Women Artists

Lady Dada? Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and the Revolution of Conceptual Art

Kero Fichter 15 February 2024 min Read

When Doja Cat sparkled in 30,000 crimson Swarovski crystals at Paris Fashion Week, the American rapper walked down the red carpet literally a statue made flesh. The idea of a living piece of art, however, is not that new—Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874-1927) already blew up the art world of the interwar period with her costumes of everyday objects. Her performances and sculptures of garbage announced the beginning of a new era of art that challenged all previous rules.

The Baroness was born a not-so-noble Elsa Hildegard Plötz, daughter of a mason, in the seaside resort of Swinemünde in what was then the German Empire (today Świnoujście in Poland). Sick of her father‘s toxic masculinity, 18-year-old Elsa fled to an aunt in Berlin. In the imperial capital with its vast art scene and entertainment industry, she worked as an art model and variety dancer.

This engagement with her body would influence her later work as a performance artist. Moreover, the soon-to-be-baroness immediately immersed herself in a sexual lifestyle with multiple lovers.

Now I began to know what ‘life’ meant…every night another man!

Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

Baroness Elsa. The Autobiography of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, ed. Paul I. Hjartarson/Douglas O. Spettigue (Ottwaw 1992), p. 45.

Such a promiscuous woman mocked all bourgeois morals of the time. Von Freytag-Loringhoven certainly was one self-determined and uncompromising character! The unconventional libertine led a vagabond life in various German and Italian cities. She seemingly was not content with being a muse: in Rome, she took matters into her own hands and worked as a painter. She even studied this most prestigious discipline for a couple of months in Dachau near Munich. After an unsuccessful marriage with architect August Endell, von Freytag-Loringhoven married the translator and later author Felix Paul Greve aka Frederick Philip Grove.

AdVertisment

Just like in an adventure novel, von Freytag-Loringhoven assisted Greve in staging a suicide so he could escape from his creditors to the United States. She later joined him in 1910. Their life on a Kentucky farm was not the happiest and Greve abandoned her after only a year. Von Freytag-Loringhoven, autonomous as ever, moved to New York in 1913. Her eccentricity and creativity made her quick friends with leading figures of the local art scene such as Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Berenice Abbott, and Djuna Barnes. She had an intermezzo marriage with compatriot Baron Leopold von Freytag-Loringhoven, of which she didn’t keep much, except the illustrious name.

Von Freytag-Loringhoven initially resumed her former work as an art model to keep her head above water. She would soon turn the tables, however, and transform into her very own work of art. She collected everyday utensils and discarded objects from the streets, which she sewed into the most flamboyant dresses New York probably had ever seen. Painter George Biddle gives a clear account of the Baroness‘s sense of anti-fashion:

She stood before me quite naked – or nearly so. Over the nipples of her breasts were two tin tomato cans, fastened with a green string around her back. Between the tomato cans hung a very small birdcage and within it a crestfallen canary. One arm was covered from wrist to shoulder with celluloid curtain rings, pilfered from a furniture display in Wanamaker’s. She removed her hat, trimmed with gilded carrots, beets, and other vegetables. Her hair was close-cropped and dyed vermillion.

George Biddle

George Biddle, An American Artist’s Story (Boston 1939), p. 137.

AdVertisment

The free spirit combined these rubbish outfits with the best matching make-up: black lipstick, stamps for beauty marks, and diverse colors for her often-shaven head (mind Doja Cat!). If you think von Freytag-Loringhoven simply put on a show at some gallery events, you‘re wrong. This was the daily haute couture she wore in public, often accompanied by a bunch of dogs on a gilded leash. Several police arrests made clear that the world was not yet ready to see performance art in the streets. The Baroness’s radical appearance did nothing less than help to form this new discipline that would become so crucial for artists in the 20th and 21st centuries. Her bizarre looks also ridiculed the current standards of feminine beauty.

Von Freytag-Loringhoven’s creative drive did not stop at performance. She wrote numerous poems in which she experimented with language. Thanks to her friendship with lesbian couple Margaret Anderson and Jean Heap, some of her poetry was published in their avant-garde magazine The Little Review.

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Sculpture became another domain of the Baroness. And what a kind she crafted! Just like her costumes, she transformed found objects into pieces which she proudly declared art. In God, von Freytag-Loringhoven turned a plumbing trap upside down and installed it on a wooden plinth. The title mocks modern metropolitan life by deifying an implement without it could not operate.

In Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, von Freytag-Loringhoven stuck different feathers and metal cogs into a wine glass. The actual resemblance to her French colleague is but little. Her Enduring Ornament is a rusty metal ring she apparently found on her way to her wedding with the Baron, thus commemorating a not-so-enduring union. Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven’s fascination with the throwaway culture of modern consumer society dawned on Pop Art.

AdVertisment

The idea of everyday objects wildly fused together with no clear sense, function, or aesthetic appeal, broke radically with the understanding of art of the time. For a conservative bourgeois audience, it was perceived as a provocation at best, and the expression of a sick mind at worst. However, the Baroness became one of the main protagonists of Dada. This avant-garde movement with important sites in Zurich, Berlin, Paris, and New York, questioned the definition of art by experimenting with form, material, and content. The Dadaists also pioneered conceptual art, in which the idea becomes the actual work of art.

A friend of von Freytag-Loringhoven, Marcel Duchamp has been credited with inventing the so-called ready-made. It refers to an everyday item that is turned into an artwork by mere declaration and/or modification with other everyday objects. It is not exactly clear whether the Baroness’ objects, which Duchamp highly esteemed, predated those of Duchamp. However, she was undoubtedly one of the first progenitors. There is even speculation she is the actual author of Duchamp’s famous Fountain, a urinal turned upside down. Duchamp hinted in a letter at an anonymous woman artist who had sent him the work.

elsa von freytag-loringhoven: Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917, Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917, Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

As so often happens with female artists, von Freytag-Loringhoven was soon erased from the art historical canon after her death in Paris in 1927. With her daring and uncompromising approach to art, she must be credited as the godmother of performance artists such as Valie Export and Marina Abramović, but also eccentric pop icons such as Lady Gaga and Doja Cat.

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