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. 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."
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 Teresa 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, but also made creative use of the dash, while many of her portmanteau compositions, such as “Kissambushed” and “Phalluspistol,” present 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 Most of her poems remained unpublished until the publications of Body Sweats.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. 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.Template:Gammel, 224-225 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.”
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.
Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven
Hardcover: 440 pages
Publisher: The MIT Press (October 28, 2011)
Amazon: Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven
As a neurasthenic, kleptomaniac, man-chasing proto-punk poet and artist, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven left in her wake a ripple that is becoming a rip--one hundred years after she exploded onto the New York art scene. As an agent provocateur within New York's modernist revolution, "the first American Dada" not only dressed and behaved with purposeful outrageousness, but she set an example that went well beyond the eccentric divas of the twenty-first century, including her conceptual descendant, Lady Gaga. Her delirious verse flabbergasted New Yorkers as much as her flamboyant persona. As a poet, she was profane and playfully obscene, imagining a farting God, and transforming her contemporary Marcel Duchamp into M'ars (my arse). With its ragged edges and atonal rhythms, her poetry echoes the noise of the metropolis itself. Her love poetry muses graphically on ejaculation, orgasm, and oral sex. When she tired of existing words, she created new ones: "phalluspistol," "spinsterlollipop," "kissambushed." The Baroness's rebellious, highly sexed howls prefigured the Beats; her intensity and psychological complexity anticipates the poetic utterances of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. Published more than a century after her arrival in New York, Body Sweats is the first major collection of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven's poems in English. The Baroness's biographer Irene Gammel and coeditor Suzanne Zelazo have assembled 150 poems, most of them never before published. Many of the poems are themselves art objects, decorated in red and green ink, adorned with sketches and diagrams, presented with the same visceral immediacy they had when they were composed.
Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity--A Cultural Biography by Irene Gammel
Paperback: 561 pages
Publisher: The MIT Press (August 29, 2003)
Amazon: Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity--A Cultural Biography
Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874?1927) is considered by many to be the first American dadaist as well as the mother of dada. An innovator in poetic form and an early creator of junk sculpture, "the Baroness" was best known for her sexually charged, often controversial performances. Some thought her merely crazed, others thought her a genius. The editor Margaret Anderson called her "perhaps the only figure of our generation who deserves the epithet extraordinary." Yet despite her great notoriety and influence, until recently her story and work have been little known outside the circle of modernist scholars.In Baroness Elsa, Irene Gammel traces the extraordinary life and work of this daring woman, viewing her in the context of female dada and the historical battles fought by women in the early twentieth century. Striding through the streets of Berlin, Munich, New York, and Paris wearing such adornments as a tomato-soup can bra, teaspoon earrings, and black lipstick, the Baroness erased the boundaries between life and art, between the everyday and the outrageous, between the creative and the dangerous. Her art objects were precursors to dada objects of the teens and twenties, her sound and visual poetry were far more daring than those of the male modernists of her time, and her performances prefigured feminist body art and performance art by nearly half a century.
Holy Skirts: A Novel of a Flamboyant Woman Who Risked All for Art (P.S.) by Rene Steinke
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial (December 27, 2005)
Amazon: Holy Skirts: A Novel of a Flamboyant Woman Who Risked All for Art
No one in 1917 New York had ever encountered a woman like the Bar-oness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven -- poet, artist, proto-punk rocker, sexual libertine, fashion avatar, and unrepentant troublemaker. When she wasn't stalking the streets of Greenwich Village wearing a brassiere made from tomato cans, she was enthusiastically declaiming her poems to sailors in beer halls or posing nude for Man Ray or Marcel Duchamp. In an era of brutal war, technological innovation, and cataclysmic change, the Baroness had resolved to create her own destiny -- taking the center of the Dadaist circle, breaking every bond of female propriety . . . and transforming herself into a living, breathing work of art.
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