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Dames Done Wrong: The Baroness

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Crying Girl by Roy Lichtenstein

Welcome to Dames Done Wrong, where we handle misogyny, sexism and everyday douchebaggery throughout the ages. Most artists in museums might be male, but ladies rocked that paintbrush (or camera/chisel/etc.) JUST as hard. Whether the woman in question was murdered or simply overshadowed, whether her artwork got banned from the museum or maybe even stolen by the unfairer sex…you’ll read all the juicy details here.

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Let’s start off with a secret that has been basically out in the open for many, many years, even though everyone has apparently decided to collectively ignore it! But more on that later. This week’s Dame Done Wrong is Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. The queen B of Dada is not only the most underrated member of the movement, she also got robbed of one of the most iconic artworks of the 20th century.

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Elsa embodied the true spirit of Dada, an avant-garde movement known for its wacky sound poetry, collages and all-round goofiness. She loved to dress up, well actually, you can’t really call it dress up since strange outfits were her norm. 

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Case in point.

Besides making art out of rubbish she found on the streets, she also made outfits out of found stuff (or stuff she stole). One woman’s trash is another woman’s treasure, right? She turned garbage into weird and elaborate costumes and walked around like some sort of living collage. 

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One of her outfits was made out of flattened tin cans and stuffed parrots. She would also dance on her veranda in nothing but stockings and would get arrested for dressing “too revealing.” 

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Elsa obviously gave zero f*cks.

While living in NYC she befriended a lot of now famous artists and became known as the first American Dadaist and female pioneer of “sound poetry.”

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The Dadaists loved to make verses without words, which kind of sounds like that one friend on a Saturday night, after one too many beers, trying to sing along to Adele.

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But aside from all this unconventional behavior, she was a woman with a message. Her mother died at a very young age from cancer. Elsa was convinced that the cancer was caused by the untreated syphilis her dad gave to her mom. With her artwork she demanded equality in sexual agency and wrote poetry about ejaculation, orgasm, oral sex and impotence, which is edgy in 2016 and was completely unheard of at that time. She tried to break the rules of gendered behavior, which you can imagine was quite threatening for the men in her circle. Ha!

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Anyways, Elsa died in 1927 when the gas in her room was left on overnight. Even though she did talk about suicide, friends like Peggy Guggenheim weren’t convinced she took her own life. Sadly, only few of her artworks exist today. Her most famous work is a sculpture she made out of found plumbing pieces.

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The work, entitled God, was an S-bend mounted on a wooden block. A ready-made, the kind of art that made Marcel Duchamp really really famous. 

Wait a sec, plumbing…Ready-Mades…Duchamp… Does any of that ring a bell?

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Ding Ding Ding! Some researchers state that R. Mutt was in fact a woman! Fountain, the most famous piece of plumbing in the world, might have been made by Elsa! Since both artists passed away a long time ago, we can’t really send a DM and ask, but the evidence it pretty strong. 

Two days before Fountain was rejected for an exhibition, Marcel wrote a letter to his sister Suzanne. He told her that one of his female friends had sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture. He even told her she did this under the pseudonym Richard Mutt. (R. Mutt is pronounced as “Ar-Mut”, which means poverty in German. Those Dadaists and their puns…) 

It wasn’t until the late 50’s/early 60’s that Duchamp took credit for the artwork, years after Elsa had passed away. Marcel wanted to re-establish his position in the art world and claimed the Fountain as his own. He did make one mistake, and people keep overlooking this one tiny fact. The supplier he says he got the piece of plumbing from, never stocked this particular urinal! Luckily for him, the original Fountain got lost and only the photos remained. Marcel was a smart guy, he ordered his dealer to make copies, authenticated them and showcased them in all the big museums of the world.

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But remember how I said this has been a public secret for many years? Scholars have been aware of Duchamp’s letter to Susanne ever since the 1980s. The letter might not clearly state that Elsa was the “female friend”, but Marcel didn’t have that many female artist friends. Let alone female artist friends who made sculptures out of plumbing. Elsa may or may not have been the original artist of the Fountain, but we know for sure Marcel didn’t make the first one! I guess there is too much at stake for the art world to rewrite one of it’s most famous stories. Is this a downright dirty forgery or is the Fountain Duchamp’s most brilliant masterpiece, the pinnacle of appropriation art?

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We say…DAME DONE WRONG!


By Silke van de Grift

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Silke van de Grift

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