Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven - Biography and Legacy
German-American Sculptor, Photographer, Poet, and Performance Artist
Swinemunde, Germany (now Świnoujście, Poland)
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.
Berlin was highly influential for Freytag-Loringhoven's future as an artist and as a provocateur. There she met the young Freytag-Loringhoven was exposed to bohemian theatre, art, and poetry circles. She encountered vaudeville, and having little money to support herself, she worked both as a chorus girl at Berlin's Zentral Theatre and as a waitress during these formative years. In that city she would also explore her bisexuality and gender fluidity, modeling for Henry De Vry's erotic series "Living Pictures " and starting a relationship with the cross-dressing graphic artist Melchior Lechter. Freytag-Loringhoven would spend much of her life living precariously, following the travels of artists with whom she made artistic as well as romantic connections.
Early Training and Work
Freytag-Loringhoven next moved to Munich, where she began to take lessons at an artists' colony. In Munich she met the Jugendstil architect August Endell, whom she married in 1901. In 1903, however, she left Endell for his friend the translator Felix Paul Greve. The couple then traveled to Naples, Zürich, and back to Berlin.
For what Freytag-Loringhoven lacked in academic training, she made up for in experience and in audacity. Greve found himself in severe debt, and Freytag-Loringhoven helped him to stage his suicide. Following Greve's "death" in 1909, Freytag-Loringhoven followed Greve to the United States, first landing in Pittsburgh and then moving to Kentucky and running a small farm. After a year, Greve left her and moved to Canada. Left in Kentucky, with limited knowledge of English, Freytag-Loringhoven began traveling through Virginia and Ohio, modeling for many artists and photographers along the way. Most notably, she posed for the photographers George Biddle and Charles Sheeler in Philadelphia.
Freytag-Loringhoven made her way to New York, where she met and married the German Baron Leo von Freytag-Loringhoven in 1913, thus endowing her with the title of "baroness." Their romance would be short-lived, however, as Leo returned to Germany on the eve of World War I, where he ultimately committed suicide after being held as a prisoner of war. After Leo's death, Freytag-Loringhoven had to make money and began modeling at the anarchist Ferrer Center and the Art Students League, where she met several influential artists, including the Dada and Surrealist photographer Man Ray, but thoughout this period, she largely lived in poverty.
New York Dada
Freytag-Loringhoven's years in New York would irreversibly shape the direction of her artistic career. In the early 1910s, she began to make sculptures out of found and discarded objects, anticipating a tactic which would later become a staple of the Dada movement. Emerging in the wake of World War I, Dada challenged societal norms and rational thought so prized by the bourgeoisie and sought to change the definition of art. Freytag-Loringhoven created collages, assemblages, paintings, and sculptures out of rubbish found on the streets. Her first known objet trouvé (found object) was a rusty metal ring which she titled Enduring Ornament in 1913. Freytag-Loringhoven and other Dada artists, especially her colleague Marcel Duchamp, began to defy the notion that art must be crafted by a singular author as well as the idea that it must conform to established notions of beauty.
Freytag-Loringhoven and Duchamp began to select everyday, often utilitarian, objects, designating them art; Duchamp would come to call such sculptures "readymades." Freytag-Loringhoven's irreverent sculpture God (1917) is the artist's most well-known readymade, which she made by mounting a found plumbing trap to a mitre box. God was made in the same year Marcel Duchamp's infamous Fountain, a urinal which Duchamp submitted to the American Society of Independent Artists Exhibition. Some art historians speculate that, in fact, the Baroness was the mastermind behind the groundbreaking conceptual work of art, citing a letter that Duchamp wrote to his sister recounting that "one of my female friends under a masculine pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture." The urinal's inscription of "R. Mutt"-a homonym for Armut in German, meaning "poverty"-would certainly have been a pun that the Baronnes relished .
Freytag-Loringhoven admired Duchamp both artistically and perhaps romantically. One of her early performances consisted of her rubbing a newspaper article about the artist's famous painting Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) over her naked body and then reciting a poem that ended, "Marcel, Marcel, I love you like Hell, Marcel." While Duchamp did not return her romantic advances, he did return the admiration for her as an artist, saying, "She's not a futurist. She is the future." Some historians suggest that the Baroness's persona and physical appearance inspired Duchamp to adopt his female alter-ego Rrose Selavy. Openly bisexual in the 1920s, Freytag-Loringhoven's unapologetic sexuality and promiscuity caused much scandal, even among her avant-garde confrères, and sometimes overshadowed the art she created.
