Have you heard of the incomparable Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Lorinhoven? Interestingly, many may not have, yet. But her star is on the ascent at long last! A German-born provocateur, fashion plate, poet, DIY junk sculptor, proto-punk and feminist performance artist, the Baroness rode her creativity to the edge of madness in the early decades of 20th century bohemian Greenwich Village.
The forgotten mama of Dada, the eccentric poet, performance artist, and sculptor Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven was certainly one of the most important feminists and avant-garde artists of the early 20th century. But the Baroness and her particular and groundbreaking art and writing were neglected in the official annals of art history for an entire century. It was only at the beginning of the 21st century that Irene Gammel would write the first cultural biography of the Baroness, and her poems were not published until 2011 in the book Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.
Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven was born Elsa Plötz on July 12, 1874, in Swinemunde, Germany, a coastal town on what is now the Polish-German border but was then very much a part of the German Empire. She and her sister, Charlotte, had an oppressive, bourgeois upbringing. Her German father, Adolf Plötz, was a master builder and an influential man in the town. Her Polish mother, Ida Marie Kleist, was a creative, literate, well-bred woman caught in a disastrous marriage. Adolf was tyrannical and violent to his wife and daughters; Ida Marie suffered from serious mental illness and died of cancer in 1893. Elsa blamed her father and, after a violent confrontation with him and his new wife, ran away. Her discontent with her father’s masculine and uncompromising control may have fostered her anti-patriarchal activist approach to life. In her art, she related the ways that political structures promote masculine authority in family settings, maintaining the state’s patriarchal societal order.
Her life was itinerant for many years, crossing Europe several times, and finally making her way to Greenwich Village where she would ultimately find her tribe of fellow adventurous thinkers, writers, and artists. There she married her third husband, German-born Baron Leopold von Freytag-Loringhoven, in New York in 1913. Their union was brief, but she assumed the persona of “The Baroness” as she started to move in Dada circles, making a short film with Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, creating sculptures, and writing experimental poetry. She was a dynamo in New York’s literary and art scene at the turn of the century, part of the Arensberg Salon group that included Duchamp, Ray, Beatrice Wood, Francis Picabia, Mina Loy, and many others. She combined sculpture, fashion, poetry, and performance to embody an anti-bourgeois lifestyle driven by passion and an emotional reactivity to her surroundings.
The Baroness changed the role of a female body in art through an act of performance in the studio of the modernist painter, George Biddle. Biddle hired female models in his studio and, like the majority of male artists of the time, he required his models to be nude and still, in order to serve as inspiration for his creations. During this period, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven lived in poverty and struggled to provide for herself by working as a model, albeit a radical, unique, and eccentric one. The modeling session for which she was hired in Biddle’s studio one day in March of 1917 was to become an inflection point that completely changed the roles between the artist and the object, the man and the woman.
Biddle recounts their studio session in 1917: “The Baroness arrived to pose nude, only to reveal her breasts covered in tomato tin cans, a caged canary around her neck, cropped vermilion hair, and a sleeve made of stolen shower-curtain rings.”
She opened her raincoat to expose a body that was not nude underneath, but instead, was covered in trash and items she had collected in the streets. At this moment, she became the artist and George Biddle was simply her audience.
This was a turning point, not just for the liberation of women after centuries of female bodies being seen as objects, but for the entire Dada art history; using the body as a medium and found objects as core artistic materials. Because of the seemingly immaterial aspect of this act of performance art and the fact that we can only rely on the description of it provided in the diary of the Baroness, as well as in the diary of Biddle, it never became a part of the official narrative of the history of the Dada movement.
At the beginning of the 20th century, women were still deprived of many of their rights, including the right to dress in the manner of their choosing, and had to accept the prescribed social code of dress. The Baroness was a pioneer with her eccentric looks and outfits made of found objects. She shaved her head, would go out completely naked, wear black lipstick, walk around with a rat in her hands, occasionally steal items from local stores, and was frequently arrested for her choice of attire. Effectively, every time she went left her Greenwich Village apartment, she was committing an act of art intervention, which made her perhaps the most avant-garde feminist of the early 20th century. Even Duchamp said that Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven was not a futurist, but she was the future itself.
The Baroness (1874–1927) “out-Dadaed” most of her Dadaist contemporaries. Her riotous found-object ensembles and her radical self-displays made her a living Dada. Her friend William Carlos Williams would recall that the Baroness once offered to give him syphilis, insisting it would “free his mind for serious art.” Wallace Stevens avoided going south of 14th Street for fear of encountering her. And in his Cantos, Ezra Pound wrote that she lived by a “principle of non-acquiescence.”
Elsa, perhaps the original performance artist, is happily no longer forgotten and relegated to the dustbin of art history. Her reputation has been regaining much lost ground since the publication of Irene Gammel’s 2003 book, Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity — A Cultural Biography. Younger artists have become particularly curious about her work. Two volumes of her poetry have been published as books, and others online, She has also starred in one novel, Holy Skirts, by Rene Steinke, and at least two recent plays. And for the first time, von Freytag-Loringhoven’s tenacity, authenticity, and enduring spirit were brought into the serious art world conversation in an exhibition at Mimosa House in London that ran from May 27 to September 17, 2022. The Baroness featured 11 contemporary artists, poets, writers, and one collective in conversation with the sculptures and poems of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. She is an inspiration whose life was interchangeable with her work and is receiving long-overdue praise and attention.