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Artists in 60 Seconds: Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

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Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven - Limbswish, ca. 1917-18

Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (German, 1874-1927). Limbswish, ca. 1917-1918. Metal spring, curtain tassel, and wire mounted on wood block. Height with base: 21 11/16 in. (55.1 cm); base approx. 14 x 7 1/2 in. (35.6 x 19.1 cm).

Mark Kelman, New York

Movement, Style, School or Type of Art:

Date and Place of Birth:

July 12, 1874, Swinemünde, Germany*

The artist's name at birth was Else Hildegard Ploetz, daughter of Adolf Julius Wilhelm, a builder, and Ida-Marie (née Kleist), a well-bred, musical Pole. The Ploetz's would have one other child, Charlotte Louise, born a year after Else.

*In 1874 Swinemünde, which sits on the Baltic Sea coastline, was in the Province of Pomerania in the Kingdom of Prussia during the Imperial German Realm (1871–1918). When this region was ceded by Germany to Poland in the wake of WWII, Swinemünde officially became Świnoujście. However, both names continue to be used.

Early Life:

The Ploetz household was not the setting for an idyllic childhood. According to Elsa, her father was gregarious in public, but verbally and physically abusive behind closed doors. Ida-Marie -- who never forgave or forgot that Adolf had given her syphilis on their wedding night -- quietly mastered the art of passive-aggression in order to punish her husband. Charlotte instinctively seemed to make herself invisible, going along to get along.

Elsa, on the other hand, became increasingly stubborn, outspoken, and at odds with her father. Ida-Marie doted on her eldest daughter, but also unfairly thrust Elsa into the role of friend and confidant. As her mother's health failed, Elsa became convinced that it was her father's fault. Ida-Marie died when Elsa was 18. Too embarrassed to see a doctor with the advanced syphilis that had also diminished her mental capacity, she was killed by uterine cancer. Adolf remarried after three months and, following a bitter exchange involving her new step-mother, Elsa ran off to Berlin to live with Ida-Marie's step-sister.

Elsa and her aunt co-existed peacefully ... for a matter of weeks, during which the girl used her newly found freedom to discover that she very much enjoyed close encounters of the sexual kind. Horrified, her aunt kicked Elsa to the curb with 100 marks and instructions not to come back. And thus Elsa's adult life began.

Becoming an Artist:

Unable to find work, Elsa auditioned for a theater job out of desperation and was hired to be in the "Living Marble Statue" review. While the review was on tour, her aunt had a change of heart and wrote offering to send Elsa to acting school. She returned to Berlin brimming with optimism (and a raging case of gonorrhea). Nothing much ever came from Elsa's involvement with the theater crowd, save for becoming known in Bohemian circles. Drawn to artists, she had a lengthy affair with Melchior Lechter (1865-1937), a short one with Ernst Hardt (1869-1917), and a platonic relationship with Richard Schmitz (1876-1950), with whom she toured Italy for two years.

Eventually, Elsa became old enough to receive a modest inheritance from Ida-Marie. She took the money and moved to Dachau, with its artists' colony, to take lessons. There she met the Jugendstil architect August Endell (1871-1925). Walter and Elsa wed in April, 1901. Unbeknown to the bride, Endell was impotent and their marriage would not be consummated. In 1903, she stranded him in Naples and left for Sicily with his friend, a translator named Felix Paul Greve. The fact that they "eloped" while married to other people was of little importance to the couple, who eventually married one another in 1907.

The two of them lived a nomadic lifestyle in Europe until 1909, when Felix staged his own death and sailed to America, restyling himself along the way into the writer Frederick Philip Grove (1879-1948). Elsa waited a year -- so as not to arouse suspicion -- before traveling to meet him in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Together they settled on a small farm in Kentucky. This was unsuitable in itself, and Greve/Grove compounded the weirdness by declining to resume the physical side of their relationship. He left Elsa in 1911 after one year on the farm, and she found herself alone in a hostile environment, unable to speak English. By sheer determination, she managed to get to nearby Cincinnati and find work as an artists' model. Slowly she made her way east toward New York City, modeling and meeting artists along the journey.

