Learning the Unruly ABCs of Dada

G is for...
God, Gone and Good Riddance

It's also for "God," the title of one of the strangest objects to come out of dada, conceived by a woman who was possibly the movement's most daring member.

Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, born a commoner in Germany, ended up stranded in the United States after her second husband abandoned her in Kentucky and her third -- the German baron she got her title from -- landed in a French prison, caught returning from New York to fight for the Fatherland. On her own in Manhattan, and often destitute, the baroness became the ultimate bohemian and dadaist.

She wore a wastebasket for a hat and stole trinkets from Woolworth's to adorn her clothing -- ready-mades as fashion, you could say -- when she wasn't piling them up into a still-life "portrait" of Marcel Duchamp, the apple of her unrequited eye.

The baroness's dada attitudes extended to her sex life: She decided which men she would sleep with, whether they liked it or not. The poet William Carlos Williams, the terrified object of one of her fiercest one-sided crushes, said he bought a punching bag to help him train for her assaults.

The baroness was one of the only dada artists as committed to the ready-made as Duchamp himself, who invented the genre. With her shoplifter's background in, shall we say, the "appropriation" of commercial goods, she immediately got the idea behind Duchamp's famous urinal -- the idea that there could be creative payoff in the simple act of moving an object from the public world of use and trade to the more private, personal space of art. Her blasphemously titled sculpture came about after fellow dadaist Morton Schamberg -- credited as the work's co-author -- had trouble with a dripping sink. Tearing the plumbing trap right out, the baroness declared it a work of art.

But not, maybe, as good a work as the baroness herself, who was said at the time to be the only artist who "dresses dada, loves dada, lives dada."

- Blake Gopnik, Washington Post Staff Writer


© 2006 The Washington Post Company