Was the founding father of conceptual art really a woman?

baroness-elsa

Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain urinal was a piece of readymade art that forced the established art world to question what ‘art’ actually was. It earned him the title of ‘father of conceptual art’. However, the real brain behind the Fountain is likely to be a well-known artist of the time called Baroness Elsa…

Who was Baroness Elsa?

Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven was born in 1874 with the shorter and less baroness-y name of Else Hildegarde Plotz. At the age of nineteen, after having been attacked by her abusive father, she went to Berlin to become a model and chorus girl, contracting syphilis through sexual experimentation, and began to mix with the avant garde scene of the time.

Baroness Elsa was a powerhouse of ideas, and rejecting the snug prison of social conformity to express those ideas came at a cost. If suffering for one’s art is necessary (it isn’t) then she truly suffered for it. She lived in poverty, feeding the vermin that lived in her basement along with her cats and dogs. Though known for her cake hats, spoon earrings and postage stamp make-up, the deep inner drive that spurred her to shave her hair or dye it red when it Simply Wasn’t Done also led to her being arrested for offences like public nudity (to feed the soul) and theft (to, very necessarily, feed the body).

Was Baroness Elsa the first punk? The first American dada artist? As a performance artist, poet and sculptor she certainly threw the normative thinking of even the most modern in-crowd regulars out on its ear. When asked to go nude in a modelling capacity by modernist painter George Biddle, Baroness Elsa threw open a scarlet coat to reveal her naked self, yes, just what the artist ordered, but this particular nakedness was adorned with a bra made from two tomato cans and green string, a small birdcage holding a canary, armlets made from curtain rings and a hat adorned with carrots, beets and sundry vegetables. We can at this point presume that Biddle had already seen the hat. It was probably hard to miss. If Biddle was feeling particularly on the ball that day, he might have had an inkling of what he was in for, but that’s not to say he could ever have expected the hat to be a mere aperitif for the rest of it.

In the words of John Higgs, author of Stranger than We Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century:

“With one quick reveal the Baroness announced that she was the artist, and [Biddle] simply her audience.”

Oh-so-modernist Biddle had wanted a passive and staid artistic resource, a muse cut from conservative cloth, and instead he got the Baroness.

Baroness Elsa was not, could not be invisible. She hung out with Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp. Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound were vocal in their support. She was known. But that was then, and this is now. Though she was a recognised figure of the time, her cultural influence has been superficially acknowledged when compared with that of similar figures of the day.

Baroness Elsa and Duchamp’s Fountain

If you’re not familiar with Fountain, it was a urinal. An example of found art, in a time when people were busy making art, not finding it, because ‘art’ was what you created with traditional materials and displayed, critiqued and sold in traditional ways.

duchamp-urinal

Marcel Duchamp created widespread and far-reaching havoc when he turned a urinal on its side, gave it the official title of Fountain and submitted it to a 1917 exhibition at the Society of Independent Artists, New York. This exhibition planned to display every piece submitted. To display Fountain would be to agree that it was a piece of art. The exhibition did not display Fountain.

Impressive stuff. World-changing stuff. Now consider this letter that Duchamp wrote to his sister Suzanne on 11 April 1917:

‘One of my female friends who had adopted the pseudonym Richard Mutt sent me a porcelain urinal as a sculpture; since there was nothing indecent about it, there was no reason to reject it.’

Not. His. Idea.

Elsa had been finding street objects and declaring them art for some time before Duchamp – who knew her – coined the term of ‘readymades’. There is a wealth of other supporting evidence (not least in that ‘Richard Mutt’ pseudonym) to suggest that Fountain was Baroness Elsa’s work, and that for this piece – and others beside – she has as much right to the title of ‘father of conceptual art’ as anyone.

Stranger than We Imagine

If you want to learn more about the specifics of Baroness Elsa and the Fountain, I strongly recommend you read Stranger than We Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century by John Higgs. I had never heard of Baroness Elsa before reading it. This article, essentially a love letter to Elsa, and a gesture of gratitude for Higgs’ research on her to date, simply could not have been written without it. And if alternative figures like Elsa pop up in just five pages of such a book, think what other new treasures you might find in there…

John Higgs, in turn, would like to express his gratitude to literary historian Irene Gammel. As well as conducting inspiring literary endeavours like Looking for Anne of Green Gables she wrote Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. In Higg’s words, Irene Gammel “has done more than anyone to research Elsa and bring her back in the light”.

Interested readers can further explore the academic work of Dr. Glyn Thompson on this fascinating subject. You can buy Duchamp’s Urinal? The Facts Behind the Facade, available from Wild Pansy Press, and read more about Marcel Duchamp and Elsa in The Art Newspaper.

Main photo: Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven posing in her Greenwich Village apartment, December 1915.

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