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Elsa Hildegard Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven (née Plötz; 12 July 1874 – 15 December 1927) was a German avant-garde, Dadaist artist and poet who worked for several years in Greenwich Village, New York. Artist Liv Schulman created a series of films: Le Goubernement, a six-episode fiction imagining the destiny and work of women, lesbian, queer, trans and non-binary artists who lived in Paris from 1910 – 1980. The episodes traverses and overlay over 70 years of history and hosts the stories and fate of artists that were erased from the great twentieth century modernist narrative including Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.
Her provocative poetry was published posthumously in 2011 in Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. The New York Times praised the book as one of the notable art books of 2011.
Elsa Plötz was born in Swinemünde in Pomerania, Germany, to Adolf Plötz, a mason, and Ida Marie Kleist. Her relationship with her father was temperamental—she emphasized how controlling he was in the family, as well as how cruel, yet big-hearted he was. She related the ways that political structures promote masculine authority figures in family settings, functioning as a means of maintaining the state's patriarchal societal order of which even the patriarch is submissive to, to her father’s behavior. Her discontent with her father’s hegemonic masculine control may have fostered her anti-patriarchal activist approach to life. On the other hand, the relationship that she had with her mother was full of admiration—her mother’s craft involving the repurposing of found objects could have spawned Freytag-Loringhoven’s utilization of street debris/found objects in her own artworks. She trained and worked as an actress and vaudeville performer and had numerous affairs with artists in Berlin, Munich and Italy. She studied art in Dachau, near Munich.
Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. Photo by Man Ray.
She married Berlin-based architect August Endell in a civil service on August 22, 1901 in Berlin, becoming Elsa Endell. They had an "open relationship", and in 1902 she became romantically involved with a friend of Endell's, the minor poet and translator Felix Paul Greve (who later went by the name Frederick Philip Grove). After the trio travelled together to Palermo, Sicily in late January 1903, the Endells' marriage disintegrated. and they divorced in 1906. Although their separation was acrimonious, she dedicated several satirical poems to Endell. In 1906, she and Greve returned to Berlin, where they were married on August 22, 1907.
By 1909, Greve was in deep financial trouble. With his wife's help, he staged a suicide and departed for North America in late July 1909. In July 1910, Else joined him in the United States, where they operated a small farm in Sparta, Kentucky, not far from Cincinnati. Greve suddenly deserted her in 1911 and went west to a bonanza farm near Fargo, North Dakota, and to Manitoba in 1912. There are no records of a divorce from Greve. She started modeling for artists in Cincinnati, and made her way east via West Virginia and Philadelphia, before she married her third husband, the German Baron Leopold von Freytag-Loringhoven (son of Hugo von Freytag-Loringhoven), in November 1913 in New York. There, she became known as "the dadaist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven".
The Baroness’s eccentric persona made her a distinctive figure in the New York Dada scene, and she overlapped with Mina Loy in attendance at salons such as that of Louise Arensberg. Although the two women were closer to famous men of the movement than to each other, both proved key figures for the Dada movement; at the height of the Ulysses obscenity trial, the editors of The Little Review planned an issue featuring Loy and the Baroness “as a defense of Art.” The women were photographed together by Man Ray for this issue. Although the Baroness was a prolific sculptor and frequently contributed poetry to little magazines such as The Little Review (alongside Loy), her most important contribution to Dadaism was the character of the Baroness herself; many credit her as an early pioneer of performance art.
In New York City, Freytag-Loringhoven supported herself by working in a cigarette factory and by posing as a model for artists such as Louis Bouché, George Biddle, and Man Ray. She also appeared in works by Man Ray, George Grantham Bain and others; lithography by George Biddle; and paintings by Theresa Bernstein.
