What if one of the most famous works of art, Fountain (1917), was not in fact a work by Marcel Duchamp, but instead by an entirely different artist, a woman? Duchamp did submit the urinal to the 1917 Society of Independents exhibition in New York City under the name R. Mutt, that’s for sure. But, according to historian Amelia Jones in her book Irrational Modernism: A Neurasthenic History of New York Dada, he may have done so as a curator, not an artist, suggesting that the name ‘R. Mutt’ doesn’t correspond to Duchamp himself, but to the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, a German poet, artist, and artist’s model. Actually, Duchamp suggested it himself. In a letter to his sister Suzanne in 1917, Duchamp wrote that “one of my women friends, using a masculine pseudonym, Richard Mutt, submitted a porcelain urinal [to the Society of Independents show] as a sculpture.” Yeah.
In a review of the book, Mira Schor responds, “What if instead of the wink-wink-nudge-nudge, know-what-I-mean anonymity accorded Duchamp’s gesture, the work in fact masked another kind of anonymity, the one famously defined by Virginia Woolf as ‘Anonymous Was a Woman’? As Artspace’s ongoing series The Other Art History illustrates month after month, is that some of the most important artists are essentially anonymous artists who’ve fallen through the cracks of history; when misogyny and bigotry hold the spot light, the light shines brightest on men like Duchamp. Gendered value hierarchies in the 20th century informed every movement’s historicization, and Dada is no exception. So, here we are, to shed some light on the incredibly innovative, prolific, and captivating person, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.
The Baroness is most remembered for her modeling, which we could chalk up to the fact that she was a woman born in 1874, coming up in a time when modeling was pretty much the only thing women could get famous for. (See our article about the art and life of model-tuned-WWII photographer Lee Miller.) And while this may be true, the Baroness’ approach to modeling is something worth historicizing. Take this quote from George Biddle, who hired the Baroness as a model in 1917: “With a royal gesture she swept apart the folds of a scarlet raincoat. 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 bird-cage 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.”
This wasn’t an isolated incident. Undermining bourgeois beauty standards, the Baroness often wore mass-produced objects like soup cans, spoons, and tea balls as jewelry. Living in the Greenwich Village in the ‘20s, she’d walk the streets wearing nothing but a blanket, pulling out a plaster cast of a penis she carried for the purposes of provoking passers by (she was arrested on multiple occasions). She pasted postage stamps on her checks and wore yellow face powder with black lipstick. She shaved her head and dyed her scalp red. She embodied the most confrontational aspects of Dada: in-your-face sexuality, absurd costume, and the appropriation of utilitarian objects. While other artists suggested an assault on normative values, the Baroness lived them.
But the Baroness was far more than a mascot. Her performative, body-centric practice preceded the movements of Performance and Body Art by half a century. She was an innovative and prolific poet. And her “junk” sculptures and assemblages added new aesthetics and forms to the Dada movement—known for it’s masculine, anti-humanistic, and machine-made aesthetic—with organic materials, bodily forms, and highly personal and sensual subject matter.
Born Else Hildegard Ploetz in 1874 in Swinemunde, Germany, she grew up in a household dominated by her father, who she described as “violent tempered, intemperate, generous, big hearted, meanly cruel, revengeful, traditionally honest in business, inclined to boss the family.” He was clearly a complicated man, and these nuances were not lost on his daughter, who saw his abusive tendencies as symptoms of larger, systematic pressures. In her memoir, the acutely self-analytical Baroness would recollect on her father’s overbearing control over the family “with sympathy, and reveal an acute understanding of how ‘the personal is the political,’ how the state fosters masculine authority within the family as an instrument of social control from which no one is spared, not even the patriarch,” writes Aliza Jane Reilly in Woman’s Art Journal.
The Baroness’ father may have informed her perspectives on conformity, gender roles, and societal expectations, but it was her mother who inspired her to break them. “She did things nobody would think of putting together,” wrote the Baroness, “spoiling elegant material with cheap trash—she was tired of doing ‘fine handiwork.’ Everyone could do that.” For instance, she’d cut up her husband’s nicest suites and use the fabric to create handkerchief holders and other crafts. Though The Baroness’ later assemblages and sculptures were often described as derivative of Duchamp, the artist’s childhood influences clearly impacted her artistic pursuits and penchants for arranging discordant objects together in a way that defied patriarchal expectations.
Else’s mother, according to Elsa, was not compatible with her father, leaving her with “years of mental brooding, neurasthenic outbreaks.” After struggling with mental illness for years (Else blamed her father for this), her mother died of uterine cancer, leaving Else with a father who would abandoned her and remarry just three months later. At the time, Else was 18 years old. She moved to Berlin.
Over the next several years, Else would study art in Germany and work as an actress and vaudeville performer throughout Berlin, Munich, and Italy. She wound up in the United States due to rather curious circumstances: Her second husband, a minor poet named Felix Paul Greve, who she began dating while married to her first husband (architect August Endell), fell into deep financial trouble in 1909. Elsa helped her husband stage a suicide and they fled to Sparta, Kentucky to operate a small farm. Go figure.
Two years later, Greve unexpectedly moved to Fargo to work on a bonanza farm, deserting Else in Kentucky. She began modeling for artists in near-by Cincinnati, then made her way east, eventually meeting and later marrying her third husband, the German Baron Leopold von Fretag-Loringhoven in New York in 1913—thus becoming a Baroness, or in her case, “the Dadaist Baroness Elsa von Fretag-Loringhoven,” as she was called.
While the Baroness continued to make a living by working as a model for artists like Man Ray, George Biddle, and Louis Bouché (she also worked in a cigarette factory), she also made art of her own. She was an early pioneer of sound poetry, though the majority of her poems weren’t published until 2011 (Body Sweats, MIT Press.) She did, however, have some of her poetry published alongside chapters of James Joyce’s Ulysses in The Little Review in 1918.
As a sculptor, she valued stand-alone assemblages and “living collage” costumes equally—creating both with found objects she collected on the street. Few of her sculptures remain today, though researchers continue to provide substantial evidence that many works previously attributed to other (male) artists were likely created by the Baroness instead. The Philadelphia Museum of Art now credits the Baroness a co-artist of the piece God (1917), which had previously been attributed to artist Morton Livingston Schamberg. Other scholars, like Francis Naumann, go further, claiming that the title and idea for the piece can be attributed to the Baroness, while Schamberg only assembled and photographed it. The readymade sculpture is a ten-and-a-half-inch-tall cast iron upside-down plumbing trap mounted on a wooden mitre box. God was created in the same year as Fountain by Duchamp, who was at the same time, good friends with the Baroness and living in the same apartment building. There is dispute over which piece came first (though as we mentioned in the introduction—both were likely the brainchildren of the Baroness).
In 1996, the Whitney recovered a work by the artist entitled Portrait of Marcel Duchamp: a combination of large feathers, tree twigs, and broken wine glasses. Created as an earnest homage, the Baroness had intended to give Duchamp the sculpture as a trophy for ‘The Most Innovating Artist,’ according the Smithsonian. Despite watching her male peers become successful artists while struggling to find work and break even, the Baroness remained positive and loyal towards the artists that now represent the Dada movement.
By 1923, the Baroness could no longer afford to live in New York, so she returned home to Germany to find her income prospects equally grim. On December 14, 1927, the Baroness and her dogs died in their sleep due to asphyxiation. It’s not known whether a sailor the Baroness had brought home that night intentionally tuned on the gas stove before leaving, or if the gas leak was an accident. The pioneering artist may have been, as the writer Djuna Barnes has suggested, the tragic victim of “a cruel joke carried too far.”