real-life interventions (wearing live birds and postage stamps, participation in art films) serve as not just personal but artistic acts. The Baroness transformed the trajectory of Dada, Gammel argues, not just in her writing or her sculpture, but in the way that she “erased the boundaries between art and life.” The book is divided both into parts and into chapters, with each of three parts representing concepts that influenced the Baroness’s personal development (“Psychogenesis of a Dada Personality,” “New York Dada”), and chapters reflecting more specific influences, such as “The Little Review and its Dada Fuse, 1918-1921.” Gammel appears to be the ranking expert on the Baroness’s life, and this book is an exhaustive look at her life and its intersections with Dadaist development. I can cross-reference dates and common places within (such as the Arensberg apartment/salon) with Carolyn Burke’s biography of Loy to find places of commonality. Other works listed below can offer more critically-focused takes on the Baroness’s art and writing, but this biography will be a solid starting point for looking at the Baroness’s life and her place within the New York Dada scene.

 

Jones, Amelia. Irrational Modernism: A Neurasthenic History of New York Dada. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. eBook edition.

In this book, Amelia Jones aims to change our conception of the Baroness’s role in the New York Dada movement. She was more than just a side or participatory figure, Jones argues: she was actually a focal point, a physically embodied site where the movement’s aims converged in a single radical personage. von Freytag-Loringhoven’s body, Jones notes, did more than just “epitomize” the physicality of the artistic movement: in her performance and lived experience, the Baroness “radically disrupted [Dada’s] movement from inside and out” (4). As such, Jones reconstructs the history of the movement using the Baroness as a focal point. The Baroness, Jones argues, was more than a participating member of the movement: she became a site for its many anxieties, especially ones about gender and the backlash that can follow the rejection of gender norms. This book, in contrast with Linda Lappin’s article below, focuses mainly on the Baroness’s sculptural and artistic works. In later chapters, Jones focuses on the effects of the Great War on Dada art production, the image of the machine in Dada art, and the relation between artist and city; therefore, the first chapter will be of most use to me, although Jones uses the final chapter to reflect on the power of the Baroness’ figure as a mechanism for disruption, not just during her life but also as we look back on the art movements in which she participated.

 

Lappin, Linda. “Dada Queen in the Bad Boys’ Club.” Southwest Review, vol. 89, no. 2/3, 2004, pp. 307-319). Web.

This article takes issue with the way women have traditionally been depicted as participants in the Dadaist movement: when women have gained access to the “bad boys’” club, according to our historical narratives, it was only as a muse and never as an active participant. Lappin argues that the Baroness should be included in these exclusive ranks not just because of her sculptural work (which includes a seminal piece called god, for which she has recently been given credit,) or her convention-defying poetry, but because of her personal habits in dress and composure, which amounted to an early form of performance art. After spending the first part of the article establishing von Freytag-Loringhoven’s historical persona, Lappin analyzes the Baroness through the lens of the members of the “bad boys’ club” of Dada with whom she had contact. Lappin speculates that some of her work’s relative lack of longevity or publicity came from the lack of support she received from these men, many of whom were personally repulsed by her distinctive and unabashed public persona. Although this article does not directly address Mina Loy, I think the way Lappin frames biography through a socio-cultural lens here could be useful in thinking about gender interactions within the New York Dada community.

 

Mamadada. Directed by Lily Benson and Cassandra Guan, contributions by Leslie Allison, Raoul Anchondo, et al. Independently released, 2013.

In this creative intervention in the spirit of the Baroness’ own challenging artistic and literary works, a group of over fifty artists have come together to make a collective artistic biography of the Baroness.. Described as a “biodrama based on an inadequate history,” the film screened at the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival in November of 2013. Each participant was invited to make their own fragmented biographic content based on whichever part of the Baroness’s life they chose: the resulting film is a combination of animated passages, biopic-style acting, and a recreation of the famous Man Ray/Duchamp film “Elsa, Baroness von Freitag-Loringhoven, Shaving Her Pubic Hair,” which was damaged and lost to history. Not only do these artistic interventions work in the disruptive spirit of the Baroness to tell her story, but they also complicate it: one director describes the way the film’s “myriad of contemporary feminist voices confront the viewer with more questions than answers.” Obviously, this is not a traditional biographical work, and I do not intend to use it for help with dates or specific quotations. Nevertheless, I think that artistic response to a biographical history is both valid and important, especially in the case of a figure such as the Baroness, who spent so much of her life consciously resisting simple figuration, whether in terms of her gender presentation, her artistic work, or her interpersonal interactions. Although only a trailer is freely available on the website, I intend to use the still images provided and as much of the film as I am able to find in order to construct a fuller and more visual picture of the Baroness’s life and works.

Informational page: http://www.mamadada.info/

 

Miller, Christianne. “Tongues ‘loosened in the melting pot:” The Poets of Others and the Lower East Side.” Modernism/modernity, vol. 14, no. 3, 2007, pp. 455-476. Web.

Miller begins this article by announcing a departure from current studies of race within modernism: rather than look at the dichotomy between the experience and work of the white vs. African or African-American artist, Miller looks at the Jewish immigrant experience. Loy herself was of Jewish background, and the Baroness’s German heritage complicates the question of eugenicist and anti-Semitic strains of thinking evident in both of these women’s writings, either poetry or personal. Mina Loy herself credited the mixing of languages and cultures in this Lower East Side “ghetto” of New York with the advent of Modernist poetry. This article has a specific critical stance, so its usefulness for strict biographical data will be less than that of other texts such as Gammel’s biography. Nevertheless, this marks an important instance of an author bringing Loy and the Baroness together in critical conversation, even if the article does mention Loy much more than the Baroness. Additionally, the eugenicist facets of Modernist thinking and writing are an aspect of the time period we have a responsibility not to gloss over or ignore, so I plan to bring this focus on even the aspects of the Baroness’s thinking that I do not agree with into my biography project.

 

Voyce, Stephen. “‘Make the World Your Salon’: Poetry and Community at the Arensberg Apartment.” Modernism/modernity, vol. 15, no. 4, 2008, pp. 627-646. Web (excerpted).

Since very little critical scholarship focuses on the intersection of Loy and the Baroness’s creative work, this article marks a useful point of commonality for me: the intersection of these two women’s lives through an analysis of a salon that they both attended. Though Voyce is careful to “guard against facile celebrations of pluralism,” he has a decidedly positive tone when describing these gatherings. Salons such as the Arensberg apartment, Voyce argues, were a place for female artists and writers to come together to “facilitate […] collective aesthetic change” (627.) In the light of other articles such as Lappin’s, which describe the Baroness as a figure more or less cut off from personal and artistic support within the New York Dada community, this article will be a useful way to position the Baroness within the community.

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