Elsa was (probably purposefully) vague about when, exactly, she arrived in New York City, but we do know that she married Baron Leopold von Freytag-Loringhoven in November, 1913. (Less clear is whether or not she legally divorced either Endell or Grove before becoming Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven. No records exist indicating that she had.) Leo, who had a noble Baltic German name and no money, was 28 at the time. Elsa, who was now 39, lied and said that she, too, was 28. It is doubtful that Leo became aware of her deception, as he went back to fight in WWI after a few months of marriage. Discovering that war was not to his liking, Leo summarily killed himself. Elsa, his widow, received no family money and was left to her devices in New York City. At least she had a title -- an "asset" she used liberally for the rest of her life.

Dada's Darling:

For possibly the only instance in her life, Elsa's timing was perfect. Many of the European Dadaists had emigrated to the US and settled in New York City's Greenwich Village during WWI. Elsa quickly met Man Ray while modeling for a class he was taking at the Ferrer School in Manhattan, and through him became a friend of Marcel Duchamp.

Elsa got her Dada credibility by executing a series of ready-made sculptures, constructed of both found and stolen objects. More importantly, her Dada-esque poetry was published in many avant-garde literary magazines, most notably The Little Review.

Topping her sculptures and poems, however, was the Performance Art that comprised the life of the Baroness. One never knew what, if anything (her proclivity for nudity cannot be stressed enough; to her, nudity was a costume), Elsa would be wearing while roaming the streets on any given day -- often reciting her poems to stunned passers-by. She had a tendency to shave her head and paint it, sometimes topping it with a coal hod lid. She was also prone to shoplifting and grew adept at leaping from the back of a moving paddy wagon. In short, the Baroness became legendary -- and this was no small feat in the already-eccentric Village.

Sadly for Elsa, Dada was over and most of her friends had returned to Europe by the early 1920s. Overcome with homesickness, she returned to Berlin in 1923. And this, in a lifetime of poor choices and unfortunate timing, proved to be her downfall. She had expected heaven and marched headlong into hell. Germany was at the peak of its post-war inflation and unemployment that year, forcing the once-again penniless Baroness to eke out an existence selling newspapers. She didn't complain, but mercilessly cursed herself for her stupidity and tried to get out of Berlin using every trick she had ever learned.

After three years of misery, partially spent in and out of insane asylums, Elsa inherited one last sum of money. Augmented with modest gifts from her female friends in France, it was enough to buy her a ticket to Paris and rent a room there. By this time, however, her once-blazing fire was reduced to embers. Simply put, the woman was tired. Her behavior was now so erratic even her closest friends began to keep their distance, and she looked much older than her years. Her time in Paris was short, abruptly terminated by death.

Best Known For:

Though neither her works nor her name are instantly recognized in the 21st Century, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven was the living embodiment of Dada in her time. There was no division between her life and her art, and both of them shook up the bourgeoisie.

Simply by being, she had profound effects on the other Dadaists who knew her: some applauded; some were repulsed; and many came to fear her. Avant-garde publisher Jane Heap (1883-1964) summed her up best by saying that the Baroness was " ... the only one living anywhere who dresses Dada, loves Dada, lives Dada."

Important Works:

  • God, ca. 1917
  • Limbswish, ca. 1917-18
  • Cathedral, 1918
  • Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, 1920

Date and Place of Death:

December 14, 1927, Paris

The gas in Elsa's room was left on overnight and she died of asphyxiation at age 53. The larger question was whether it was an accident or suicide. She had been teetering close to the edge for years, was in poor health from hard living and congenital syphilis, and was penning thoughts of suicide to friends -- most of whom believed that she killed herself. However, Peggy Guggenheim and the poet Djuna Barnes (Elsa's closest friend) both felt that it was another performance piece ... gone fatally wrong.

Djuna Barnes could not recall later if Elsa's body was buried, let alone where.

A Quote From Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven:

Madness and truth are the same.

Sources and Further Reading:

Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven papers, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.

Gammel, Irene. Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada,
and Everyday Modernity -- A Cultural Biography
.
     Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003.

Heap, Jane. "Dada."
     The Little Review, Spring 1922: 46.

Hjartarson, Paul I. and Tracy Kulba (eds.)
The Politics of Cultural Mediation: Baroness Elsa von
Freytag-Loringhoven and Felix Paul Greve
.
     Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2003.

Cotter, Holland. "The Mama of Dada."
     The New York Times, May 19, 2002.

Jones, Amelia. Irrational Modernism: A Neurasthenic History of New York Dada.
     Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.

Reilly, E. J. "Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven."
     Womans Art Journal Vol 18; Number 1 (1997): 26-33.

Reiss, Robert. "'My Baroness': Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven."
     Dada/Surrealism 14 (1985): 81-101.

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