Listen to Georgia Heneage read her Slow Review
Marcel Duchamp – the artist behind Fountain, or what most people call “that urinal” – once wrote that the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven “is not a futurist. She is the future.”
He wasn’t wrong. Up until recently, the Baroness – a poet, sculptor, and early exemplar of gender fluidity in 1920s New York – was all but excluded from history’s reckoning of the avant-garde. We now know, however, that she not only played an integral role in the making of Duchamp’s most famous sculpture, which was voted in 2004 the most influential artwork of all time, but was its co-author in equal measure.
We like to think of modernism as progressive, but the avant-garde movement was both dominated by men and utterly conventional in its attitudes towards women. Freytag-Loringhoven not only helped shape Dada aesthetics and embodied its anti-bourgeois and anti-aesthete ethos, but went one step beyond to challenge its standards. Her costumes, made out of urban rubbish – silver spoons, feathers, tin cans, and a notorious plastic penis – contested traditional notions of both feminine beauty and gender.
Through her performance art she assumed control over how her body was presented. While her figurative art reversed the hierarchy of women as passive muses and men as great creators: her sculpture God (1917) presents a twisted drainpipe as a phallic parody of the male affinity with industrialism – just when other artists, like Picabia, were depicting women as sexually submissive machines.
The Baroness’s sexually provocative poetry rescued the female body from this girdle. In her poem ‘The Modest Woman’, she writes: “Why should I— proud engineer— be ashamed of my machinery— part of it?”
The, in her words, “smoothness—smugness—sanitation” of post-industrialist society was causing people to “forget own machinery—body!” Her target was, in part, blind reverence to technology, a target that might still be aimed for today.
Much of this poetry was, in typical Dada fashion, bizarre. Liberated from conventional structure, it jumbled English and German, and then applied a splattering of punctuation marks. But it’s not so bizarre to modern readers or listeners: its rhythms are much like those of contemporary spoken-word poetry, which also tends to give a platform to the anti-establishment voices of marginalised people.
The baroness stayed true to her ethos of non-conformity right up until the end. Shortly before her suspected suicide in 1927, she wrote in a letter that “I am mourning destruction of high quality. I still feel deep in me glittering wealth.”
She recognised, as Duchamp did, that she was ahead of her time in more ways than one: she embodied varieties and challenged binaries; she disrupted the status quo that kept women excluded from the modernist movement (even if she didn’t get much credit for it at the time or since); and she encompassed the male gaze, the artist, and the subject all in one, and exercised control over all three.
Or as she once put it, elsewhere: “I have all possibilities… I have my full power – I am Amazone.”
Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill