Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven
July 12, 1874|
Swinemünde, Province of Pomerania, German Empire
December 15, 1927 (aged 53)|
Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874–1927) was a German avant-garde, Dadaist artist and poet who worked for several years in Greenwich Village, New York. She has been claimed as the originator of Fountain, usually ascribed to Marcel Duchamp.
Life and work
The Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven was born Elsa Hildegard Plötz. Raised by a sensitive, religious mother and an abusive father in a bourgeois home, she ran away at the age of eighteen to live with her aunt in Berlin. She worked as a chorus girl, studied acting and art, and took various lovers. After her second husband abandoned her in Kentucky, she found her way to New York, where in 1913 she married the German aristocrat Baron Leopold von Freytag-Loringhoven. The baron was on an extended leave of absence from the German military. In 1914 he left the United States to return to Germany, and the ship on which he sailed on was captured by the French; he spent four years in a French prison before he committed suicide. Although now a baroness, Elsa was left penniless.
Baroness Elsa became well-known in Greenwich Village for what she called her "fanciful artistic clothes." Wearing a coal scuttle or wastepaper basket for a hat, she ornamented her dresses with objects and materials she found on the street or stole from Woolworth's, including tin children's toys, gilded vegetables, tea balls, curtain rings, and an electric battery light rigged as a bustle. Destitute and sometimes homeless, she was arrested more than once for trying to bathe in public fountains and was notorious for her lewd sexual assaults, which she perpetrated on the likes of the American writers William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. Her pleasure posing nude allowed her to earn money as an artist's model at the Art Students League. In 1921 the American poet Hart Crane, responding to the publication New York Dada, wrote to a friend about the baroness: "I like the way the discovery has been made that she has all along been, unconsciously, a Dadaist. I cannot figure out just what Dadaism is. ... But if the Baroness is to be a keystone for it--then I think I can possibly know when it is coming and how to avoid it."
Among those claiming Baroness Elsa for Dada was the avant-garde literary and arts magazine The Little Review, which in 1920 asserted that "Paris has had Dada for five years, and we have had Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven for not quite two years. But great minds think alike. ..." Over the course of her stay in New York, Baroness Elsa made several objects that have come to be considered Dada works and was the star of a film Marcel Duchamp made in collaboration with Man Ray called The Baroness Shaves Her Pubic Hair.
Elsa had an almost obsessive penchant for Duchamp, of whom she wrote, "Marcel, Marcel, I love you like Hell, Marcel." Her portrait of him, which consisted of a wine glass stuffed full of trinkets and feathers, was photographed by Charles Sheeler, who also took a picture of the sculpture God. An assemblage made by attaching a plumbing trap to a block of wood, God was long assumed to be a collaborative work by baroness Elsa and Morton Schamberg. However, given the austere and somber tone of Schamberg's extant works, it is now considered more likely that the idea for the sculpture originated with the baroness, although she probably had help mounting it to its base. Limbswish, another sculpture attributed to the baroness, was originally a body ornament constructed of a metal spring and a large curtain tassel outfitted to hang from her hip.
In 1923 Baroness Elsa borrowed money to return to Germany. There she lived in abject poverty, selling newspapers on the street and residing in a charity home. While suffering chronic anxiety attacks and thoughts of suicide, she stayed briefly at a mental clinic. She wrote constantly to her American friends, of whom her closest friend and supporter was the novelist Djuna Barnes. In the spring of 1926 Elsa was finally able to obtain a visa to move to Paris. She opened a modeling agency, but it was shut down by French immigration authorities. She died when the gas was left on overnight in her new apartment. (Source)
- Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, eds. Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelazo, MIT Press, 2011.
- Eliza Jane Reilly, "Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven", Woman's Art Journal 18:1 (Spring-Summer 1997), pp 26-33.
- Irene Gammel, Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity: A Cultural Biography, MIT Press, 2002.