Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven
German-American Sculptor, Photographer, Poet, and Performance Artist
Swinemunde, Germany (now Świnoujście, Poland)
Summary of Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven
Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, the Baroness as she was known, became a living legend in the bohemian enclave of New York City's Greenwich Village in the years before and after World War I. A provocateur and essential catalyst for New York's burgeoning Dada movement, the Baroness obliterated the boundaries of conventional norms of womanhood and femininity and upended notions of what was considered art.
Along with the infamous French artist Marcel Duchamp, she pioneered the use of the readymade, and she stretched and manipulated the English language to create avant-garde poetry. Her penchant for cross-dressing and incorporating found objects into her wardrobe made going out in public a daily Dada performance. The Baroness was a radical proto-feminist who critiqued patriarchal norms but was largely overshadowed by her male colleagues. Her daringness was largely ascribed to female eccentricity, and she became a footnote in the annals of New York Dada. It has only been recently that her contributions to the avant-garde have been recognized for their innovativeness.
- Steeped in avant-garde principles and strategies, Freytag-Loringhoven's work questions the very nature of what society considers art. The Baroness' use of the "readymade", a found object presented as a work of art, demands that the viewer consider the divide between high and low culture, utilitarian, everyday objects and fine art, and the role of the artist not as original creator but as appropriator. Her readymades and assemblages disrupt standard notions of beauty. Furthermore, the ephemeral nature of so much of the Baroness' work deeply embodies Dada's lacerating critique of the commodification of art objects, perhaps more so than Duchamp's "readymades," which were embraced by the very institutions they meant to undermind.
- The Baroness took the idea of the "New Woman," the image of the independent modern woman popularized at the end of the 19th century, to new heights with her rabid insistence on intellectual, artistic, and sexual autonomy. Her eccentric dress and unapologetic use of her body, both as a model and a performance artist, set her apart from her male Dada colleagues.
Biography of Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven
Born Elsa Hildegard Ploetz to a middle-class family in 1874, Elsa was the elder of two siblings. She was not born a "Baroness," as she would later come to be known, but acquired the name von Freytag-Loringhoven when she married. She characterized her younger sister, Charlotte Louise, as the relatively more "sensible" person, unlike her mother Ida-Marie Ploetz, with whom she more readily identified. Freytag-Loringhoven described her mother as having a "sweetness and intensity - passionate temperament - only softer as I - kept subdued - regulated by custom-convention ." Ida-Marie died of uterine cancer in February of 1893, when Freytag-Loringhoven was just nineteen. Ida-Marie had suffered for years with mental illness and had spent two years prior at a sanatorium in Stettin, Germany. Shortly after her mother's death, which Freytag-Loringhoven blamed on her father, Freytag-Loringhoven had a violent encounter with her father, who had a history of abusive treatment of his daughter. "My father... behaved so unspeakably, pitifully ridiculous that I felt an overpowering nausea," Freytag-Loringhoven wrote of the attack. Her father's remarriage three months after her mother's death and his continued ill treatment of her, led Freytag-Loringhoven to run away to Berlin to live with a favored aunt.
Important Art by Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven
Enduring Ornament is the Baroness' earliest known objet trouvé (found object). Said to have been found on her way to marry the Baron Leo von Freytag-Loringhoven at City Hall in New York City, the work is a simple, rusted iron ring, an auspicious find on the way to one's nuptials. Measuring about 3 ½ inches in diameter, however, the ring does not actually function as a wedding ring, but the Baroness saw in its roundness a female symbol. As historian Irene Gammel wrote, the title of the work "suggests a symbolic connection with her marriage (although the artwork would prove much more enduring than the marriage itself )." The Baron returned to Germany just prior to World War I, where he took his own life.
Freytag-Loringhoven discovered the ring and anointed it a piece of art in 1913, one year before Marcel Duchamp would present his Bottle Rack, known as the first "readymade." The readymade is an ordinary object, often industrial in nature, which the artist selects and sometimes modifies, designating it art. This strategy calls into question long-held tenets about the originality of the artist and the uniqueness of the art object.
Despite the similarity in artistic strategy, a major difference between Duchamp's and Freytag-Loringhoven's work lies in the lives of their objects. Whereas Duchamp's readymades were made with a nod to the exchange of objects and money in the art world, Freytag-Loringhoven's circulated among other channels. As art historian Amelia Jones writes, the "Baroness's readymade and assembled objects either self-destructed or very slowly percolated out into the world. " Enduring Ornament was one of four objects that the Baroness gave to friends Pavel Tchelitchew and Allen Tanner while living in Berlin in the 1920s and only it resurfaced eight decades later.
The readymade sculpture God epitomizes the spirit and avant-garde strategies of New York Dada. Made in the same year as Duchamp's famous Fountain, a urinal turned on its side, God consists of a cast iron drain trap set on its end, mounted on a miter box. Freytag-Loringhoven elevates the everyday and industrial to art and asks us to question the use-value and aesthetic-value of art. God shows a Dadaist irreverence toward the authority of a higher power, substituting the holy image with that of lowly plumbing materials. Duchamp once observed that "The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges ." Along with Duchamp's Fountain, God gives an ironic nod to Duchamp's declaration. The sculpture, a pipe that no longer functions as it should, also suggests a twisted phallus, perhaps the Baroness' critique of a male-dominated, phallocentric society.
Just as Duchamp's championing of the readymade eclipsed the Baroness' first use of it, God was, until recently, attributed to Morton Schamberg, an artist known for his photographs of abstracted machine imagery. The attribution is likely from the fact that the Baroness ripped out the clogged pipe in Schamberg's studio and attached it (perhaps with Schamberg's assistance) to the miter box, at which time Schamberg photographed it in his studio.
Made during her years in New York City, Freytag-Loringhoven's Cathedral, a piece of found, fractured wood with irregular, elongated lines, mounted simply on a piece of scrap construction wood, suggests the outline of the city's distinctive skyscrapers. Replacing the sleek lines and materials with jagged wood, Cathedral offers an organic riposte to the rationalism of the steel and glass skyscrapers that were beginning to rise around the city. One of the early skyscrapers, the Woolworth Building, finished in 1912, was known at the time as the "Cathedral of Commerce." With this suggestively titled readymade, the Baroness offers a critique of the capitalist society that worshipped the god of commerce over all else.
Art historian Irene Gammel suggests that Cathedral is also analogous to the Baroness's bodily performances in the public spaces of urban New York, writing, "the Baroness proudly displayed her weathered and erotic body - and conceptualized New York City in the upright dignity and weathered stateliness of her Cathedral. Both precariously aging bodies tell the tale of braving the elements - a tale of quotidian survival." Having spent most of her life in abject poverty, the Baroness was said to have acquired a rather haggard appearance early on in life but, refusing to accept normative standards of beauty and sexuality, continued to use her body as an expressive and disruptive force.