The Baroness was given a platform for her poetry in The Little Review, where, starting in 1918, her work was featured alongside chapters of James Joyce's Ulysses. Jane Heap considered the Baroness "the first American dada." She was an early female pioneer of sound poetry, but also made creative use of the dash, while many of her portmanteau compositions, such as “Kissambushed” and “Phalluspistol,” present miniature poems. Most of her poems remained unpublished until the publications of Body Sweats. Her personal papers were preserved after her death by her editor, literary agent, artistic collaborator, and lover Djuna Barnes. University of Maryland Libraries acquired a collection of her work with the papers of Barnes in 1973 and subsequently separated von Freytag-Lorninghoven's papers and treated them as an individual collection. The collection contains correspondences, visual poems, and other artistic/literary works by the artist. The University of Maryland's special collections has an extensive digital archive of her manuscripts.
In New York, the Baroness also worked on assemblage sculptures and paintings, creating art out of the rubbish and refuse she collected from the streets. The Baroness was also known to construct elaborate costumes from found objects, creating a "kind of living collage" that erased the boundaries between life and art.
The Baroness' elaborate costumes both critiqued and challenged the bourgeoisie notions of feminine beauty and economic worth. She adorned herself with utilitarian objects like spoons, tin cans, and curtain rings, as well as street debris that she came across. The Baroness’ use of her own body as medium was deliberate, to transform herself into a specific type of spectacle—one that women who complied to the constraints of femininity of the time would be humiliated to embody. By doing so, she controlled and established agency over the visual access to her own nudity, unhinged the presentational expectations of femininity by appearing androgynous, drew upon ideas of women’s selfhood and sexual politics, and provided emphasis on her anti-consumerism and anti-aestheticism outlooks. She included her body's smells, perceived imperfections, and leakages in her body art, encompassing Irrational Modernism. Irrational Modernism "...maintains a finely calibrated balance between rationality and irrationality, reason and affect, public and personal. Boundaries are crossed, but not collapsed."  That being said, the placement of her raw, true personal body/self in a public space by her own means and her own fashion, could not be better explained than as Irrational Modernism. The Baroness’ body art was not only a sculpture and living collage, but also a form of dadaist performance art and activism.
Few artworks by the Baroness exist today. Several known found object works include Enduring Ornament (1913), Earring-Object (ca. 1917-1919), Cathedral (ca. 1918) and Limbswish (ca. 1920). Rediscovered by the Whitney Museum in New York City in 1996, her Portrait of Marcel Duchamp (no longer extant) is another example of her ready-made pieces.
There has been substantial new research indicating that some artworks attributed to other artists of the period can now either be attributed to the Baroness, or raise the possibility that she may have created the works. One work, called God (1917) had for a number of years been attributed to the artist Morton Livingston Schamberg. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, whose collection includes God, now credits the Baroness as a co-artist of this piece. Amelia Jones idenitified that this artwork’s concept and title was created by the Baroness, however, it was constructed by both Shamberg and the Baroness. This sculpture, God (1917), involved a cast iron pumbing trap and a wooden mitre box, assembled in a phallic-like manner. Her concept behind the shape and choice of materials is indicative of her commentary on the worship and love that Americans have for plumbing that trumps all else; additionally, it is revealing of the Baroness’s rejection of technology. In a letter written by Marcel Duchamp to his sister Suzanne dated April 11, 1917 he refers to his famous ready-made, Fountain (1917) and states: "One of my female friends under a masculine pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture." Some have claimed that the friend in question was the Baroness, but Francis Naumann, the New York-based critic and expert on Dada who put together a compilation of Duchamp’s letters and organized Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York for the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1997, explains this "female friend" is Louise Norton who contributed an essay to The Blind Man discussing Fountain. Norton was living at 110 West 88th Street in New York City and this address is partially discernible (along with "Richard Mutt") on the paper entry ticket attached to the object, as seen in Stieglitz's photograph of Fountain.
