Recognizing Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, One Readymade at a Time

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

In an instant, something you’ve known to be true can be completely shattered. In these moments, you may be asked to entirely alter your understanding of something and accept a new fact in its place. The more life experience I have, the more my “truths” are replaced with new facts. I tend to love when this happens because often, these “shattered truths” give voice to previously silenced people and make way for a better, more honest, future. 

So, last month as I sat amongst an eager audience awaiting multidisciplinary artist Mel Chin at the Nasher Museum of Art, I was intrigued and awed when one of my own art history truths was completely shattered in the matter of one hour-long lecture.

Chin presented one of his new short films, She is Not There, a quick-witted homage to Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, more commonly known as ‘the Baroness.’ Without ever saying it plainly, the film further supports new research indicating that the Baroness is the true creator of famous art originating from the Dada movement. My mind was instantly blown. I was taught–like anyone else who has taken a 20th-century art history course–that Marcel Duchamp is pretty much the only name you need to know when it comes to Dada.

For those who do not know, the Dada movement remains as one of the most influential art happenings of the 20th century. Led by writers, artists, and creatives seeking refuge from the First World War in Zurich, Switzerland, Dada art practically invented the “what the hell qualifies art, anyway?” ideology that remains a common theme in modern art today. The Dada movement pioneered artists pushing social boundaries, questioning capitalistic societies, and even poking fun at the posh art world through their works.

If you know anything about Dada, I can almost guarantee you’ve heard the name Marcel Duchamp, and you probably know of The Readymade. On a basic level, the Readymade removes found objects from their original contexts and places them in new settings. This phenomenon inevitably alters the object's initial purpose and, in this new context, renders it a work of art. The Readymade quickly became a fundamental aspect of Dadaism because it embodies everything the movement stands for: Questioning art and society in seemingly simplistic, obvious ways. In addition to being Dada’s “founding father,” so to speak, Duchamp is said to have created the world’s most famous Readymades: "In Advance of the Broken Arm (1915) and Fountain (1917). So, when Chin’s film indicated there may be a new “true mastermind” behind these world-famous objects, and the concept of the Readymade at large, I was intrigued.

God, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, 1917. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
In Advance of the Broken Arm, Marcel Duchamp, 1915. Image courtesy of Artnet and Foundation Maillol, Paris, Collection Dina Vierny.

Chin’s film follows a fine art collector’s search for two Readymades titled God (1917,) and In Advance of the Broken Arm (1915) (pictured below). Without prior Dada knowledge, the film would lose some of its meaning because the references are quick, and without hardly any further explanation about what Dada is and who led the movement. Visual cues guide the viewer to realize that Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven may be the true creator of these Readymades. At one point in the film, God is a pipe in what is presumably the Baroness’ kitchen sink and the shovel from the world-famous In Advance of the Broken Arm is spotted on the Baroness’ front porch in an old photograph. While the lack of dialogue leaves room for interpretation, it is implied that these objects belong actually to the Baroness.

Perhaps the film mimics the lackadaisical and somewhat delayed approach art history takes when uncovering a mystery that would give credit to a woman. One Guardian article titled “A woman in the men's room: when will the art world recognize the real artist behind Duchamp's Fountain?” written by Siri Hustvedt provides some insight. Hustvedt writes, “Why is it hard for people to accept the intellectual and creative authority of artists and writers who are women? Why did Lee Krasner’s obvious influence on Jackson Pollock go unrecognized for decades? Why was Simone de Beauvoir’s original thought attributed to Jean-Paul Sartre? The evidence was there. They couldn’t see it. Why?” And she is right. The evidence was there, but, even after a 4-year undergraduate degree in art history, I didn’t even know the Baroness’ name until last month. These women are suppressed to supporting roles when they should be main characters. So, let’s learn a little bit more about a soon-to-be main character of the art world: Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.

The Baroness was born in Germany in 1874. As a young woman, she ran away from home to the theaters of Berlin and became part of the inner circle of Munich’s Art Nouveau movement. According to Vanessa Thill of Artsy, “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,” eventually becoming the Baroness. During World War I, she became somewhat of a living legend in New York City while creating art that questioned everything society considered to be art at that time. Sounds familiar—almost like the core of the Dada movement and the readymade, right?

Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Image Courtesy of Wide Walls.

When researching the highly debated topic, it seems to be a 50/50 split. Some see the Baroness as the true Dada mastermind, largely according to a series of letters and poems exchanged between the two, while others are outraged at the mention of it. While the debate over authorship and originality continues, one thing is certain: the story is all too familiar. A woman revealed as the true mind behind the work of a man, is only recognized decades or even centuries later.

 

As shattered truths are presented to us and we continue to rewrite history, it is important to take what we have learned with a grain of salt, question the new truths presented to us, and do our own research to come to a conclusion. A quick Google search will tell you that Marcel Duchamp coined the term “Readymade” and pioneered the Dada movement, all on his own. However, with more in-depth research, those claims become convoluted. While the debate is ongoing, it is true that the Baroness should be at the top of these Google searches, too. The Baroness was a major Dada influencer, right alongside Duchamp, and it is about time she became an important art historical figure, too.


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