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How Baroness Elsa reclaimed the New Woman

Has something been overlooked in the resurrection of the mother of Dada?

When we think of Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, we recall her nude streetwalking, shaven head, and cutlery for earrings. The Baroness has been memorialised as the personification of New York Dada; the walking, talking readymade who turned the streets into her gallery. However, her work was more than sporadic nudity and birdcages as hats. She is a provocative figure entrenched in Modernism, from her radical avant-garde poetry, published in modernist magazine the Little Review, to her speculated role as the nude woman in Man Ray’s photographs.

Most recently, the Baroness has been speculated to be the real artist behind Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain: a letter from Duchamp in 1917 states “one of my female friends under a masculine pseudonym Richard Mutt sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture.” Consequently, there has been a rejuvenation of interest in the female artist who could be responsible for an iconic piece of modern art. However, something still seems to be overlooked in her resurrection as the mother of Dada. Although the Baroness is famed for her attack on the conventions of art, little is said about how her performance and poetry reclaimed the concept of the subversive New Woman.

Who is the New Woman?

The New Woman was a figure that rose out of Modernism and promised a shift in gender relations. Although there were many opinions about what the New Woman should be, it was mostly agreed she was a rebel who challenged conventions of femininity; increasingly choosing jobs over domestic life and actively critiquing the binary that separates men and women. Sarah Grand’s essay, The New Aspect of the Woman Question (1894), is perceived as the catalyst for the term ‘New Woman’ and a revaluation of the female social position. This concept evolved and accelerated during World War I, as women gained new roles in society. The figure also became a key theme in the avant-garde, as women artists exhibited their androgyny and disputed restraints on gender norms.

However, even a movement as rebellious as Dada exhibited anxieties about change. The male protagonists of the Dada movement, such as Duchamp Man Ray and Picabia, aligned the threat of the New Woman with mechanised warfare, as both seemed to have overthrown man during the war. This anxiety is rooted in their work, which can most obviously be seen in Picabia’s machine drawings such as Américaine (1917). This is an image of a light bulb, which represented the modern American female by suggesting she is an interchangeable machine part, labeled with the words “flirt”and “divorce”. Picabia stated the New Woman was an appealing concept of “testing impossibility” but it seemed his version of the New Woman needed to be controllable, passive machines. Throughout Picabia’s drawings of technology, the New Woman is depicted as a joke of unattainable sexual liberation that was just another cog in the modern machine.

“The paradoxical irony of Dada is slippage. This movement of absolute rebellion was also one of repression [and in it]… misogyny prevailed in a consistent way.” – Naomi Sawelson-Gorse

Baroness Elsa used machines to destabilise the male gaze

In contrast to Picabia’s passive machines, the Baroness used parts of technology to protest against ideals of femininity. She put her body at the centre of her work by manipulating industrial objects into clothing and accessories over her nude figure. Rather than just a wacky sense of style, these objects acted as performance art as she travelled the city.

The Baroness was also frequently arrested for her ‘indecency’ but it was this fusion of the female body and found objects that was so significant. This contrast was how the Baroness exhibited her androgyny; feminine in emphasising the gaze on the body but masculine with the harsh and shocking surfaces. Her use of machine parts reformed the female body as unexpected and uncomfortable space to destabilise the male gaze. The found objects became weapons for the Baroness to challenge gender norms, which suggested that only men could be provocative and daring.

She was not your traditional life drawing model

Although her name suggests otherwise, the Baroness experienced poverty while living in Greenwich Village, New York, so supported herself by posing as a model for artists. But in true Baroness Elsa style, this was not your traditional life drawing class. The Baroness often stripped off to present her industrial accessories and tomato soup can bra. Her curious choice of garments aimed to chastise the concept of the female body as a passive, sexual object. Instead, the Baroness inverted the binary of a male artist painting a female model by, curating the way she was portrayed.

Another significant contraption she constructed was Limbswish (1917), which was both worn and functioned as a sculpture. The curtain tassel and piece of metal was originally attached to the hip of the Baroness to sway and clink as she walked. Its phallic shape and placement on the body also evoked the cultural practices of drag. Limbswish demonstrated how gender could be put on and taken off, which challenged the way gender roles were perceived as solid identities. As a result, Limbswish epitomised both the Dada manifesto’s protest against conventional art and the New Woman’s critique of restraints on gender identity.

“It’s only art that ever sustains me.” – Baroness Elsa

Her poetry confronts the rise of consumer culture

In her poetry, the Baroness also took on the role of the flâneur of New York as she assembled the city’s sounds and sites into poetry. Subjoyride encapsulates her experience of travelling on the subway as a collage of advertisement culture and overheard conversation:

It’s popular – spitting Maillard’s

Safety controller handle –

You like it!

They actually kill Paris

Garters dromedary fragrance

Of C.N in a big Yuban

Ah – madam –

That is a secret Pep-O-mint –

Will you try it –

To the last drop?

During the rise of consumer culture in the early 20th twentieth century, women were often labelled as the ultimate consumers, vulnerable to persuasion due to their vanity. However, the Baroness’ poetry dismantles this concept and exerts control over the slogans, as Subjoyride rebounds this violent energy to her audience.

The Baroness again takes on the role of the curator as she absorbs the city’s energy and vocabulary to reconfigure it as an assault on the reader. The meaning is obscured through a list of seemingly random words and uses typography to visually redirect the readers’ gaze around the page. The remodelling of the city’s advertisement simulates the experience of city dweller aggressively invaded by annoying slogans.

Her work did not get the recognition it deserved

The Baroness’ use of found objects and advertisement vocabulary reproduces one of the defining elements of the Dada movement: simultaneously seducing and assaulting the audience. However, her art was so shocking that it refused to fit into ideals of the avant-garde and didn’t receive as much recognition as Dada’s male counterparts, she said “the magazines are opposed to my very name”.

Consequently the Baroness’s work became a neglected area of research in art history and was labelled as simply eccentric. As a result, it is important to highlight the women artists who were stubborn in their protest. Baroness Elsa used her Dada principles as a weapon to challenge the essentialist ideals of how femininity should be and reform ideas surrounding the body. Her poetry is also defiant and complex in depicting the experience of living in the modern city. Ultimately, Baroness Elsa presents the New Woman as subversive, energetic, and undeniably provocative.

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