THE TYPICAL THUMBNAIL PORTRAIT of the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven usually goes like this. She was the Queen of New York Dada from 1913 to 1923, the first to wear clothes made of discarded clothes and rubbish (including a brassiere made of tin cans). She constructed assemblage-style art in the manner of Marcel Duchamp, and her scatological proclivities may have inspired his seminal Fountain. She was prone to spontaneous “performance,” often in the nude, and was sexually aggressive in a decidedly “masculine” way. She courted Duchamp actively and mocked him in poems (dubbing him “M’ars” — my arse), and chased right to his front lawn in Rutherford, New Jersey the relatively prudish doctor-poet William Carlos Williams, who, legend has it, learned how to box in order to deck her in self-defense.
Since her rediscovery by scholars over a decade ago, photographs of the Baroness have become, in their way, as iconic of the era of Dada as any. Most famous are a pair snapped by International News documenting her “Body Performance Poem” in her Greenwich Village studio, wearing what appears to be a corset made of maritime flags, a striped bathing suit with 12-inch fringes hanging from the knees, and a leather helmet with a single propeller exploding from her temple. The Baroness poses racing forward, as if imitating a Futurist sculpture by Umberto Boccioni, looking like a cross between the gremlin in the Bugs Bunny cartoon (the one who hammers away at an atom bomb as his plane is in vertical descent) and an athlete from Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary about the Berlin Olympics, Olympia (not to be made for another 25 years).
Though a real Baroness by marriage, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven — born Elsa Hildegard Plötz in 1874 in the Polish port city of Swinoujscie — had a relatively humble middle-class upbringing, with a reserved Polish mother and a physically abusive German father, and in later years lived a life of teetering on poverty. The Baron in question, whom she married in New York in 1913 before divorcing her previous husband (who had deserted her), absconded with their meager savings in order to return to Germany to fight in the war. Elsa managed to eke out a living as a model while creating most of the writing and art collected in the present volume. She finally returned to Europe in 1923 to live out her last years even poorer than she had been in New York. She befriended the writer Djuna Barnes, best known today as author of Nightwood, who became a great supporter (and object of sexual affection). The Baroness, known in her last years simply as Elsa, died of asphyxiation in Paris in 1927, most likely a suicide, after leaving the gas of her recently acquired, and beloved, ancient potbellied stove turned on.
The range and disparate nature of the Baroness’s work — for it’s now clear that she was, in fact, an artist, even though it’s unlikely that anyone in her time considered her spontaneous performances to be art — arguably makes ...