October 28, 2011

The Dada Baroness

"[The Baroness] is not a Futurist. She is the Future"

So wrote Marcel Duchamp about his comrade in Dada the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven as they shocked the New York art world in the years immediately following World War I. Today, Marcel Duchamp is a universally recognized name, but who exactly was this Baroness and why are we still talking about her?

Well, first of all, she wasn't exactly a Baroness. She was born Else Hildegard Plötz in the German resort town of Swinemünde in 1874 to a castigating middle-class father and his mentally unstable wife. Her counter reaction was to leave home as soon as possible and head for the big city, Berlin, where she made her way as a prostitute turning tricks with anyone and in any way that would earn her a few marks. She moved on to Munich where she continued her sexual exploits with an astonishing vigor and began to explore the avant garde world of art and artists. In 1901 she married the Jugendstil architect August Endell and a year later, with her husband's knowledge, hooked up with his friend the poet Felix Paul Greve whom she eventually married. Mr Greve, who was homosexual when they met, had such severe financial problems that he chose to fake his own suicide and escaped to the U.S. in 1909. Elsa arrived in 1910 and the two of them briefly operated a farm in Sparta, Kentucky before he deserted her and headed for Manitoba, Canada, where he became known as Frederick Philip Grove.

Not one to be left crying in her soup, Elsa cut her losses and made her way to New York City where she met, and in 1913 married, the Baron Leopold von Freytag-Loringhoven. As you can imagine this was not a fairy tale wedding as the German Baron left one year later to join the war effort and committed suicide shortly thereafter. The Baroness was once again penniless but now armed with a title as well as her remarkable cunning and resourcefulness, she attacked the burgeoning New York art scene with a vengeance. And this is where Marcel Duchamp and Dada come in.

With Europe engulfed in a horrible war, many avant garde artists and writers made their way to the safety of New York. By 1916 the triumvirate - Duchamp, Man Ray and Picabia - were stirring up the traditional art scene and Dada was born on this side of the Atlantic. It didn't take long for others to take up the call with Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven leading the way. She didn't just make Dada art, she was Dada.

It can be said that the Baroness was the original performance artist and a prototype for many of today's contemporary art forms. Yes, she painted a little, created sculpture out of found objects and wrote copious amounts of poetry that would give grammarians a coronary, but her main schtick was just being herself. Well, maybe an embellished version of herself. The Baroness became famous, or infamous, for parading around Greenwich Village wearing a tomato-can bra, a bustle with a tail light and/or a bird cage with a canary inside. She shaved her head and painted it red, pasted postage stamps to her cheeks and wore black lipstick. She shocked even those who knew her with her outrageous get-ups and flamboyant behavior and as you can imagine was never accepted by mainstream art buyers.

By 1923, as the Dada Movement was waning, the Baroness was becoming more of a persona-non-grata even among her friends. In retrospect, she was beginning to show signs of the same mental illness that had consumed her mother, as she became more and more difficult and more and more derelict. Later that year she moved back to Berlin where her situation worsened and she was reduced to selling what ever she could, from sex to newspapers, to keep her alive. She eventually made it to Paris where her friends, the Americans Djuna Barnes, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, tried to help but she was too far gone. In 1927 she died of gas asphyxiation, but if it was a suicide or a terrible accident is unclear.

For years after the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven passed into obscurity, forgotten by all but the most devoted art historians and poets. But several years ago that began to change and now the Baroness is re-emerging as a rather important force in not only the worlds of art and literature but as a feminist icon as well.

Which brings me, finally, to the catalyst for this blog - the publication of a new book on the Baroness by my good friend Dr. Irene Gammel. Irene, formerly a professor of English at the University of Prince Edward Island and now teaching at Ryerson University, Toronto, while holding the Canada Research Chair in Modern Literature and Culture, has been a pioneer in study on this elusive and controversial figure. Her 2002 book "Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity" opened up the subject to an unprecedented flood of interest from novelists, art historians, fashion designers and specialists in gender and feminist studies. The Baroness was suddenly hip.

This week Irene is launching her newest book, "Body Sweats - The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven", published by the prestigious MIT Press and sure to focus even more attention on this previously enigmatic figure. I congratulate Irene on another literary achievement. Thanks to you, the Baroness has re-emerged as the marvelous, maverick, doyenne of Dada!

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