She was arrested several times for public nudity. In fact, Williams Carlos Williams first met her at the Women’s House of Detention, where she was briefly residing, having been caught shoplifting an umbrella. One evening in April 1918, Williams was visiting the apartment of Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, the irreverent editors of the Little Review, when his eye fixed itself on an odd piece of sculpture. It was housed under a glass dome and looked, as he described it, something like “chicken guts” cast in wax. Moved by the quirky spirit of the piece, he inquired as to its creator, who was none other than the Baroness. Several days later, Williams found himself seated across from the Baroness at a Greenwich Village coffee shop, sharing a celebratory breakfast in honor of her release from prison. In a moment of impetuousness, Williams told her that her lack of inhibition excited him. The Baroness became obsessed with Williams and, to his dismay, began to stalk him. The more he pulled away, the more vehemently she pursued. One night, as he was getting into his car, she ambushed him. “You must come with me.” she purred, grabbing his arm. When he refused, she punched him in the face.
The Baroness was a protégeé of Marcel Duchamp, whose spirit of nihilistic whimsy she more than shared. Though obsessed with Williams, she considered Duchamp her greatest passion. Once, while posing nude, she is said to have rubbed a newspaper reproduction of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase over every inch of her anatomy. She made numerous portraits and poems for him and, despite his disavowals, was convinced that Duchamp was also infatuated with her. “Marcel, Marcel I love you like hell,” she would chant to the amusement of her friends.
In 1923, sensing that the Baroness’s spirits were “withering in the sordid materialism of New York,” Djuna Barnes, Margaret Anderson, Jane Heap, and Berenice Abbott collected money to send her back to Germany. But the Baroness wouldn’t stay. She drifted to Paris, and in her last tragic years it was Djuna, when everyone else had grown weary, who supported her by selling portions of Joyce’s annotated Ulysses to pay the rent on the Baroness’s meager flat. It was to Djuna that the Baroness penned her last desolate letters, described as “the saddest and most beautiful letters in English literature.” "I will probably—yes, yes, yes, probably have to die. … I cannot any more conceive of the idea of a decent artist existence for me, and another is not possible. . . . My terror is so genuine, so must my end be. Life goes out of life . . . and I marvel that I have been in it. … Forgive me my troubled being. … I am not truly deranged even, but scattered. . . . Tragedy is written on me. … I almost despise myself for the trouble I make and the trouble that troubles me. But what shall I do? I am stunned nearly to exhaustion. Forgive me, but I am mourning destruction of high quality—as I know myself to be. … That is the tragedy—I still feel deep in me glittering wealth."
In 1923, Freytag-Loringhoven went back to Berlin, expecting better opportunities to make money, but instead found an economically devastated post-World War I Germany. Despite her difficulties in the Weimar Republic, she remained in Germany, penniless and on the verge of insanity. Several friends in the expatriate community, in particular Bryher, Djuna Barnes, Berenice Abbott, and Peggy Guggenheim, provided emotional and financial support.
Freytag-Loringhoven's mental stability steadily improved when she was able to move to Paris. She died on 14 December 1927 of gas suffocation after it was left on in her flat. She may have forgotten to turn the gas off, or someone else may have turned it on; the circumstances were not clear. She is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris. At her funeral, Berenice Abbott said that she “couldn’t believe that anyone as vibrant as Elsa could die.”
In 1943, Freytag-Loringhoven's work was included in Guggenheim's show Exhibition by 31 Women at the Art of This Century gallery in New York.
The 2002 biography, Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity, by Irene Gammel, makes a case for the Baroness's artistic brilliance and avant-garde spirit. The book explores the Baroness's personal and artistic relationships with Djuna Barnes, Berenice Abbott, and Jane Heap, as well as with Duchamp, Man Ray, and William Carlos Williams. It shows the Baroness breaking every erotic boundary, reveling in anarchic performance, but the biography also presents her as Elsa's friend Emily Coleman saw her, "not as a saint or a madwoman, but as a woman of genius, alone in the world, frantic."
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