In the Greenwich Village art scene of pre-WW1 New York, a 30-year-old woman adorned herself with the usual variety of found objects: plums hanging from her ears, postage stamps carefully arranged on her skin, and clothes that covered so little of her body that the authorities tried to arrest her several times. A muse to iconic artists like Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, Baroness Elsa was one of the earliest incarnations of the truly liberated woman, creatively, sexually, and intellectually. And somehow we forgot to give her credit.
Elsa was born in 1874 in Pomerania, Germany. A sweet and imaginative young girl, Elsa adored her mother, who died of uterine cancer when Elsa was 18. After her father remarried she ran away to Berlin. Before long, Elsa was frequenting the local theaters and cafes of the bohemian Berlin art scene, and had numerous affairs with notable avant garde artists.
In 1913, the baroness found herself in New York, settling in Greenwich Village. At the time, Greenwich Village had become a thrilling artistic haven for dadaist artists and the avant garde, and Elsa found herself right at home. She took a job at a cigarette factory so she could just get by, and posed for paintings and photographs for various notable artists of the time.
Only recently have we discovered Elsa’s true influence on the dada art movement. The credit for Duchamp’s famous piece “The Fountain,” depicting a urinal, actually belongs to Elsa. And in 2011 her provocative collection of poetry entitled Body Sweats was finally released.
Elsa was simply unafraid of aggressive self-expression, regardless of consequence. She danced around practically naked in public, leading to numerous arrests. She wore whatever she wanted, collecting items off the street and placing them on her body. And as an artist Elsa’s work had no boundaries; she made bold statements via performance art, found object art, sculpture, poetry and more, at a time in history when the creative woman’s voice needed to be heard. Among an artistic movement full of visionary men, Elsa was a true and unafraid feminist, and her narrative as a rebellious woman in Edwardian era America is refreshingly honest, heartfelt, complex and remarkably inspiring.
When WW1 broke out Elsa returned to Europe, moving back to Germany before finally settling in Paris. She was broke and reportedly going insane (many believe she had contracted syphilis from her mother, who had contracted it from Elsa’s father). She died in 1927, and we’ve slowly overlooked her legacy ever since.