Table of Contents
1 Who was Elsa
2 The postion of the woman in general and the postion of Elsa in the New York Dada group
3 Elsa behaviour differed from the images of a bourgoise society
4 Elsa’s art
Never conventional, never following the rules of any given norm, but in contrast, making ironic statements on society, turning “normal” items, traditions or circumstances into absurdity. This was what Dada artists like Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Man Ray, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and other practitioners were aiming at. A well-remembered incident is the scandal that introduced the concept of Dadaism into American Art. Duchamp brought a urinal to the first exhibition of the Society of Independent artists on 10 April 1917. He did not change anything, but moved it from its original place, called it “Fountain” and signed it with the pseudonym “R. Mutt”. Only four days before the exhibition took place, president Woodrow Wilson had declared war on Germany. As Michael R. Taylor writes in his essay “New York Dada”, this event “may have played a role in Duchamp’s decision to enter his scandalous submission”. The New York Dada artists wanted to show their neglect of the cruel war in Europe and with their art challenged ideas about art which were commonly accepted. They produced “paintings, mixed-media assemblages, sculptures, found objects, readymades, photography, and performances” (Taylor, 277). With the photomontage, the film or a photography the author of a work could not be guessed by looking at the work of art (Taylor, 277), the importance of the work was rather the message behind it. The message to a society which had absurd traditions, absurd machineries whith which people killed each other and a society that had cultural prejudices, which again were absurd. Having this common interest the New York Dada artists soon came together in the appartment of Louise and Walter Arensberg in 33 West 67th Street which served for their meetings from 1915 to 1921. “It was while surrounded by this stunning array of paintings and sculpture that the group members hotly debated such topics as art, literature, sex, politics, and psychoanalysis, while others preferred to play chess, drink champagne, or dance the night away in their bare feet.” (Taylor, 278). Although they opposed many traditions, which were deeply set in a constructed society, they did not oppose the patriarchal structure that was still part of it. Therefore, the Dada movement was male dominated and did not encourage the women. Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven is one of the female artists following the concept of Dada. Although she was never paid for her art she did not give up her spirits to produce art. I will reflect on her position in the male dominated New York Dada group, on her life, including her childhood and on her art and how it was influenced by her family history. I chose Elsa, because she was a very extraordinary Dada artist. She performed herself and in contrary to the others did not part her private life from her work, but she lived the concept of Dadaism. I will explain how she did this in the following chapter.
1 Who was Elsa
Elsa Plötz was born in Swinemünde, Germany, on 12 July 1874. When she graduated from Girls High School in 1890 she went to Berlin to study arts. Back at Swinemünde the 18-year-old girl Elsa experienced a situation in which her brutal father almost killed her. This was the starting point for her to become a radical rebel and to deny any form of patriarchal structure, in which the male power dominated. She went back to Berlin to live with her aunt and never returned to her family. At the age of 27 she married the architect August Endell, however, only a year and a half later she had an affair with Felix Paul Greve. In 1907 Elsa married Greve, they parted and she came to New York in 1913 as Elsa Greve. In November of the same year she married Leopold Baron von Freytag-Loringhoven, who soon went to Europe by ship as a German officer but on his way was captured by the French and became a prisoner. Having no income Elsa started her career as a nude model. In 1915 Elsa became a friend of Marcel Duchamp. She was 41 years old by then and soon entered the New York dada group, although in a way she never fully integrated, but was a marginal figure, who had her own creativity.
As written in the introduction, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874-1927) was a special character and led a very extraordinary way of life. Provocation was what this extrovert woman was aiming at. She used to shave her head and sometimes she coloured it in very bright colours like red. She wore yellow makeup and used black lipstick. Finally, she put an American stamp on her cheek. She presented her body as a work of art and according to this dressed up very unique. She never wanted to wear conventional clothes and created costumes which she wore on street (Gammel 2002, 182). The New York Morning Telegraph Sunday Magazine once decribed Baroness Elsa when she arrived at a ball. They wrote that she wore seventy black and purple anclets, she had put a foreign stamp onto her cheek and on her head she wore a wig coloured in purple and gold. To this she wore red trousers (Gammel 2002, 191). Her costumes were so provocative that she was arrested a few times for wearing them. She used to decorate and therefore perform herself. For instance, she created a copy of Marcel Duchamp’s work Nude and used it as a sex toy making it hang down her trousers. “An art charged with kinetic energy, presenting her original kinesthetic dada – a truly new form of art” (Gammel 2002, 172). Another decoration were her unconventional “earrings”, which were originally teespoons, mass-produced items. She also wore soup cans on her body and she sewed car taillights onto her dress. Most of these items she found in the streets of New York “mirroring back New York’s gutter beauty” (Gammel 2002, 184). But not solely these death items were used by Elsa. She would also wear a small birdcage bound around her neck with a reall bird in it or in the context of her performance she would go for a walk leading five dogs. “The Baroness was a museum body, an archivist collecting New York City’s contemporary consumer objects” (Gammel 2002, 186). Considering these facts, Elsa was an extrovert person in the provocative way she dressed up. Irene Gammel quotes from Robert Motherwell that due to her provocative self-performances Elsa “’became famous in New York for her transposition of Dada into her daily life’” (Gammel 2002, 197). Another example is Elsa’s very open deal with her sexuality. According to memoirs she wrote about herself, Elsa fell in love with a naval officer when she was eight. At the age of twelve she adorred another military officer’s daughter. In 1893, after the death of her mother, Elsa started to search for a lover in public insolently and nearly scandalously. She enjoyed dressing up in front of a mirror, wearing very erotic outfits and started to daydream that one lover after the other came into her window, a desire of hers. She was also fond of the idea that her father would enter the room and aggressively throw the lovers out. In Berlin she almost drove her aunt mad with her sexual discoveries. Elsa wrote “I had become mansick […] over the top of my head” (Naumann 1994, 169). As a consequence, Elsa’s aunt saw no way out than to chase Elsa away. After the break with her aunt she made her first lesbian experiences. Other examples can be given from her times in New York, where she started to decorate her body. As mentioned before she wore a copy of Duchamp’s Nude on her waist. To her this was a phallic symbol, a fake penis. She used the “penis” as her accessory, the part of a man’s body which was also a sign of controll in a partriarchal society. She demanded the same rights which men had and therefore presented herself as a man-woman. The penis as an object was represented as something that is reproducable. So every woman could have it, which also signified the new woman’s request for sexual pleasure. Elsa worked as a nude model, therefore she did not have problems to be naked in public. She even was arrested once for public nudity, when she only wore a blanket walking through the streets of New York. She was fascinated and addicted to Marcel Duchamp. She openly made advances for him. She not only wrote love letters to him, but touched him in order to make clear that he was her sexual desire. He refused to be close to her. This again shows Elsa’s very extrovert behaviour in a society, even within the Dada group in which the women normally were asked by men to be their girlfriends or where men made the first move in general. But not for Elsa. She wanted him and therefore made these obvious advancements. The same happened to Williams, who wrote that he loved her, but only because he was so inspired by her. Elsa misunderstood him and after asking him for a kiss she wanted them to make love. Williams was shocked by her behaviour and left her appartment (Naumann 1994, 174).