Anarchists of Style: Baronness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

The Baronness is not a futurist. She is the future.

—Marcel Duchamp

(Following is a repost of an article that first appeared in December, 2008)

The Anarchist: The Dada artist, Baronness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

Her Ideals: Ironically, for a woman who once said, “I did not acknowledge children,”[1] The New York Times calls this poet, artist, model and denizen of the art worlds of Paris, Berlin, and New York “The Mama of Dada.”[2] Author Irene Gammel calls her “a figure who systematically refused to cultivate the typically female qualities like patience and gentleness.”[3] What she did cultivate, instead, was a “life as art.”

Although involved in aesthetic circles in fin-de-siècle Europe, it was not until moving to New York City in 1913 that she fully actualized her life as an Anarchist of Style. Fiercely against bourgeois lifestyles, the Duchess began creating ensembles out of found objects. Margaret Anderson, editor of the renowned bohemian literary journal The Little Review, recalled that she began creating costumes that “resulted in her arrest whenever she appeared on the street.”[4]

Her Story: Born Elsa Hildegard Plotz in 1874, by 1894 she was working as an artist’s model in Berlin. By the turn-of-the-century she had traveled extensively to Switzerland and Italy, and was living in Munich. Returning to Berlin with second husband Felix Greve, the two eventually moved to Kentucky. He abandoned her soon after, at which point, she moved to Cincinnati and then to New York City, where she took on the title of Duchess following marriage to Baron Leopold von Freytag-Loringhoven. He left soon after to fight in WWI. She was never to see him again.

Her Style: In her very public flaunting of her defiance of stereotypical female rolls, the Duchess is credited with some of the following ensembles:

“So she shaved her head. Next she lacquered it a high vermillion. Then she stole the crepe from the door of a house of morning and made a dress out of it,” recalls Margaret Anderson. Later, upon arriving at The Little Review offices, she took off the crepe. “I’m better when I’m nude, she said.” [5]

“A bride lost the heel of her left shoe at the tube station,” reported friend William Carlos Williams, “lost, it becomes a jewel, a ruby in La Baronne’s miscellany.” [6]

Painter George Biddle recalls the Baronness inquiring if he needed a model. “I told her I’d like to see her in the nude. With a royal gesture she swept apart the folds of a scarlet raincoat. She stood before me quite naked—or nearly so. Over the nipples of her breasts were two twin tomato cans, fastened with a green string about her back. Between the tomato cans hung a very small bird-cage and a crestfallen canary.” [7]

For further discussion see:

Butts, M. “The Master’s’ Last Dancing,” The New Yorker, March 30, 1998.

Steinke, R. Holy Skirts, William Morrow, New York, 2005

Francis Nauman Galleries. Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven


[1] Gammel, I. Baronness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity. The MIT Press, Cambridge, 2002.

[2] Cotter, H. The Mama of Dada. The New York Times, May 19, 2002.

[3-7] Gammel, I. Baronness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity. The MIT Press, Cambridge, 2002.

Image credits:

(1&2) International News Photography (INP), Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, 1915. Photograph. copywright 2001 Bettman/Corbis/Magma

Theresa Bernstein, The Baronness, ca. 1917. Prancis M. Naumann Collection, New York.

George Biddle. The Baronness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, 1921. Francis M. Naumann Collection, New York.

Death Mask of Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, 1927. Photograph by Mark Vaux in transition, February, 1928.

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