"She strips naked": the poetry of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. (Essays)

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Author: Irene Gammel
Date: Spring 2003
From: The Literary Review(Vol. 46, Issue 3)
Publisher: Fairleigh Dickinson University
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,626 words

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Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven is to me the naked oriental making solemn gestures of indecency in the sex dance of her religion. Her ecstasy, to my way of thinking, is one of the properties of art" (Scott, 48). So wrote the American author and critic Evelyn Scott about a poet who gave New Yorkers something to talk about during the early days of the century. An androgynous woman in her forties, "lithe in figure, and as graceful as a leopard," as The New York Times described her in 1915, she was a radical gender-bender and whip-lashing dominatrix in the world of art and poetry ("Refugee Baroness"). In New York's artist circles she was known as "the Baroness."

Born Else Hildegard Plotz in 1874 in the small seaport town of Swinemunde, Germany, she had escaped her bourgeois home at age 18 and absorbed expressionism and Jugendstil in the avant-garde circles of Berlin and Munich. She acquired her name and title by marrying the financially bankrupt Baron Leopold von Freytag-Loringhoven in Manhattan in 1913. It was her third marriage. In New York she earned her money by posing as a model in the Art Students League, the Modern Art School, and the Lincoln Arcade. She also painted pictures and made sculptures. Yet it was the erotically charged body art of the Baroness that truly stunned her contemporaries. Adorned with everyday objects--a bra made of tomato cans, celluloid curtain rings covering her arms as bracelets, a blinking battery taillight on the bustle of her dress, a whip-like device called Limbswish worn on her hip like a cowboy might wear his Colt revolver--she created a memorable spectacle as she promenaded along Park Street and Fifth Avenue. She was an early performance artist who had chosen the streets and the salons for her art. Tales about her wild costumes proliferated. In one of the most talked about performances she shaved off her hair, lacquered her bald head vermilion and showcased her Dada by flashing her nude body in the offices of The Little Review; "It's better when I'm nude", she said, as she stripped off her robe (Anderson, 211), just as in the poem "She" an exhibitionist moon performs a strip-tease for the reader.

The Baroness had arrived in New York just as Europe's exiled artists were claiming the city as their new cultural metropolis during World War I. It was the era of New York Dada (1915-1923), a wild movement in...

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