On ViewMimosa House
May 27 – September 17, 2022
Can one pay homage to an artist whose entire practice was an iconoclastically irreverent anti-art and—if anything—the ultimate anti-homage to art history? This question is at the heart of The Baroness, an exhibition at Mimosa House in London showing works by the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874–1927) for the first time in the United Kingdom, alongside contributions by a wide range of contemporary artists.
The forerunner of several of the greatest dissident movements of the twentieth century—from Dada to punk to feminist performance—Freytag-Loringhoven pushed modernism forward while challenging its tenets. A Polish German vaudeville performer and artists’ model who settled in New York in 1913, she sparked outrage for her provocative and occasionally hypersexual works and performances. We know her today for her outlandish experimental poetry, which found an admirer in Ezra Pound and was published in The Little Review. She is also remembered for her infamous readymades that predated Duchamp’s, examples of which are included in The Milk of Dreams, the 2022 Venice Biennale’s central exhibition. But during her time, she was legendary in the Greenwich Village scene for “living Dada.” Turning Manhattan streets into her runway with ostentatious costumes fabricated from whatever she could find, she paraded the city semi-nude with teaspoon earrings, birdcage headpieces, and tin-can bras.
Considering her public presentations of gender fluidity—captured in photographs shown in a slideshow projection—and her own bisexuality, it is no surprise that her eccentric personality and work resonate with queer aesthetics. At the opening of The Baroness, the Istanbul Queer Art Collective performed DadaAda Mimosa (2022), an experimental multimedia reading of a handful of Freytag-Loringhoven's poems performed in drag. The organic affinity between her flamboyance and drag is undeniable: even the lifelong clutch she held on the “Baroness” title, acquired during her brief marriage to a baron that was not accompanied by any monetary support, evokes drag performers’ ironic appropriation of aristocratic nobility as “kings” and “queens.” Accessorized with banal and erotic embellishments—aluminum foil, whisks, a large double-headed purple dildo—the Collective’s elaborate outfits recalled the creative resourcefulness that often underlies subversive dress while living in financial precarity. Taqralik Partridge used this inventive repurposing to different ends in Build My Own Home (2021), skillfully creating traditional Inuit parkas from newsprint, canvas, hula hoops, dental floss, and silver teaspoons—a nod to Freytag-Loringhoven’s penchant for wearing cutlery as jewelry.
The Baroness’s off-the-wall behavior and outfits shocked even the most renegade of her peers, including friends Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, with whom she collaborated on a film in which the latter shaved her pubic hair (the negative was accidentally destroyed during the editing process, but the single remaining still is projected in the exhibition). Despite the utter boldness of her contributions, the “Mother of Dada” was all but left out of the narrative of modernism. Freytag-Loringhoven’s work was relatively unknown until literary historian Irene Gammel published her major biography in 2003 and a posthumous collection of her poetry in 2011.
One reason for her omission is that much of her work was ephemeral by nature—often lost, destroyed, or just thrown out—and committed to the Dadaist critique of the market and commodification of visual culture. The other reason for her elision from modern art history is, of course, gendered. Sidelined, obscured, and often not given due credit, she shared the fate of most other women artists of her time. There is even debatable speculation that she was Duchamp's co-conspirator behind his Fountain (1917); an image of the iconic work projected onto the bathroom door in Mimosa House serves as a reminder that her involvement in many projects has undoubtedly been discounted.
Several of the works in The Baroness respond to the role gender has played in the construction of Freytag-Loringhoven’s legacy, especially in comparison to those of her male peers. Sadie Murdoch’s digital collages, including Pathway Where-To and Pass-Way Into Where-To (both 2021), have cut away the figure of the Baroness in photographs of her New York apartment, rendering her as only a phantom silhouette—a salient metaphor for how art history has positioned her in the avant-garde. In Le Goubernement (2019), a six-episode series of films played across three screens, Liv Schulman imagines the lives of women and genderqueer artists in Paris in the twentieth century, including Freytag-Loringhoven (who relocated to France in 1926), freed from the constraints of phallocentric discourse. Artist and political dominatrix Reba Maybury unravels gender dynamics and sexual desire in her video installation A-good-individual (2019), in which her submissives recite poems they made for her from right-wing media attacks on her work. And Zuzanna Janin’s Femmage a Maria & Elsa (2018–20), three resin statuettes filled with photographs of Freytag-Loringhoven, the overlooked painter Maria Anto, and the works of both, was executed for Poland’s international prize for women artists.
The breadth of responses at Mimosa House to the little that remains of the Baroness’s work suggest the myriad other avenues contemporary artists can take to engage with her work as a next step. Though her work subverted gender and sexual conventions, she took aim at all modes of normativity, targeting war and religion as well as touching on the rampant consumerism that characterized New York during the First World War. Her manuscripts, vinyl decals of which cover the walls of the exhibition, gave poetic form to the anti-bourgeois lifestyle she never strayed from. Penniless until her death, she was frequently incarcerated for shoplifting, running off with this or that from department stores to incorporate into her statement ensembles.
She stole from the urban streets in the same way. The three of her “sculptures” on view—and to call them that is really a stretch—include Enduring Ornament (1913), a rusted iron ring she found on the way to her wedding at City Hall that contrasted the diamonds you’d expect of a Baroness. There’s also a delicate sliver of wood she titled Cathedral (ca. 1918), possibly a reference to the hollowness of corporate capitalism through its denotation of a skyscraper, New York’s “commercial cathedral.” As consumerism sinks its teeth into nearly every aspect of our lives, perhaps her work might provide clues for how to reject a transactional and unethical reality. Though gender studies have rightly found footing in Dada, the complete radical potential of Freytag-Loringhoven’s work has remained largely untapped. “She is not a futurist,” Duchamp declared. “She is the future.”