The Baroness: Dada Trickster
“I went to the consulate with a large-wide sugarcoated birthday cake upon my head with fifty flaming candles lit – I felt just so spunky and affluent! In my ear I wore sugar plums or matchboxes – I forget which. Also I had put on several stamps as beauty spots on my emerald-painted cheeks and my eyelashes were made of gilded porcupine quills – rustling coquettishly – at the consul – with several ropes of dried figs dangling around my neck to give him a suck once and again – to entrance him. I should have liked to wear gaudy colored rubber boots up to my hips with a ballet skirt of genuine gold paper white lace paper covering it (to match the cake) – but I couldn’t afford that! I guess that inconsistency in my costume is to blame for my failure to please the officials?” – Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven on trying to get a permit to move to Paris from Berlin in the 1920s
Here is another description of “the Baroness”, as she was known in avant-garde circles in New York City in the teens of the 20th century.
“New York, 1921. Nude, her head shaved and shellacked red, the woman known as the Baroness flamboyantly flashed her body in the offices of The Little Review, the era’s most vanguard (and most feminist) magazine. Caustic and vitriolic, the German war widow, poet, sculptor, and model literally embodied dada in New York (from 1913-1923): stunning viewers with costumes made of mass-produced items like teaspoons, vegetables, and battery taillights; or sporting a bra made of tomato cans – which she brilliantly declared to be art – all decades before Andy Warhol.” — from Baroness Elsa by Irene Gammell
Like most people, I had never heard of the Baroness until last year. She’s one of those people, famous within her own small world, but forgotten soon after because her work was herself. She wrote poetry, and she made “art” too. But it seems like the real thing was her crazy, outrageous embodiment of the spirit of her time. And, of course, she was a she — the gender historians have traditionally ignored.
She died in poverty in her flat in Paris — maybe suicide, maybe an accident: it was a gas leak. In New York, she was famous for costumes — she’d wear a flowerpot on her head around Greenwich Village — her frank sexuality, her scatology and her creation of “readymade” works of art. Now these latter two characteristics might ring some bells with those of you art history aficionados, because, of course, the (one of the) most influential works of art of the 20th century is a urinal, entitled “Fountain” and signed R. Mutt, which went on show in 1917.
The artist Marcel Duchamp, a close friend of the Baroness, was until recently credited with Fountain, but this is what he wrote to his sister at the time: “Une de mes amies sous un pseudonyme masculin, Richard Mutt, avait envoyé une pissotière en porcelaine comme sculpture.” (“One of my female friends, who had adopted the pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent me a porcelain urinal as a sculpture.”) For more on this story, click here.
Unfortunately, I don’t have the exact time of birth for the Baroness, but, yes, she was born with an exact conjunction of Mercury and Uranus in the sign of flamboyance, showing off and theatre, Leo. Mercury and Uranus are, of course, the “lower” and “higher” octaves of the same trickster energy. Uranus is also the planet of the avant-garde, and the Baroness was clearly so far ahead of her time that it’s only now that her influence is being recognised. The peak of her influence — when she was in the bosom of the avant-garde — came around 1918-1920, while Neptune, the planet of influence, fashion, art was transiting her natal Mercury-Uranus.
She died on December 14, 1927 when Uranus and Neptune were both at 29 degrees in those two creative signs — Pisces and Leo. When these signs work together, the collective (Pisces) comes out in individual expression, Leo.) A period of fevered artistic revolution was coming to an end.
The Surrealist Manifesto and the Dada Manifesto were published while Uranus was in Pisces (1919-1928) and Neptune in Leo (1914-1928). Russian Constructivism — “art in the service of revolution” was born in 1919. The Bauhaus, Germany’s famous art school, was established in the same year. But in some ways these turned out to be the last hurrah of a “state” avant garde — the Bauhaus was closed down by Hitler and the Constructivists were destroyed by Stalin by the 1930s. Uranus by then was in the brave new world of Aries — the sign of the warrior, the worker and the child.
But back to the marvellous Baroness — shape-shifter, name-changer, trickster, the spirit of Mercury (she was also a kleptomaniac and inveterate letter-writer and spinner of yarns). Why has she re-emerged now? Well, the story that she might be the real mother of “conceptual art” has been rumbling around since the 1980s and a few years ago (2002) a scholarly biography was published about her. Then her poems were published in a volume entitled Body Sweats. It’s taken an entire Uranus cycle for the world to catch up, that’s all.