Whether the rightful creator of Fountain or not, the Baroness was a pioneer of New York Dada. Freytag-Loringhoven's performances and the use of her body in public spaces were perhaps her most radical assault on rational norms. Her dress, which sometimes included a tin-can bra, a birdcage (with live bird) for a hat, curtain rings as bangles, and an assortment of feathers and tassels, collapsed the distinction between art and life. Freytag-Loringhoven did not simply make Dada artworks to be static objects in a gallery - she lived Dada, making her appearances in public into nonsensical performances. Noted Dada painter Francis Picabia wrote that "Dada speaks with you, it is everything, it envelops everything...." Parading about while wearing absurd objects, Freytag-Loringhoven was a living embodiment of Dada. Freytag-Loringhoven often wore postage stamps on her face and recited her poems in public; her eccentric behavior interrupted the mundanity of day to day life. These notorious performances also made her a figure of legendary status in New York's Greenwich Village.
As early as 1910, Freytag-Loringhoven was arrested for her public appearances in unconventional dress. She continued to pose for artists and to utilize her female, aging body as the site of her art throughout her career. In 1921, Freytag-Loringhoven starred in a film byMan Ray and Duchamp, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven Shaves Her Pubic Hair, in which she performed the action described in the title. Her performance of this mundane, repetitive task highlighted her body as mortal and abject.
Freytag-Loringhoven was not only a visual artist but also an innovative poet, appearing in the avant-garde magazine The Little Review in 1918 alongside James Joyce. A few years later, in 1922, The Little Review published her poem AFFECTIONATE alongside a photograph of her assemblage, Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, a quirky homage to the artist made up of feathers and botanical snippets which rest atop a fractured wine goblet.
Despite her many contributions to the avant-garde, the Baroness remained poor and largely unacknowledged for her challenging work throughout her life. In 1923, Freytag-Loringhoven returned to Germany in the hopes of reconnecting with the avant-garde art scene there and thought out an improved financial situation. Instead, she found a homeland devastated by war. Her father had died and disinherited her, leaving her with no choice but to sell newspapers in Berlin to make a living. She depended upon friends and other expatriates to get by, but eventually found herself destitute. Her work from this period is often somber, such as her 1924 painting, Forgotten Like this Parapluice am I by You - Faithless Bernice, which references her relationship with photographer Berenice Abbott, who had financially supported Freytag-Loringhoven, but increasingly distanced herself as Freytag-Loringhoven had become more and more desperate in her final years. Abbott had introduced Freytag-Loringhoven to the writer Djuna Barnes in 1923, who became her artistic collaborator and lover. Barnes kept all correspondence between her and Freytag-Loringhoven and even attempted to write a biography of the artist which was never finished.
In 1926, Freytag-Loringhoven moved to Paris, where she would spend the last year of her life penniless and underemployed. She once again took up posing as a profession at the Montparnasse studios at the Grande Chaumière between 1926 and 1927. Never short of ambition despite her lack of good fortune, Freytag-Loringhoven made plans for her own modeling school to open in the late summer of 1927, calling it her "last dream." This dream was ultimately left unfulfilled, and her attempts to publish new material unsuccessful.
On December 14, 1927, Freytag-Loringhoven and her pets died of asphyxiation in her apartment on Rue Barrault, the gas having been left on. The circumstances of the Baroness's death remain unresolved. It is unclear whether her death was a suicide, or whether she had simply forgotten to turn the gas off. The Baroness is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
The Legacy of Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven
Though she is little known, Baroness Elsa Freytag-Loringhoven helped to shape the direction of New York Dada with her eccentric public displays and performances as well as with her desire to fuse her sexuality with her art. In the face of accusations that she was "crazy," Freytag-Loringhoven would simply state, "Every artist is crazy with respect to ordinary life." Her gender bending and blatant displays of her sexuality anticipated Feminist art and performance of the mid-20th century. She was an innovative artist whose works paved the way for later experimental Performance art of the late 1950s and 1960s. A renowned poet and a proto-feminist, Elsa and her work have only recently been rediscovered by art historians who have recognized the importance of her contribution to New York Dada. Her provocative poetry was published posthumously in 2011 in Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. At the very forefront of developing the readymade and performance art, the Baroness holds a legacy as the "Mama of Dada," as the New York Times critic Holland Cotter dubbed her.