- Irrational Modernism: A Neurasthenic History of New York Dadaby Amelia Jones
- Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity -- A Cultural BiographyOur Pickby Irene Gammel
- Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-LoringhovenOur Pickby Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and Irene Gammel
- Holy Skirts: A Novel of a Flamboyant Woman Who Risked All for Artby René Steinke
Progression of Art
Enduring Ornament is the Baroness' earliest known objet trouvé (found object). Said to have been found on her way to marry the Baron Leo von Freytag-Loringhoven at City Hall in New York City, the work is a simple, rusted iron ring, an auspicious find on the way to one's nuptials. Measuring about 3 ½ inches in diameter, however, the ring does not actually function as a wedding ring, but the Baroness saw in its roundness a female symbol. As historian Irene Gammel wrote, the title of the work "suggests a symbolic connection with her marriage (although the artwork would prove much more enduring than the marriage itself )." The Baron returned to Germany just prior to World War I, where he took his own life.
Freytag-Loringhoven discovered the ring and anointed it a piece of art in 1913, one year before Marcel Duchamp would present his Bottle Rack, known as the first "readymade." The readymade is an ordinary object, often industrial in nature, which the artist selects and sometimes modifies, designating it art. This strategy calls into question long-held tenets about the originality of the artist and the uniqueness of the art object.
Despite the similarity in artistic strategy, a major difference between Duchamp's and Freytag-Loringhoven's work lies in the lives of their objects. Whereas Duchamp's readymades were made with a nod to the exchange of objects and money in the art world, Freytag-Loringhoven's circulated among other channels. As art historian Amelia Jones writes, the "Baroness's readymade and assembled objects either self-destructed or very slowly percolated out into the world. " Enduring Ornament was one of four objects that the Baroness gave to friends Pavel Tchelitchew and Allen Tanner while living in Berlin in the 1920s and only it resurfaced eight decades later.
Rusted metal ring - Private Collection
The readymade sculpture God epitomizes the spirit and avant-garde strategies of New York Dada. Made in the same year as Duchamp's famous Fountain, a urinal turned on its side, God consists of a cast iron drain trap set on its end, mounted on a miter box. Freytag-Loringhoven elevates the everyday and industrial to art and asks us to question the use-value and aesthetic-value of art. God shows a Dadaist irreverence toward the authority of a higher power, substituting the holy image with that of lowly plumbing materials. Duchamp once observed that "The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges ." Along with Duchamp's Fountain, God gives an ironic nod to Duchamp's declaration. The sculpture, a pipe that no longer functions as it should, also suggests a twisted phallus, perhaps the Baroness' critique of a male-dominated, phallocentric society.
Just as Duchamp's championing of the readymade eclipsed the Baroness' first use of it, God was, until recently, attributed to Morton Schamberg, an artist known for his photographs of abstracted machine imagery. The attribution is likely from the fact that the Baroness ripped out the clogged pipe in Schamberg's studio and attached it (perhaps with Schamberg's assistance) to the miter box, at which time Schamberg photographed it in his studio.
Plumbing trap mounted on miter box - Philadelphia Museum of Art
Made during her years in New York City, Freytag-Loringhoven's Cathedral, a piece of found, fractured wood with irregular, elongated lines, mounted simply on a piece of scrap construction wood, suggests the outline of the city's distinctive skyscrapers. Replacing the sleek lines and materials with jagged wood, Cathedral offers an organic riposte to the rationalism of the steel and glass skyscrapers that were beginning to rise around the city. One of the early skyscrapers, the Woolworth Building, finished in 1912, was known at the time as the "Cathedral of Commerce." With this suggestively titled readymade, the Baroness offers a critique of the capitalist society that worshipped the god of commerce over all else.
Art historian Irene Gammel suggests that Cathedral is also analogous to the Baroness's bodily performances in the public spaces of urban New York, writing, "the Baroness proudly displayed her weathered and erotic body - and conceptualized New York City in the upright dignity and weathered stateliness of her Cathedral. Both precariously aging bodies tell the tale of braving the elements - a tale of quotidian survival." Having spent most of her life in abject poverty, the Baroness was said to have acquired a rather haggard appearance early on in life but, refusing to accept normative standards of beauty and sexuality, continued to use her body as an expressive and disruptive force.
