The extraordinary life of a thrice-married penniless 20th century baroness who once shaved her pubic hair on film is being celebrated in a new exhibition.
Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven was a notorious performance artist in Twenties New York; she wore a cake as a hat, spoons as earrings and postage stamps as make-up and lived in poverty due to never monetizing her art.
Her title was acquired in New York in 1913 after a short marriage to an impoverished German baron, but she refused to bow down to bourgeois behavior – instead constantly defying convention and becoming a ‘downtown Manhattan legend’.
She called for people to have sex with whoever they wanted and frequently stepped out in men’s clothing, at a time when such behavior was taboo.
Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven was a notorious performance artist in Twenties New York; she wore a cake as a hat, spoons as earrings and postage stamps as make-up and lived in poverty due to never monetizing her art
The Baroness’ sculptures of rugged commonplace items and unconventionally forthright poetry – which is thought to have unsettled members of society at the time – is now being explored in a new exhibition at London’s Mimosa House, The Guardian reported.
Baroness Elsa was born Elsa Hildegard Plötz in the city of Świnoujście, now part of Poland, in 1874, to a middle-class family. She was the eldest of two siblings.
Her mother suffered for years with mental health before dying of cancer in 1893.
Her father had a history of abusive treatment towards his daughter, which led her to run away to Berlin to live with an aunt.
Already a rulebreaker who defied convention, for much of her early teenage years she performed vaudeville in the German city, before becoming part of the inner circle of Munich’s Art Nouveau movement.
Her first marriage was in 1901 to Berlin architect August Endell. The couple reportedly had an ‘open relationship’ and soon began traveling Italy with poet and translator Felix Greve, also known as Frederick Grove.
Elsa’s title was acquired in New York in 1913 after a short marriage to an impoverished German baron, but she refused to bow down to bourgeois behavior – instead constantly defying convention and becoming a ‘downtown Manhattan legend’
Elsa and August’s marriage ended in divorce in 1906 and the following year she married Greve.
Greve was in serious financial trouble and, with Elsa’s help, he faked his own death and set off for the US in 1909, where he set up a new life on a Kentucky farm.
Elsa joined her husband but was left heartbroken when her husband reportedly left her and moved out of state.
To make ends meet, Elsa worked as an artist’s model and slowly made her way east across the US to New York.
It is here she married her third husband, Leopold von Freytag-Loringhoven, and styled herself ‘baroness’.
His father, Hugo von Freytag-Loringhoven, was a Prussian general and writer on military matters, being awarded the Pour le Mérite in 1916 for his work as a historian.
However von Freytag-Loringhoven was not wealthy and Elsa supported herself by working as an artist’s model. Their marriage was short-lived and she did not marry again.
Elsa made sculptures and outfits from items she would discover on the streets – including her wedding ring, which was a rusted metal hoop found on the pavement – and penned and performed experimental poetry
Elsa made sculptures and outfits from items she would discover on the streets – including her wedding ring, which was a rusted metal hoop found on the pavement – and penned and performed experimental poetry.
Some of her most eye-catching costumes included a bra made from tomato soup cans, hats featuring stolen teaspoons and even live birds caged as accessories.
The artist also worked with fellow surrealists Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray on the film The Baroness Shaves Her Pubic Hair – with only a few stills surviving the editing process, according to the publication.
She is credited with helping to invent the ‘readymade’ – a sculpture created with everyday materials – and showcasing that ‘art can be anything’.
According to the publication, one painter wrote of a visit to the Baroness’ studio: ‘It was crowded and reeking with strange relics, which she had purloined over a period of years from the New York gutters.
As well as her standout ensembles, which at one point included a tomato-can bra, the shaved head Baroness also refused to obey the law. She was arrested frequently for shoplifting and wearing men’s clothing in public during the early 20th century
‘Old bits of ironware, automobile tires, gilded vegetables… ash cans, every conceivable horror, which to her tortured yet highly sensitized perception, became objects of formal beauty.’
However, a scandalous theory hangs over her story – that the Baroness is the uncredited collaborator with Duchamp on his famous Fountain (1917) – an upturned porcelain urinal, signed ‘R Mutt’.
Various artists and authors have suggested that evidence – such as her life, way of working and sculptures – points to the Baroness being partially responsible for the piece.
However, Artsy noted that the Baroness never claimed credit for Fountain – despite not being known for holding back.
Due to her financial situation, a lot of her work was not preserved and sometimes others even took credit for them.
In 1923, the Baroness returned to Germany in the hope of making more money. However, she instead found it devastated following the war.
Her father, who had died, had disinherited her, which meant she was left to sell newspapers in Berlin as she tried to make a living.
In 1926, she moved to Paris, where she spent the last years of her penniless life.
But despite her financial struggles, she made pans to open her own modeling school in the late summer of 1927, labeling it her ‘last dream’, according to The Art Story.
On December 14, 1927, the artist died of gas suffocation.
The circumstances of the Baroness’s death remain unresolved. It is unclear if she had simply forgotten to turn the gas off, someone else turned it on, or it was an intentional act.
She is buried in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Following her death, her work has been shown in several exhibitions.
The Baroness is at Mimosa House, London, until 17 September.