Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (July 12, 1874 – December 15, 1927) was a German-born avant-garde, Dadaist artist and poet who spent most of her life in Greenwich Village, New York City.
Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (sometimes also called Else von Freytag-von Loringhoven) was born Elsa Hildegard Plötz in Swinemünde (Świnoujście), German Empire, to a German father and Polish mother. Her father, a mason, sexually and physically abused her in her childhood. She practiced prostitution, and had numerous affairs with both men and women throughout her lifetime, including the writer Djuna Barnes.
For a while she was an art student in Dachau, near Munich, before marrying in 1901 a Berlin-based architect, August Endell, at which time she became Else Endell. In 1902 she became (with her husband's knowledge) involved in an affair 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. When Grove left her there a year later, he headed west to a Bonanza Farm near Fargo, North Dakota, and came to Manitoba in 1912. She started posing 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".
Return to the arts
In New York City, Freytag-Loringhoven had very little money, and went back and forth between several jobs, before becoming a model for artists like Marcel Duchamp. She began working in art again, creating sculptures and paintings. Influenced by Duchamp's readymade pieces, Else created art out of other people's rubbish. Rediscovered by the Whitney Museum in New York City in 1996, her Portrait of Marcel Duchamp is an example of one of her readymade pieces.
She also contributed to Manhattan Dada by creating a 1917 sculpture titled God. It is an example of readymade art, a term coined by Marcel Duchamp in 1915 to describe his found art. God was originally attributed to a machine-painting follower of Francis Picabia named Morton Livingston Schamberg. This attribution has only recently been questioned. Schamberg was a precise artist who showed no inclination towards scatological humour which, given the nature of the work would seem necessary. It is probable that the Dada Baroness created the work during a two-month visit to Philadelphia, during which she worked with Schamberg. It is now believed that he merely photographed the sculpture, in front of a painting that is recognisably his. The Baroness subsequently left Philadelphia in high dudgeon, believing herself to have been snubbed by the local artistic community, returning to New York without her "God". This highly irreligeous Dada object is typical of the deliberately provocative and defiant artistic stance of the Baroness. It is now regarded as a sister piece to Marcel Duchamp's infamous Fountain sculpture which consists of an upended urinal. Both works were created in the same year and there is some uncertainty about who first had the idea of turning plumbing into art, Duchamp and the Baroness were friends during this period, they lived in the same apartment building and had many discussions late into the night.
God is 10 1/2 inches high and consists of a cast iron plumbing trap turned upside down and mounted on a wooden mitre box. The work is now in the Arensberg Collection in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Some of Freytag-Loringhoven's surreal poems appeared in the magazines The Little Review and transition. She and her husband became estranged during this period.
In 1923, Freytag-Loringhoven went back to Berlin, expecting better opportunities for money, but instead finding an economically devastated post-World War I Germany. Regardless of her strifes in Weimar Germany, she remained there, penniless and on the verge of insanity. Several friends in the artistic and writing communities, like Djuna Barnes, Bryher, Peggy Guggenheim and Natalie Barney, provided money to buy her a flat in Paris.
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 another may have turned it on; the circumstances were never clear.
The novel Holy Skirts, by Rene Steinke, a finalist for the 2005 National Book Award, is based on the life of the Freytag-Loringhoven.