Thursday, 11 July 2013

the Dada Baroness, Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven; the 31 Women number fifteen - her birthday is 12 July

By the time penniless Mrs Elsa Grove, thirty-eight, arrived in New York City in 1912, she had already had two creative husbands, numerous artistic lovers and a varied career in every imaginable field of the arts – actress, author, dancer, designer, model, painter, poet - she had done them all and been taken seriously in none. With this experience, a highly unconventional imagination and a confrontational spirit, Elsa’s life contained all the ingredients for a creative explosion. It took one more failed marriage, to the exiled and penniless Baron Leopold Friedrich von Freytag-Loringhoven, who fled after less than a year, to light the fuse.

After that, for sixteen years nothing stopped her, not rejection, incarceration, depression, permanent poverty and occasional homelessness. She became a consummate pilferer, liberating items to use in the creation of her totally individual art, as well as hoarding random objects she found on the street. She began creating Dada objects, poetry and performance at a time when Dada was barely known in Zurich, never mind  New York.
Her found object art, in two and three dimensions, was less intellectualised than Marcel Duchamp’s, though he shared her dedication to irreverence and her scatological sense of humour. Her best known Dada object is God, a twisted, iron plumber’s trap, mounted on a mitre block, which may have been a riposte to Duchamp’s Fountain urinal.

She wrote poetry to Duchamp and created at least four portraits of him, one involving chicken gizzards under a glass cloche and the best known with feathers in a cocktail glass. Duchamp was her friend, colleague and admirer, but not her lover, despite her own amorous intentions. She wrote a short verse on the topic;
when I was young


I loved Marcel Dushit

he behaved


Elsa’s Dada has been derided as a feminine version, concerned with elaborate dress and passionate love-poetry. Really, it was feminist Dada, crossing gender boundaries and wildly defying the social restrictions and conventions that most women lived under. In 1910 she was arrested in Pittsburgh for being indecently dressed – she was wearing trousers. Between 1915 & 1923 she was notorious even among the New York avant-garde for creating highly original and provocative art whilst leading a precarious and impoverished life, sometimes literally on the streets. An outspoken promoter of her own talents, she took on the male dominated avant-garde and nearly won. She wrote extraordinary poetry, some of which was published in the most avant-garde magazine, the Little Review, published by Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, who were admirers and good friends to her.  Jane Heap described Elsa as;  
"..the only one living, anywhere, who dresses Dada, loves Dada, lives Dada."

Elsa was passionate about writing, her voluminous letters to friends were works of art and she would send illustrated poems on sheets of celluloid to friends and lovers, but her greatest creation was undoubtedly The Dada Baroness, a performance she played on the streets, in galleries and in apartments to the astonishment of New Yorkers, immersing her whole life in it – she was both the Gilbert and George and the Carolee Schneemann of her era. Unfortunately performance art does not travel well through time, some written descriptions and a few photographs of The Dada Baroness still exist, mostly by her photographer friends Berenice Abbott and Man Ray.

Elsa changed her name a number of times, finally becoming Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven at the age of 39. Born Else Hildegard Plötz in Swinemünde, a coastal town on the Polish-German border, 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 serious mental illness and died of cancer in 1893. Elsa blamed her father and, after a violent confrontation with him and his new wife, she ran away to Berlin.

This was the start of an itinerant life in Europe. In Berlin and Munich Elsa wrote poetry whilst earning a living working first in burlesque shows and then more serious theatre, including in Schiller’s Spanish play, Don Carlos. She studied art in both Germany and Italy. She had numerous lovers and was artistic inspiration (though perhaps not docile muse) to, amongst others Jugendstil artist Melchior Lechter who depicted her as Orpheus, playwright Ernst Hardt, sculptor Richard Schmitz and his brother, writer Oscar Schmitz.

By 1900 Elsa was immersed in the thriving avant-garde sector in Munich, one of a select few women involved. Others were expressionist painter Gabriele Münter, playwright, poet and artist Else Lasker-Schüler and a very young English artist, Mina Loy, who like Elsa would later become a good friend of Peggy Guggenheim and Djuna Barnes. It was at this stage that Elsa realised the limitations of playing muse to male ‘genius’, her lovers were simply not interested in her as an artist. This marked the conception of Elsa as a New Woman and founded her defiance of artistic and gender stereotypes which were to come to fruition as the Dada Baroness. In 1901 she discarded her hated father’s name, becoming Elsa Endell when she wed architect, August Endell.

Endell was an innovative member of the Jugendstil group and was content to have Elsa’s artistic collaboration in minor decorative aspects of his schemes. Despite her new, liberated consciousness, Elsa was not able to free herself from her need for romantic/sexual attachments to creative people. Although she was bisexual, her preference seems to have been for men, but Endell was unsatisfactory. By the end of 1902 she was deeply involved with writer and translator Felix Paul Greve. He was probably the love of her life and they married in 1907, after a complicated separation and divorce from Endell.

Elsa and Greve moved frequently, visiting or living in Palermo, Bonn, Switzerland, England, France and Berlin. In collaboration they wrote poetry and a novel, Fanny Essler, based on Elsa’s life story. Their artistic collaboration continued with Elsa assisting in Greve’s translating work. By June 1910 they were living in the USA, trying to farm in Kentucky, a life neither was fitted for. This disastrous adventure ended both their artistic collaboration and their marriage, but provided creative motivation. Elsa began her poetic development into the Dada Baroness whilst on the farm. In 1911 Greve abandoned her and went to Canada, where he changed his name to Frederick Philip Grove and published a fictionalised version of their farming lives, The Settlers in the Marsh. As Grove, he became a renowned Canadian author and for many years his connection with Elsa was lost.

