Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven was a German artist, poet and pioneer of Performance Art, working in the early 20th century. Often adorned with extravagant found-object costumes she rejected the limitations of traditional mediums such as painting and sculpture. The publisher of The Little Review, Jane Heap, described the Baroness as “the first American dada […] dresses dada, loves dada, lives dada”.
‘The Baroness’, as she was known, was a true embodiment of the movement. Why, then, was she not celebrated in her lifetime, ultimately dying in poverty with very limited success of her ground-breaking works? When we look back at Dada, Marcel Duchamp is hailed as the most influential figure of this movement (and the very father of Conceptual Art, a god-like status for the artist), however, the Baroness’ work paralleled his experimentation with the nature of the art object.
From her early sentiments of desire and admiration, the Baroness had a change of heart towards Duchamp in the 1920s. Her poem Graveyard Surrounding Nunnery (1921) starts with the lines “When I was/ Young—foolish—/ I loved Marcel Dushit”. This scathing comment underlines the animosity she felt towards him. In another poem, Café du Dome (1927), published in the year of her death, the Baroness criticised the recognition and success that male figures received for their work while her accomplishments were largely ignored. Again, the Baroness directly refers to Duchamp with the line “Marcelled—”. By converting his name into a verb, she presents the elevation of Duchamp’s status and success within the art world as a common occurrence. Male artists are “Marcelled” into success, while the Baroness’ triumphs are overlooked. In the first line, the Baroness portrays her frustration by replacing the ordinarily used expression “for the love of God” to “For the love of Mike!”, substituting God with a contemporary male name, thus elevating the male figure to a divine status. Later in the poem, the male image is presented as a Christ figure on the cross with suctiondiscs, alluding to nails in his palms and “Topped avec rubberthistlewreath” as the crown of thorns. Significantly, the images which should invoke suffering, in this instance do not: sharp thorns and nails have been replaced with inoffensive rubber. The Baroness uses God imagery to ridicule Duchamp’s status and present him as a false prophet, which subverts the very language she once used to express her admiration, calling him her only God. The poem refers to both the Baroness’ criticism of Duchamp and the gendered exclusiveness of the art world.
Another example of the Baroness’ criticism of Duchamp can be seen in her Portrait of Marcel Duchamp (1920-22). The abstract portrait is an assemblage of collected found objects: fishing lure, metal cogs, and feathers bursting out of a wine glass in an extravagant display. The overall image of the sculpture is hectic. It is busy with objects that distract the viewer, and the showy exterior potentially conceals a lack of substance referring to the Baroness’ view on Duchamp. Fundamentally, though, there is no value or substance to these objects. Many elaborate elements refer to the sitter, the ostentatious peacock feathers protrude outwards, alluding to Duchamp’s female alter ego Rrose Sélavy, which he used in many of his artworks. However, it is possible that the Baroness was presenting Duchamp as a rare bird and praising his creative endeavors, but it is more likely intended to mock the artist. The trinket-like collection of items acts as a physical embodiment of the Baroness’ view that Duchamp’s work is insubstantial, echoing her poems.
The Baroness’ view on Duchamp changes throughout decades of working alongside him. Male artists have contributed to the development of Modernism, being recognised for the achievements and developments in their fields, whereas the Baroness and other female artists were, until the recently, almost forgotten in the narrative of Modernism, or more often relegate ed to the male artist’s muse. The Baroness often addresses the exclusivity of the modern art world in her work. The difference in acceptance between Duchamp’s and the Baroness’ artwork reveals a patriarchal society and calls for a reexamination of rejected or lost female artists.
Next: choose to explore to explore further these artists and movements:
Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven
Readymade and The Found Object
Sarah Daniels is a recent Fine Art and Art History graduate from Plymouth University and part of the second cohort of Student Ambassadors for The Art Story. She has an interest in the reception of women artists and the depiction of the female form in Modernism and plans to pursue a career in art writing and museum/gallery roles.