The extraordinary life of a thrice-married, penniless 20th-century baroness who once shaved her pubic hair on film is celebrated in a new exhibition.
Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven was a notorious New York performance artist of the 1920s; she wore a cake for a hat, spoons for earrings and stamps for make-up and lived in poverty because she never made money from her art.
Her title was acquired in New York in 1913 after a brief marriage to an impoverished German baron, but she refused to bow to bourgeois behavior — instead, she continually defied convention and became a “downtown Manhattan legend.”
She called on people to have sex with whomever they wanted and often stepped into men’s clothing at a time when such behavior was taboo.
Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven was a notorious New York performance artist of the 1920s; she wore a cake for a hat, spoons for earrings and stamps for makeup and lived in poverty because she never made money from her art
The Baroness’ sculptures of rugged everyday objects and unconventional candid poetry — thought to have puzzled members of society at the time — are now being explored in a new exhibition at London’s Mimosa House, The Guardian reported.
Baroness Elsa was born Elsa Hildegard Plötz in 1874 in the town of Świnoujście, now part of Poland, into a middle-class family. She was the eldest of two siblings.
Her mother suffered from mental health for years before dying of cancer in 1893.
Her father had a history of abuse towards his daughter, which led her to flee to Berlin to live with an aunt.
Already a rule-breaker who defied convention, performing vaudeville in the German city for much of her early teens, before joining the inner circle of the Art Nouveau movement in Munich.
Her first marriage was in 1901 to the Berlin architect August Endell. The couple reportedly had an “open relationship” and soon began touring Italy with poet and translator Felix Greve, also known as Frederick Grove.
Elsa’s title was acquired in New York in 1913 after a brief marriage to an impoverished German baron, but she refused to bow to bourgeois behavior — instead, she constantly defied convention and became a “downtown Manhattan legend.”
Elsa and August’s marriage ended in divorce in 1906 and she married Greve the following year.
Greve was in serious financial trouble and with the help of Elsa, he faked his own death and left for the US in 1909, where he started a new life on a farm in Kentucky.
Elsa joined her husband but was heartbroken when her husband reportedly left her and left the state.
To make ends meet, Elsa worked as an arts model and slowly made her way east across the US to New York.
Here she married her third husband, Leopold von Freytag-Loringhoven, and called herself ‘Baroness’.
His father, Hugo von Freytag-Loringhoven, was a Prussian general and writer on military affairs. He was awarded the Pour le Mérite in 1916 for his work as a historian.
However, Von Freytag-Loringhoven was not rich and Elsa supported herself by working as an artist model. Their marriage was short-lived and she did not remarry.
Elsa created sculptures and outfits from objects she would discover on the street — including her wedding ring, a rusted metal hoop found on the sidewalk — and wrote and performed experimental poetry.
Elsa created sculptures and outfits from objects she would discover on the street – including her wedding ring, a rusted metal hoop found on the sidewalk – and wrote and performed experimental poetry.
Some of her most eye-catching costumes included a bra made from tomato soup cans, hats with stolen teaspoons, and even live birds in cages as accessories.
The artist also collaborated 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, the publication said.
She is credited with helping invent the ‘readymade’ – a sculpture made with everyday materials – showing that ‘art can be anything’.
According to the publication, a painter wrote of a visit to the Baroness’ studio: ‘It was crowded and reeked of strange relics, which she had stolen from the New York gutters for years.
In addition to her striking ensembles, which once included a tomato canned bra, the shaved head baroness also refused to obey the law. She was often arrested in the early 20th century for shoplifting and wearing men’s clothing in public
“Old bits of hardware, car tires, gilded vegetables… ashtrays, every imaginable horror, which became objects of formal beauty to her haunted but very sensitive perception.”
However, an outrageous theory hangs over her story – that the Baroness is Duchamp’s uncredited collaborator on his famous Fountain (1917) – an inverted porcelain urinal, signed ‘R Mutt’.
Several artists and authors have suggested that evidence — such as her life, ways of working, and sculptures — points to the Baroness being partly responsible for the piece.
However, Artsy noted that the Baroness Fountain never took credit—despite not being known for his restraint.
Due to her financial situation, much of her work has not survived and sometimes others have even claimed it.
In 1923, the Baroness returned to Germany hoping to earn more money. However, she instead found it destroyed after the war.
Her father, who had passed away, had disinherited her, which meant she had to sell newspapers in Berlin while trying to earn a living.
In 1926 she moved to Paris, where she spent the last years of her life penniless.
But despite her financial difficulties, in the late summer of 1927 she panned to open her own modeling school, according to The Art Story as her “last dream.”
On December 14, 1927, the artist died of gas asphyxiation.
The circumstances of the Baroness’ death remain unresolved. It’s unclear if she simply forgot to turn off the gas, someone else turned it on, or if it was a conscious act.
She is buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. After her death, her work was shown in several exhibitions.
The Baroness is at Mimosa House, London, until September 17.