Dada Baroness

She wore a trailing blue-green dress and a peacock fan. One side of her face was decorated with a canceled postage stamp (two-cent American, pink). Her lips were painted black, her face powder was yellow. She wore the top of a coal scuttle for a hat, strapped on under her chin like a helmet. Two mustard spoons at the side gave the effect of feathers.

Elsa Hildegard Plötz, this startling vision, arrived in the US from Germany in 1910 with her mutinous spirit as substantial an item of baggage as any of her trunks. By that time she had been married twice, been a prostitute, an artist’s model, a cabaret dancer, an uncredited writer. But it was in the New World that she made the connections that would recommended her, if insufficiently, to the ages. The first was her association with Marcel Duchamp and embrace of Dadaism which liberated her poetry and her art. The second was the grand title she collected from her second husband, a fellow German expatriate, to become Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.

Almost nothing is known of the baron, but Freytag-Loringhoven’s pursuit of men generally constituted stalking rather than courting. The poet William Carlos Williams rued a short affair with her and was haunted by the baroness’s plaintive cry, “Villiam Carlos Villiams, I vant you“. Duchamp simply lived in terror of her.

There is ample evidence to suggest that the “Dada Baroness”, with her compulsion to invest mass-produced objects with totemic significance, exerted a strong influence on Duchamp’s readymades and thus on the entire history of 20th century art. She may well have given Duchamp the urinal which became his most notorious work, Fountain. From the same year, 1917, dates Freytag-Loringhoven’s own sanitaryware sculpture, an arrangement of pipes entitled God.

But it is no slight to say that Elsa herself was her own masterpiece, her own found object. She made no distinction between art and self; for publisher Jane Heap she was “the only one living anywhere who dresses dada, loves dada, lives dada.”

Freytag-Loringhoven with Djuna Barnes

Margaret Anderson’s description at the top of this post was echoed by the awed, amazed, appalled impressions of other associates. The artist George Biddle witnessed the baroness dressed in a bra composed of tomato cans and a birdcage (with live canary), arms adorned with curtain rings, hat garnished with vegetables. Arresting ensembles which, as it happened, led to her arrest on several occasions.

Her verse was just as eccentric; fragmentary, erratically punctuated and spiced with evocative portmanteaux, full of private meaning but a world away from the anarchic syllable soup of some Dadaist poets. A sample:

Lake——palegreen——shrouded——
skylake——clouded——shrouded——
yearning——blackblue——
sickness of heart——
pomgranate hue——
sickness of longing——
——! you !

In cloud——nay——ach——shroud——
nay——ach——shroud—— !
of——breast——
sickness of longing
gulps
pomegranate hue
from heart in chest——
palegreen lake in chest !
—— you !

In 1923 the baroness returned to Europe, settling first in Berlin, then in Paris. The decline in her fortunes which had begun in New York continued unabated, and the possibility of suicide was raised numerous times in her correspondence of the time.

Still, nobody’s quite sure if the baroness planned her death. For one thing, she left no note; an unusual omission for someone given to broadcasting their innermost feelings. But whether by accident or design, in her Paris apartment on this day in 1927 she left the gas stove on in her kitchen, went to bed and never woke up.

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14 comments

  1. Sue Gilbert

    Did The Baroness actually invent performance art? It seems likely, although she ,may have got the idea from avant garde artists in Germany before she went to the USA. She almost certainly invented the concept of the found objet as art.

    • My impression is that Valeska Gert and the Cabaret Voltaire performers were a greater direct influence on performance artists, but like you say the Baroness took some of that spirit with her. And there seems to be a pretty straight line from her to people like Orlan, the kind of artists whose lives and work are indivisible.

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