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TALK ABOUT a great book blurb: MIT Press described Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven as “a neurasthenic, kleptomaniac, man-chasing proto-punk poet and artist.”
Gee, I’ve got to learn more about this Baroness of Dada.
The Dada Movement evolved in the teens of the last century as avant-garde art dedicated to anti-art. The purpose of this irrationality was to be shocking in response to the horrors of World War I.
Even today, Dada can be baffling, if not out-and-out shocking. See “Picasso’s Theater” here at SimanaitisSays for a relatively straightforward example of early Dada: The ballet Parade celebrated Eric Satie’s avant-garde music and Jean Cocteau’s bohemian writing combined with Picasso’s Cubist scenery and costumes.
And, for full-blown Dada, look no further than Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.
Born in 1874 in what is now part of Poland, the Baroness came by her title honestly through marriage no. 3 in 1913. However, Else/Elsa had already staked out a career in theater and art even before her 1901 marriage to husband no. 1, August Endell, a Berlin-based architect.
Already unorthodox, she and Endell had an open relationship; free love, it came to be known about that time. Else got involved romantically with poet Felix Paul Greve, Endell’s friend who later became Canadian author Frederick Philip Grove.
Isn’t it fun how identities can evolve with enough cultivation?
After Felix had spent a year in stir for fraud, he and Else lived together in Palermo, Sicily; Wolerau, Switzerland; and Paris-Plage, France. Some sources say Endell was along as well. In 1907, Else and Greve returned to Berlin, where he became husband no. 2.
In 1910, the Greves skipped the continent over bad debts and moved to the U.S., to a farm in Sparta, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. A year later, Greve swapped this for Bonanza farming (early industrial agriculture) near Fargo, North Dakota. Eventually ending up in Manitoba, Canada, he became Frederick Philip Grove and married a local school marm, thus apparently adding bigamy to his rap sheet.
The deserted Else modeled for artists in Cincinnati, worked her way east through West Virginia and Philadelphia, and ended up in New York City’s Greenwich Village. There, she supported herself by working in a cigarette factory.
Shades of Carmen!
This is when Else met her own Don José: More than corporal of the guards, Leopold von Freytag-Loringhoven was a full-fledged baron, son of a Prussian general who wrote on military tactics. Baron Leopold and Elsa were married in November 1913. Having escaped Europe over bad debts (sound familiar?) and impoverished, the Baron soon left Elsa with her title but little else. He died in 1919.
Meanwhile, Dada was evolving as an art movement in New York City, later to have a European emergence at the Cabaret Voltaire, a dive in Zürich, Switzerland. One of the Zürich crowd wrote, “At the Cabaret Voltaire we began by shocking common sense, public opinion, education, institutions, museums, good taste, in short, the whole prevailing order.” Of New York Dada, visual artist Man Ray said, “Dada cannot live in New York. All New York is dada, and will not tolerate a rival.”
Nor could any woman compete with Baroness Elsa, who had her heyday in Greenwich Village, 1913 – 1923, as the Baroness of Dada. She got herself arrested for smoking in public and wearing men’s clothing. She took to sporting automotive sidelights on her hips, a birdcage on her head and tin cans on her breasts. Greenwich Villagers got used to these “living collages,” and the likes of Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and Ezra Pound became her pals.
Baroness Elsa continued to model, write poetry, paint and construct found-object art. Encountering increasingly hard times in New York City, she returned to Berlin in 1923.
Growing unstable in mind and destitute, the Baroness moved to Paris, supported by American expats including writer Djuana Barnes and socialite Peggy Guggenheim.
On December 14, 1927, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven died of gas suffocation in her Paris flat. Circumstances of her death were never clear. She is buried in Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery.
In celebrating Dada’s 100th anniversary, The New York Times, July 10, 2016, described Baroness Elsa’s poetry as “language-crunching, censorship-challenging verse.” Most of these works remained unpublished until the appearance in 2011 of Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. This was the first major collection of her poems in English, and its publication was celebrated by a Launch and Exhibition at Francis M. Naumann Fine Art in New York City.
Commenting on the time span between Baroness Elsa’s poetry and its publication, German writer/translator Leonora Ickstadt smiled and said, “It’s never too late to publish poems—ever!”
There’s hope for us all. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016