nthposition online magazine

Reilluminations 5 – Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

by Steven Fowler

[ poetry - january 11 ]

It is only at the beginning of the modern technological age that a schizophrenic literature appears to dominate the work of many writers and poets. This may simply be a case of selective memory, or it might be indicative of an epoch. Certainly we can find no poet, no performer or artist more apt to represent the age of Dada than Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. Within the work of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven we find a fidelity to the schizophrenic that was all too true. Her poetry actually reads within the lexicon of the sane, aping the language of the prophet-poet, but appears all the more true to the initial madness of Dada for this reflection. It is within the boundaries of her work’s formality, as opposed to its radicality, that we see her true disturbance, and the extent of her furious engagement with language and life. Far from a posturing vogue of rebellion, her work is all too intimate. The encryptions of the faux insane we have come to associate with Surrealism are not to be found here. It is quite the opposite, and all the more difficult for that fact.

Rarely lauded in her day, and though posthumously crowned as the queen of Dada, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven was a rabid and tempestuous performer who did not limit her radical instability to her onstage persona. She bombarded two continents with her manifestos, poster statements, junk art and poetry. Born in Swinemünde she studied art in Dachau, before marrying in 1901. Abused by her father, she would begin a series of destructive physical affairs as a young student that would define her throughout her life. Soon relocating to Munich and then Berlin, she was at the heart of the Weimar cabaret scene, often working as a model, a chorus girl and occasionally as a prostitute. She followed her lover, and second husband, Paul Felix Greve to Canada and then America, where she wandered, modelling once again before marrying a third and final time in November 1913 to the German Baron Leopold von Freytag-Loringhoven in New York. He was to commit suicide after the First World War, leaving her with little but his title.

Fundamentally beyond categorisation as an artist or a poet, she became a fixture of the avant-garde scene in New York, meeting Duchamp, WC Williams and Pound (to all of whom she is reported to have made sexual advances). She was a catalytic figure in the art of her day and in the evolution of contemporary forms - junk art, performance art, body art, collage, found sculptures, assemblage design - not to mention her stance on sexual and gender equality. Her biographer, Irene Gammel, contends that it was Freytag-Loringhoven who gifted Duchamp with the urinal from which "Fountain" was made, and that she was the model and prototype for his creation Rrose Selavy. Although not recognised for her influence, or her seminal contribution to modern conceptions of art, her poetry was given a good reception in the best journals of the time: the Little Review for example, displayed her inimitable use of statement, biography, confession and sound.

Freytag-Loringhoven embodied her work and within her poetry we find a repeated acknowledgement of her fear of death. Her rabid, melancholic attempts to defend herself in writing from the pre-occupation, or temptation, of expiry dominate her work. Freytag-Loringhoven was mortally afraid and that physically devastated her; yet she returned to evocation, to death’s presence, endlessly. Hers then is a poetry of courage, littered with the habitual repetition of the disturbed. To welcome life as the precaution before death the way her poetry does, is to embrace the onset of madness. Her poetry is, to put it simply, a dialogue: a conversation within herslf.She ironically calls up her soul with whom she converses, her golden animal, her animal in "cast-iron", for this is the means by which poets who have poised and stepped back from their posturings have rendered this eternal conversation. Her monologue is a record of herself, waiting in the dark, "squatting on a crimson throne", always giving out, aware of the boundaries others fight so hard to keep intact.Her voice, at its most vital and unforgiving, is the poetry of the educated psychotic, the voice of sanity defined as madness by the mad. Her expression is an inward attack.

Freytag-Loringhoven's mental stability improved when she returned to Paris later in her life, supported by her longtime friend, admirer and lover Djuna Barnes. An always antagonising presence, she had begun to isolate herself even further in New York due to her Anti-Semitism and homophobia (despite her having numerous affairs with women and an assortment of Jewish friends). She had returned to Europe in 1923 after becoming completely destitute in New York, living rough. Arriving in Berlin her father disowned her. She become a newspaper vendor to make ends meet. She failed in her first bids to gain a visa for Paris, perhaps thwarted because she arrived at the embassy interview wearing a birthday cake as a hat. Finally arriving in Paris in 1926, her improved circumstance did not lead to the happy ending others had hoped for. She died on 14 December 1927, a gas leak leading to her suffocation. The incident was considered suspicious but it is not known whether it was an accident or suicide, or even murder. She leaves behind, like Cravan, Crevel, Rigaut, Torma, Kharms and Vaché, just snippets of a life, of poetry, but a monumental lesson from a time before trenchant analysis and fad had taken root, and originality still seemed possible.

"She's not a futurist," said Marcel Duchamp. "She is the future."