Wood fragment, 10 7/16 in. - Philadelphia Museum of Art
Portrait of Marcel Duchamp
"Her best-known sculptures look like cocktails and the underside of toilets," art critic Alan Moore wrote of the Baroness' body of work. Portrait of Marcel Duchamp in effect serves up the artist as if a cocktail, adorned with feathers and precariously presented as if a delicate, rare bird. In this abstract portrait, Freytag-Loringhoven does not attempt to present a likeness of the artist, the target for her unrequited love, but instead presents an assemblage of found feathers and other detritus to hint at Duchamp's essential nature. Initially, the Baroness had intended the sculpture as a trophy to give to Duchamp for "The Most Inventive Artist." It is possible, though, that the Baroness was subtly poking fun at Duchamp. She wrote to Jane Heap, one of the editors of The Little Review, "cheap bluff giggle frivolity that is what Marcel now can only give. What does he care about 'art'? He is it."
No longer extant, this photograph by Charles Sheeler provides the only documentation of the sculpture. While Duchamp did not return the Baroness' romantic advances, the anti-mimetic portrait suggests an ongoing collaboration and dialogue between the two artists. An earlier, painted portrait of Duchamp with two of his readymades, as well as the artists' collaboration for The Baroness Elsa Shaves Her Pubic Hair, show just how connected the artists were in their lives and work. However, until the recent interventions of feminist art historians, Freytag-Loringhoven had more often been regarded as a muse than as Duchamp's equal.
Assemblage of miscellaneous objects in a wine glass
Freytag-Loringhoven's sculpture Limbswish exemplifies the artist's practice of incorporating found objects into her everyday dress, thus collapsing the distinction between life and art. The curtain tassel which hangs within the core of Limbswish's metal spiral was sometimes worn at the hip by the Baroness as she paraded about in the streets. The title of the work is itself a poetic pun referring to the movement it made when worn as an adornment (limb/swish, limbs/wish). The object was itself a kind of performer, making a distinctive sound as the Baroness walked.
Limbswish demonstrates the artist's interest in making kinetic objects that have a corporeal component. Even when mounted to a wooden base, Limbswish appears bouncy, the coiled spring dangling like an earring. As Irene Gammel suggests, the work may also subtly refer to the Baroness's own gender transgressions, as the term "swishes" was used to describe some gay men who publicly referred to themselves as "fairies." Against the backdrop of the "boys' club" of Dada, Freytag-Loringhoven's unabashed sexual references and unapologetic bodily presence countered gender norms. Works such as Limbswish assert that a woman could be provocative rather than passive. Amelia Jones, in her book Irrational Modernism: A Neurasthenic History of New York Dada, argues that it is with the Baroness' provocations that we may find the limit to the progressiveness of Dada. Frequently described by her male peers as repulsive and threatening, "she also functioned as a site of violent projections. She was thus a figure who pointed to the limits of avant-gardism as such."
Metal spring and curtain tassel - Private Collection
Dada Portrait of Berenice Abbott
The photographer Berenice Abbott, the subject of Freytag-Loringhoven's 1923-26 portrait, was a lifelong friend and supporter of the Baroness. Abbott met Freytag-Loringhoven in New York in 1919 and was taken with the artist's performative transgressions. Abbott said of her friend, "she invented and introduced trousers with pictures and ornaments painted on them. This was an absolute outrage... Elsa possessed a wonderful figure, statuesque and boyishly lean. I remember her wonderful stride, as she walk[ed] up the street toward my house." Freytag-Loringhoven's portrait of Abbott is resplendent with myriad materials and textures.
Rich with references to Abbott's appearance and life, Freytag-Loringhoven's portrait captures her close personal relationship with Abbott. Freytag-Loringhoven's dog - who purportedly had a particular fondness toward Abbott - is pictured in the bottom of the canvas and a handlebar mustache on Abbott's face serves to represent her androgyny. The portrait showers Abbott's image with adornments, including a brush with a white stone, a brooch, and gold-encrusted eyelashes. Not only does Freytag-Loringhoven's portrait bespeak the artist's intimate knowledge of Abbott, but it is also an innovative example of mixed media collage. Building on Synthetic Cubism, the sheer number and complexity of materials used is unusual for its time and looks forward to the painting practices of the later 20th century.
Gouache, metallic paint, and tinted lacquer with varnish, metal foil, celluloid, fiberglass, glass beads, metal objects, cut-and-pasted painted paper, gesso, and cloth on paperboard - Museum of Modern Art, New York