Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Apr. 25-June 15, 2002, at Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, 22 East 80th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021
"She's not a futurist," said Marcel Duchamp of Elsa. "She is the future."
The enigmatic artist known as the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874-1927), a friend and collaborator of Duchamp, Man Ray and Djuna Barnes, is considered by art historians to be the first New York Dadaist. She made sculpture, wrote avant-garde poetry and made controversial, sexually charged street theater.
Despite her notoriety and influence, Elsa has been little known outside the connoisseur's circle. Irene Gammel, in her fascinating new biography, Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity (MIT Press), follows the baroness' life through the early movements of the 20th century in Berlin, Munich, New York and Paris.
Elsa was a consummate self-costumer, as is evident from surviving photographs that show her wearing such adornments as a tomato soup can bra, teaspoon earrings, black lipstick and a birdcage hat containing a live canary. Elsa's "art-found-objects" were dangerously anti-religious -- a plumbing trap titled God (1917), a bit of splintered shingle called Cathedral (1918). Her sound and visual poetry were far more daring than those of her male counterparts of the time.
Flashback to Berlin, 1906. Writer Felix Paul Greve hopes to elope to America with the young poet and performer, Elsa Hildegard Plotz. Unfortunately, both remain entangled with past spouses. Meanwhile, Elsa's poetry is all the rage in Berlin's cabarets; her nonsensical-hysterical proto-Dada texts are performed by the electric, outrageous actress Else Lasker-Schüler (1869-1945). Finally, in 1909, Greve stages his own suicide, assisted by Elsa, and secretly escapes via Canada to America. Elsa obtains some consolation money from Greve's publisher and joins Greve -- who proceeds to desert her a few years later in Kentucky.
In 1913, Elsa became a baroness by marrying Baron von Freytag-Loringhoven and quickly began to use her aristocratic title as an avant-garde weapon to assault bourgeois taste. She single-handedly presented futuristic fashion to the bohemians of Greenwich Village, scandalizing her neighbors by parading semi-nude along 14th Street, barely covered with feathers.
Parading with her dogs, skimpily dressed with her bald head covered with vermilion, she said "shaving one's head is like having a new love experience." At times she purloined her art materials from five-and-dime stores and managed to escape arrest more than once by leaping from paddy wagons to freedom.
The Little Review put her on the map in 1918 by publishing 20 of her poems and more than a dozen of her essays and notes. The magazine thereupon gave the baroness a forum for the next four years, establishing her among Dada luminaries. The first movie made by Duchamp and Man Ray was about Elsa, titled The Baroness Shaves her Pubic Hair. Sadly, only a handful of stills have been salvaged by history.
Courageous to an insane degree, Elsa was able to provoke and challenge everyone. She recited her poetry on the street, to passers-by, wearing nothing but tea-balls on her breasts. She was feared and admired in verse by the likes of Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens and Djuna Barnes. Elsa's death by gas in 1927 at her home in Paris left her friends wondering if it was an accident or suicide.
Currently, with the release of her biography, Francis M. Naumann Fine Art has mounted the first-ever exhibition devoted to the assemblage art of this elusive woman artist. The exhibition includes a photo of her assemblage God, the famous plumbing section made in collaboration with Morton Schamberg, her earrings as "art-object" and portraits of Berenice Abbott and Marcel Duchamp, along with several portraits of the Baroness by George Biddle and Theresa Bernstein. The centerpiece is a mannequin with a Baroness-dress re-created by costume designer Pascale Ouattara.
One of the Baroness' poems, reproduced by Gammel, reads:
No spinsterlollypop for me!
Yes! We have no bananas
I got lusting palate
I always eat them...
There's the vibrator
Coy flappertoy! ...
A dozen cocktails, please!