Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, the Dada Baroness Who Invented the Readymade

Vanessa Thill
Sep 18, 2018 4:44PM

Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, God, c. 1917. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On a regular day, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven wore brightly colored makeup, postage stamps on each cheek, and a shaved head shellacked in various hues. Her accoutrements also included live birds, packs of dogs, a tomato-can bra, arms full of bangles, and flashing lights. Her unconventionally forthright poetry and rugged found-object sculptures—often incorporated into her outfits—unsettled social hierarchy and accepted gender norms, and distinctions between art and life. The Baroness was a dynamo in New York’s literary and art scene at the turn of the century, part of the Arensberg Salon group that included Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Beatrice Wood, Francis Picabia, Mina Loy, and many others. She combined sculpture, fashion, poetry, and performance to embody an anti-bourgeois lifestyle driven by passion and an emotional reactivity to her surroundings.

Born Else Hildegard Plötz in Germany in 1874, she ran away to the vaudeville theaters of Berlin as a teenager, and before long, she was part of the inner circle of Munich’s Art Nouveau movement. Following several sexual flings that took her across Italy, she helped her second husband fake his own death and start a new life on a Kentucky farm. After they parted ways, she traveled through Virginia and Ohio before arriving in New York, where she briefly married an impoverished Baron and took on his title. The Baroness became a downtown Manhattan legend, known as much for her dazzling costumes and aggressive seduction techniques as for her visceral sculptures and witty poetry. Most importantly, she invented the readymade—a sculpture pulled directly from the materials of daily life, radical in its implications that art can be anything.

The Baroness’s sculptures were more than banal objects—they indicated the artist as an invigorating force of otherwise overlooked material. The painter George Biddle wrote of a visit to her 14th Street studio: “It was crowded and reeking with strange relics, which she had purloined over a period of years from the New York gutters. Old bits of ironware, automobile tires, gilded vegetables, a dozen starved dogs, celluloid paintings, ash cans, every conceivable horror, which to her tortured yet highly sensitized perception, became objects of formal beauty.”


Sometimes worn or affixed to garments, the Baroness’s object-sculptures were always resourceful, full of character, and totally absurd. In a letter to artist Sarah Freedman McPherson, Freytag-Loringhoven wrote: “Sarah, if you find a tin can on the street stand by it until a truck runs over it. Then bring it to me.” Her first readymade work was a heavily rusted metal ring, Enduring Ornament (1913), named as a work of art a year before Duchamp created his first readymade, Bottle Rack (1914), though he coined the now-famous term.

The most scandalous theory that surrounds the Baroness is that she is an uncredited collaborator with Duchamp on his famous Fountain (1917), a urinal signed “R. Mutt” that was first exhibited at the 1917 Society of Independent Artists’ Salon in New York. Irene Gammel puts forth a convincing argument of the Baroness’s influence on Duchamp’s artwork in her outstanding 2002 biography Baroness Elsa. Duchamp must have conspired with others to be able to contribute Fountain to the salon anonymously, and the Baroness was close friends with him, though he had refused her advances.

A 1917 letter from Marcel to his sister, the painter Suzanne Duchamp, reads: “One of my female friends under a masculine pseudonym Richard Mutt sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture. It was not at all indecent—no reason for refusing it. The committee has decided to refuse to show this thing.” An account from Alfred Stieglitz corroborates that it was a woman who was responsible for bringing a large porcelain urinal on a pedestal to the salon. Stieglitz may have been referring to Duchamp’s female alter ego Rrose Sélavy; even so, she was likely modeled after the Baroness.

The urinal is consistent with the Baroness’s choice of sexual, bawdy, or otherwise “unseemly” subject matter in her other works. Contemporary newspaper accounts reported that Richard Mutt was from Philadelphia, where the Baroness was living in 1917. Although Duchamp stated that he purchased the urinal from J.L. Mott Iron Works, a plumbing store on 5th Avenue, the specific model has never been found in its catalogues from that time period. The sculpture itself disappeared shortly after the exhibition, and the first reproduction of Fountain wasn’t created until 1950, long after the Baroness’s death in 1927.

Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Affectionate (Wheels are Growing), 1921-22. Courtesy of Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, New York.

Yet she never claimed authorship of Fountain, and she was not known for holding back, especially near the end of her life. In bitter destitution, Freytag-Loringhoven begged and threatened her more successful colleagues, publicly thrashing those she felt had wronged her. She caricatured “Marcel Dushit,” among others, in the poem “Graveyard Surrounding Nunnery,” accompanied by a drawing of intertwined phalluses among the tombstones.

The lasting body of her work is her poetry, published by Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap in The Little Review. The Baroness was the perfect figurehead for the literary magazine’s slogan: “Making No Compromise with the Public Taste.” Her audacious writing broke new ground formally; its fractured punctuation and cantatory sound elements rival the sound poem “Karawane” (1916), a landmark Dada work by Hugo Ball. Although her vocabulary is sometimes nonsensical, Freytag-Loringhoven’s work is also steeped in lyricism. In a proto-Beat style, she wrote about sex, death, machinery, and America.

Her poems appeared side-by-side with James Joyce’s Ulysses, which was serialized in The Little Review. The May 1919 issue included his chapter “Scylla and Charybdis” and her poem “King Adam,” the latter of which offers a thinly veiled invocation of cunnilingus: “Kiss me…upon the gleaming hill.” An asterisk cheekily adds: “donated to the censor.” A 1921 obscenity trial banned the distribution of Joyce’s work in the United States. Few in New York’s avant-garde echoed the Baroness’s vocal defense of his work, yet her edgy texts seemed to intensify the call for censorship against them both.

Claude McRay (i.e., McKay) and Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven, before 1928. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Facing, 1924. Courtesy of Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, New York.

Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven lived to defy the law. Because she never monetized her art, she lived her entire life in extreme poverty, and was arrested frequently for shoplifting. Although Anderson observed in her autobiography that she “leaped from patrol wagons with such agility that policemen let her go in admiration,” she did numerous stints in jail for stealingand for wearing men’s clothing in publicamong other charges.

Ever the renegade, her lack of financial success and canonization is in part due to her disregard for finalizing her objects as art. She worked against this binary to infuse art into daily life, often in collaboration with those around her. Sadly, it seems that much of the Baroness’s non-written work was not documented or preserved due to her financial straits, and when it was, others sometimes took credit. Her most famous readymade sculpture, a twisting piece of rusted plumbing attached to a miter box, entitled GOD (1917), was long misattributed to Morton Livingston Schamberg, who had photographed it.

On a broader level, Freytag-Loringhoven’s work could precipitate a feminist re-reading of Dada, the readymade, and the history of Conceptual art as we know it. In the 2000s, her work resurfaced with several international shows, Gammel’s biography, and a major anthology of her poetry, published in 2011. As Gammel writes, the Baroness’s erotic and embodied approach to art in everyday life was vital, chaotic, and fundamentally perishable. She was the living consequence of challenging the nature of art in society.

In Apropos of Readymades, Duchamp’s 1961 statement about his sculpture, he writes: “The choice was based on a reaction of visual indifference with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste…in fact a complete anaesthesia.” Freytag-Loringhoven’s definition of the readymade is the opposite: Where Marcel’s work is thoughtful, yet dry as a bone, Elsa’s is confident and deeply felt. In her readymade, there’s undeniable joy.

Vanessa Thill