Greve left Elsa distraught as well as destitute, but determination got the better of depression, 1912 found her in Cincinnati working as an artists’ model, a job she took great pride in. A year later she was in Greenwich Village, married to Leopold Freiher von Freytag-Loringhoven, a disgraced German Baronet eleven years her junior, who had little to go with his title. She lied about her age, claiming to be 29 when she was closer to forty and this marriage was probably bigamous. Her Baron left her in 1914 and returned to Europe. His tragedy was to be interned by the French before having a chance to redeem his name, he committed suicide in 1919.

Abandoned in New York, Elsa worked in a cigarette factory, then modelled for the Art Students League. She met Duchamp, they both had studios in the Lincoln Arcade Building, a nest of creative activity. She acquired a number of admirers for her poetry, including William Carlos Williams, although Duchamp seems to have been the first to take Elsa seriously as an artist. They had conversations late into the night and Elsa collaborated with him and Man Ray on Dada projects. Her poetry and photograph, nude, appear in the single issue magazine New York Dada. Later she took fiercely against Duchamp for his neglectful behaviour towards her and his lover Mary Reynolds, who had become Elsa’s friend and patron. Whilst Elsa was frequently paranoid about minor and even imagined slights, it does seem that once she arrived in Paris, in 1926, Duchamp deliberately avoided contact with her.

In New York, Elsa’s wildness and Dada imagination made an astonishing impression on the streets where with brazen courage she performed alone. Using her body as canvas, she would dress and ornament herself with yellow face-paint, black lipstick, a coalscuttle for a hat, a black dress with a tail light on the bustle, and parade the streets with a string of small dogs and a canary in a cage to provoke reactions from the astonished New Yorkers. She was sometimes attacked, often arrested and locked up in the infamous 'Tombs' jail, either for shoplifting or being improperly dressed. Her ‘improper’ dress included wearing hand-painted trousers, though once again, it was not the painting but the trousers which were improper. She sometimes went much further to offend ‘public decency’, by going about in public clad only in a Mexican blanket.

She was more than once temporarily incarcerated as a lunatic, notably after her return to Berlin. Many aspects of Elsa’s ‘insanity’ were deliberate, she smoked marijuana to explore its creative effects and her liberated, irrational creativity anticipated Surrealist concerns with madness and the subconscious, but she did have only too real mental health problems, which she associated with her family history. She boasted that the cause of her insane creativity was inherited syphilis, for which she blamed her father. She also believed creativity came from her mother, who was a skilled, imaginative and sometimes obsessive needlewoman and dressmaker.

Despite or maybe because of her notoriety, by the time of her death in 1927 she was neglected by most of her friends, having driven them away by her absurd and needy behaviour. Elsa was never ashamed of being seen as grotesque or absurd; in New York in 1918 this was seen by the avant-garde set, meeting at Louise and Walter Arensberg's informal salon, as the in thing; Elsa with her defiance of social norms was admired. She moved to Berlin in 1923, hoping to immediately get a visa for France. Her timing was disastrous, with Germany in the depths of post-war recession, her poverty became even worse and she was in a mental hospital for a while. 

By the time she reached Paris in 1926, Dada was out of vogue, Surrealism was new and liked its women young and compliant. Elsa was no longer perceived as an entertaining contributor, but rather an annoying hanger on. She was ignored and soon forgotten by all but a few real friends who supported her - these women were Mary Reynolds, Jane Heap and Peggy Guggenheim, also Djuna Barnes who she had be close to for eleven years. Elsa died in 1927, gassed in her hotel room with her little dog - either by accident or suicide. She left her possessions, including her poetry, to Barnes and asked her to write a biography; Barnes tried, but found the task beyond her.

Elsa, performance artist extraordinaire, is no longer a totally forgotten artist. She has been regaining some lost ground since the publication of Irene Gammel’s book (see below), particularly with younger artists. 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 plays - including mine, Dada Script, in which the Dada Baroness took to the stage with Marcel Duchamp and the script of her own life in 2008. Surely if any artist deserves a full length movie, it is Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven, the Dada Baroness.

My thanks to Beth Alvarez of the University of Maryland and to Hank O'Neal of New York.


The first, best researched and best written biography of Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven is Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada & Everyday Modernity by Irene Gammel, pub. by MIT press in 2003. I thoroughly recommend it.
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You can read about each of the 31 women as their birthdays arrive, earlier ones will remain on this blog. Just click the 'Project 31 Women' label below to see the others.
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  1. This was a great short biography. Thanks for the information.

  2. Thanks anon, Elsa was quite a gal! I want more people to know about her, and the other forgotten women artists I write about.

    1. I would be very interested to know when Elsa wrote the poem "and I was young foolish I loved Marcel Dushit." Was it before or after He exhibited the fountain? Also where might I find other examples of Elsa scatology? This is a serious inquiry and I would be grateful for any information you could provide. PS I'm having some trouble typing this message please pardon the imprecision.

  3. Hi, I don't wish to sound rude but I do prefer to communicate with people by name.
    I suggest you get hold of the book 'Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven’ Ed. by Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelazo.