Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

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Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven
Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.jpg
Born Else Hildegard Plötz
12 July 1874
Swinemünde, Province of Pomerania, German Empire
Died 15 December 1927(1927-12-15) (aged 53)
Paris, France
Known for Poetry, sound poetry
Notable work Body Sweats
Movement Dada, avant-garde
Spouse(s) August Endell

Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (sometimes also called Else von Freytag-von Loringhoven) (12 July 1874 – 15 December 1927) was a German-born avant-garde, Dadaist artist and poet who worked for several years in Greenwich Village, New York City, United States. Her provocative poetry was published posthumously in 2011 in Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.[1] The New York Times praised the book as one of the notable art books of 2011.[2]

Early life[edit]

Freytag-Loringhoven was born Else Hildegard Plötz in Swinemünde (Świnoujście), in Pomerania, Germany to Adolf Plötz and Ida Marie Kleist. Her father, a mason, physically and verbally abused her in her childhood.[citation needed] She trained and worked as an actress and vaudeville performer and had numerous affairs with artists in Berlin, Munich and Italy.

She studied art in Dachau, near Munich, before marrying in 1901, Berlin-based architect, August Endell, at which time she became Else Endell. She had an open relationship with her husband, and in 1902 she became involved romantically with a friend of Endell's, the minor poet and translator Felix Paul Greve (later the Canadian author Frederick Philip Grove), and all three went to Palermo in late January 1903. They then moved to various places, including Wollerau, Switzerland and Paris-Plage, France. In July 1910, she followed Greve to North America, where they operated a small farm in Sparta, Kentucky, not far from Cincinnati, Ohio. Grove eventually left, in 1911, and went west to a bonanza farm near Fargo, North Dakota, and came to Manitoba in 1912. She started modeling for artists in Cincinnati, and made her way east via West Virginia and Philadelphia, before she married in November 1913 the German Baron Leopold von Freytag-Loringhoven in New York. There, she became known as "the dadaist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven."

Immersion in the arts[edit]

In New York City, Freytag-Loringhoven supported herself by working in a cigarette factory and by posing as a model for artists such as Louis Bouché, George Biddle, and Man Ray. She also appeared in works by Man Ray, George Grantham Bain and others; lithography by George Biddle; and paintings by Theresa Bernstein.

The Baroness was a poet who was given a platform for her work in The Little Review, where, starting in 1918, her work was featured alongside the chapters of James Joyce's Ulysses. Jane Heap considered the Baroness “the first American dada.” She was an early female pioneer of sound poetry,[3] but also made creative use of the dash, while many of her portmanteau compositions, such as “Kissambushed” and “Phalluspistol,”[4] present[clarification needed] miniature poems. Most of her poems remained unpublished until the publications of Body Sweats.

In New York, the Baroness also worked on assemblage sculptures and paintings, creating art out of the rubbish and refuse she collected from the streets. The Baroness was also known to create elaborate costumes from found objects, turning herself into what could be considered a living piece of art.[5] An avid collaborator, the Baroness may have been involved in the conception of Marcel Duchamp's famous ready-made, Fountain (1917). As Irene Gammel has documented, the choice of a urinal as art work is more in line with Freytag-Loringhoven's scatological aesthetics than with Duchamp's.[6] Moreover, Duchamp indicates in a letter to his sister written in 1917 that a female friend of his had sent him the urinal for submission at the Independents Exhibition.[7][8] Rediscovered by the Whitney Museum in New York City in 1996, her Portrait of Marcel Duchamp (no longer extant) is an example of her ready-made pieces. She also contributed to New York Dada by collaborating with Morton Schamberg on the 1917 assemblage sculpture God.

In 1923, Freytag-Loringhoven went back to Berlin, expecting better opportunities to make money, but instead finding an economically devastated post-World War I Germany. Regardless of her difficulties in Weimar Germany, she remained there, penniless and on the verge of insanity.[citation needed] Several friends in the American expatriate community, in particular Djuna Barnes, Berenice Abbott, and Peggy Guggenheim, provided emotional and financial support.

Over the next few months Freytag-Loringhoven's mental stability steadily improved in Paris. However, she died on 14 December 1927 of gas suffocation after the gas was left on in her flat. She may have forgotten to turn the gas off, or someone else may have turned it on; the circumstances were never clear.[citation needed] She is buried in Paris, France at Père Lachaise Cemetery.


The Baroness was one of the “characters, one of the terrors of the district,” wrote her first biographer Djuna Barnes, whose book, however, remained unfinished.[9] In Irrational Modernism: A Neurasthenic History of New York Dada, Amelia Jones provides a revisionist history of New York Dada, expressed through the life and works of The Baroness.[10] The recent biography, Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity, by Irene Gammel, makes a case for the Baroness’s artistic brilliance and avant-garde spirit. The book explores the Baroness’s personal and artistic relationships with Djuna Barnes, Berenice Abbott, and Jane Heap, as well as with Duchamp, Man Ray, and William Carlos Williams. It shows the Baroness breaking every erotic boundary, reveling in anarchic performance, but the biography also presents her as Elsa’s friend Emily Coleman saw her, “not as a saint or a madwoman, but as a woman of genius, alone in the world, frantic.”[11]

In 2013, the artists Lily Benson and Cassandra Guan released The Filmballad of Mamadada,[12] an experimental biopic on the Baroness. The story of The Baroness' life was told through contributions from over fifty artists and filmmakers. The film premiered at Copenhagen International Documentary Festival [13] and was described as a, "playful and chaotic experiment that posits a return to a grand collective narrative via the postqueer populism of YouTube and crowdsourcing,"[14] by Art Forum.

Cultural references[edit]

The novel Holy Skirts, by Rene Steinke, a finalist for the 2005 National Book Award, is based on the life of the Freytag-Loringhoven. The title Holy Skirts comes from the title of a poem by Elsa.


  1. ^ Freytag-Loringhoven, Elsa von. Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven. Ed. Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelazo. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011.
  2. ^ The New York Times (November 21, 2011)
  3. ^ Gammel, Irene and Suzanne Zelazo. "'Harpsichords Metallic Howl—': The Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven's Sound Poetry." Modernism/modernity 18.2 (2011): 255-271.
  4. ^ Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelazo, “The First American Dada: Introduction,” in Freytag-Loringhoven, p. 17.
  5. ^ http://www.interviewmagazine.com/fashion/obsession-baroness-elsa-von-freytag-loringhoven
  6. ^ Gammel, Baroness Elsa, 224-225
  7. ^ Gammel, Baroness Elsa, p. 224-225.
  8. ^ Spalding, Julian; Thompson, Glyn (3 November 2014). "Did Marcel Duchamp steal Elsa’s urinal?". The Art Newspaper. 
  9. ^ Gammel, Baroness Elsa, p. 17.
  10. ^ http://mitpress.mit.edu/books/irrational-modernism
  11. ^ Gammel, Baroness Elsa, p. 16-17.
  12. ^ http://www.mamadada.info
  13. ^ http://cphdox.dk/en/screening/filmballad-mamadada
  14. ^ http://artforum.com/film/id=44533

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