baroness elsa von freytag

JULY 12: Else von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874-1927)

On this day in 1874, the “Mama of Dada” was born. The Baroness Else von Freytag-Loringhoven, as she was known, was an eccentric bisexual woman, a living work of art, and the originator of the iconic art piece Fountain.

Else photographed going about her daily life in Harlem, New York on January 10, 1921 (x).

Born Else Hildegard Plötz in Pomerania, Germany, Else’s father was a mason who afforded the family middle-class status. She began training as an actress and vaudeville performer at a young age and eventually moved off to Dachau to study art. After finishing her studies, Else relocated to Berlin – the heart of German Dada. It was in Berlin where she found a community of like-minded artists who challenged the era’s gender and sexual mores and refused to separate their selfhood from their art, but still, she was one of the few women actively involved in the community. Other women included the writer Mina Loy and the expressionist painter Gabriele Münter, both with whom Else had affairs. 

In 1901, she married an architect named August Endell and the two had an open relationship until they divorced in 1906. She was soon married to a translator named Felix Paul Greve, and although this relationship would soon fall apart as well, Else’s marriage to Felix would change her life. In 1909, finding himself penniless and in mountains of debt, Felix convinced Else to help him fake his own death. The couple’s plan was to disappear from Germany forever and start a new life in America, but after Else joined her husband in the U.S., he abandoned her and Else was left alone in a foreign country with no friends.

In America, she was forced to start her life from the ground up; she found work in a cigarette factory and she also started modeling for photographers in New York City. It was through her modeling career in New York City that she met and became friends with legendary photographers such as Man Ray and Berenice Abbott, powerful connections that, once again, allowed Else to become involved in an artistic society. In 1913, she was finally able to give up the hustle and focus more on her art when she married the wealthy Baron Leopold von Freytag-Loringhoven; during this time, her poetry was picked up by the prestigious journal The Little Review and her sculptures/“living collages” began being shown in galleries. In recent years, it has been discovered that legendary Dada artworks like Fountain and God that were once attributed to male artists and close friends of Else, Marcel Duchamp and Morton Livingston Schamberg, were actually created by Else herself.

In 1921, Else left New York and moved back to Europe. First, she returned to Berlin, but found it to be a devastated shell of her former home in the aftermath of World War I. She eventually settled in Paris, where she struggled to make ends meet and had to be financially assisted by her wealthy friends such as Djuna Barnes and Peggy Guggenheim. Else died a mysterious death on December 14, 1927; she was found dead in her home, curled up with her beloved pet dog. The cause of death was pronounced to be gas suffocation, but the exact circumstances that led to the gas being left on in her apartment are unknown.

-LC

Marcel Duchamp submitted his artwork titled “Fountain” under the name “R. Mutt” to the Society of Independent Artists on 9 April 1917. The piece was rejected (despite the exhibition rule that all works would be accepted from artists who paid the $6 fee). Duchamp then took the upside down urinal to be displayed at Alfred Stieglitz’s studio, where it was photographed.

While Duchamp is frequently cited as the sole creator of the work, who bought a standard Bedfordshire model urinal on 5th Avenue in New York City, but in a letter to his sister on 11 April 1917, Duchamp mentions a collaborator (”One of my female friends, who had adopted the male pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent me a porcelain urinal as a sculpture“). Duchamp may not have been truthful in his letter, but 2 women artists are believed to be candidates for the creation of the work, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, and Louise Norton, who was living at 110 West 88th Street in New York City (this address is partially discernible, along with “Richard Mutt,” on the paper entry ticket attached to the object in Stieglitz’s photograph).

The original “Fountain” was lost; it is suspected that Stieglitz threw it in the trash (a common fate of Duchamp’s early readymades), and Duchamp did not recreate the piece until 1950.