‘Sleep with everyone! Be embarrassing!’ – the dada baroness who shocked society | Art

Towering over crowds at the Venice Biennale, a fortysomething woman poses in a wild homemade costume, that includes beribboned matador pants and a hat like an upturned saucepan. In another photo, smaller and taken around 1920, she crouches on one leg like a stork, sprouting feathers and dripping jewelery.

Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven was born Elsa Hildegard Plötz in the city of Świnoujście, now part of Poland, in 1874. Her title – acquired in New York in 1913 – was the souvenir of a short marriage. “The Baroness” became not just her name but her persona: an avant-garde creation defying bourgeois decency. In Venice this year, she was honored as a dadaist pioneer who reimagined her everyday life as a performance.

She spent her early years doing vaudeville in Berlin, then moved to New York where she supported herself as an artist’s model. She made sculptures and costumes from found objects (her wedding ring was a rusted metal hoop picked off the pavement) and wrote experimental poetry, which she also performed. Memorable ensembles included a bra constructed from tomato soup cans and a caged canary; hats tinkling with stolen teaspoons; postage stamps worn instead of rouge. Modesty, whether in the studio or on the street, was for squares. She collaborated with fellow surrealists Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray on the film The Baroness Shaves Her Pubic Hair. Alas only a few stills survived the editing process.

A jagged spike of split wood … the baroness’s Cathedral. Photograph: Justin Wonnacott/Courtesy of Carleton University Art Gallery, Ottawa

The new exhibition at London’s Mimosa House is celebrating the Baroness. A few of her found objects and assemblages – including the rusty wedding ring Enduring Ornament and a jagged spike of split wood called Cathedral – accompany tributes by current artist-admirers. “I do not want to reduce her to the readymade objects,” says curator Daria Khan. “There’s much more to her. She’s an extraordinary poet.” Each artist has recorded one of her poems. “I wanted to put the voice at the centre,” adds Khan. “We don’t have any recordings of Elsa, but we have a lot of memories of how she sounded and looked performing.”

The Jamaican-American poet Claude McKay wrote of the Baroness declaiming a poem “in her masculine and throaty voice, gaudily accoured in rainbow raiment, festooned with barbaric beads and spangles and bangles, toting along her inevitable poodle in gilded harness”. Her performances were impassioned. Mike Gold, who edited the Liberator magazine with McKay, recalled: “The walls shake, the ceiling rocks, life is real and life is earnest!”

In 2018 Zuzanna Janin, one of the artists showing at Mimosa House, established a women’s art prize in Poland in honor of the Baroness and the surrealist Maria Anto. Janin sees more to the Baroness’s work than dada. The Apparently Sacrilegious Sculpture God – a plumbing U-bend on a plinth, co-attributed to Morton Schamberg – might also be read as a celebration of modernity.

“What did it mean,” Janin asks, “when the cities of Europe started to build a common sanitation system, which completely changed the hygiene of citizens’ everyday lives? She was not only a dada poet artist, but maybe also a socially engaged and futurist artist in her revolutionary use of everyday elements and adoration for engineering.”

Inspired by the Baroness’s wood-fragment Cathedral, Birmingham-based Linda Stupart has built a structure using the “skins of trees” gathered during “performance walks” they took along the banks of the River Cole in the Midlands. Stupart describes Cathedral as “a readymade that speaks to both the brokenness and magic of the everyday – an old object with an aura”. Presented in New York in 1918, Cathedral was the Baroness’s tribute to the city’s skyscrapers, or cathedrals to commerce. What does Stupart think we can learn from her as an art historical figure? “Sleep with everyone!” they reply. “Grow old! Be embarrassing and excessive!”

A Duchamp-shaped shadow hangs over this story, though. Was the Baroness wholly or partially responsible for Duchamp’s Fountain, his famous upturned porcelain urinal, signed “R Mutt”? Argument still rages. To Janin, the evidence seems clear. “Her life dela, writings, way of working, her use of pipes and plumbing all confirm it,” says the artist. “She deserves a place in the world of art. I was very surprised that a few years ago the urinal was shown at Tate Modern without any comment on Elsa’s possible authorship.”

Khan worries that exciting debate around Fountain distracts from the Baroness’s other work. “We don’t want to make a woman important just because she made a work attributed to a male artist,” she says. Of Duchamp, the Baroness once wrote: “When I was / Young – foolish – / I loved Marcel Dushit / He behaved mulish – ” Nevertheless, Fountain makes an appearance at Mimosa House, together with lines by the Baroness, projected on to the toilet door.

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