Shifting Spotlights—The Extended Introduction
by Chelsea Rozansky
One might… speak of an unforgettable life or moment even if all [people] had forgotten it. If the nature of such a life or moment required that it be unforgotten, that predicate would not imply a falsehood but merely a claim not fulfilled by [humankind], and probably also a reference to a realm in which it is fulfilled: God’s remembrance.
—Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator” (1923)
Take the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, for example. Hailed by her contemporaries as “the first American Dada artist,” Freytag-Loringhoven was born in Germany in 1874, and eventually wound up in Greenwich Village.1 She was a performance artist, a sculptor, a painter and a poet, yet in Georges Hugnet’s canonized theoretical work, “The Dada Spirit in Painting,” Freytag-Loringhoven was only mentioned once, as: “the portrait of a Dadaist whimsy…dressed in rags picked up here and there, decked out with impossible objects suspended from chains, swishing long trains.”2 Framed as a fleeting image, without mention of her work. She lived and died in poverty, and in subsequent discourse, she and her work were scarcely mentioned at all.
As Benjamin wrote of written history’s important but nonetheless troubled role in shaping the “afterlife” of artworks, “The history of the great works of art tells us about their descent from prior models, their realization in the age of the artist, and what in principle should be their eternal afterlife in succeeding generations,” adding, “Where the last manifests itself, it is called fame.” Compare, then, Freytag-Loringhoven’s framing in history to that of her famous contemporary Marcel Duchamp. The “afterlife” of Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), a porcelain urinal with the inscription “R. Mutt,” is historicized as the birth of Conceptual Art, which, as we know, challenges the very meaning of authorship. With that in mind, it is particularly tragic to consider, as literary historian Dr. Irene Gammel proposed in 2002, that Freytag-Loringhoven was probably the artist responsible for Fountain.
The Baroness, going under the nom de plume Richard Mutt—which sounds to the German ear like armut, meaning “poverty”—was in Philadelphia in 1917, the year of Fountain’s rejection from the Society of Independent Artists’ (SIA) salon in New York. In a letter to his sister, painter Suzanne Duchamp, dated April 11, 1917, Duchamp wrote: “One of my female friends under a masculine pseudonym Richard Mutt sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture. It was not at all indecent—no reason for refusing it.” Because the point of the exhibition was to showcase all submitted work, and because Duchamp was a board member and thus might have influenced the board’s debate over whether Fountain was art, the “R. Mutt” inscription was later interpreted as an attempt to sneak past the panel anonymously in order to challenge its members to consider the art/not-art question without the bias of a famous name—rather than as the result of a collaboration with the Baroness, whose adoption of a masculine pen name also stemmed from a problem of public recognition, but indeed the opposite of Duchamp’s.
That the Baroness was responsible for Fountain is a theory further corroborated by photographer Alfred Stieglitz, a fellow member of the SIA board, who recalls that a young woman brought a urinal on a pedestal to the salon. The Tate Modern, which has one of the 17 replica Fountains in their collection, regards Stieglitz’s account as a testament to Duchamp’s success at hiding his identity. The Tate, citing art historian Dr. William Camfield, the authority on Duchamp, further splits hairs about Marcel’s letter to Suzanne, stressing that the word “sent,” not “made,” is evidence that Duchamp is not attributing Fountain’s authorship to the woman, but merely shooting the shit about its messenger.3 (I’d venture to say that this claim can be refuted by saying “readymade” out loud.)
The Baroness did a similar iconoclastic found-object/trash as objet d’art with other pieces before Fountain: Enduring Ornament (1914) was a rusty metal ring; Cathedral (1918) was a piece of splintered wood; and, a drainpipe, God (1917), was made the same year as Fountain, and wrongly misattributed to photographer Morton Schamberg (who took a picture of the sculpture) until recent scholarship corrected the mix-up. In the nearly two decades since Freytag-Loringhoven’s contributions were written into history, historians have begun to play a chicken versus egg game with Fountain and God: the latter is usually written about as a response to Duchamp, sometimes given the swishy integrity of “a readymade in the spirit of,” to quote the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where a photograph of the work is catalogued as a collaboration with Schamberg. Elsewhere, it’s discussed as a petty copycat, the product of an unrequited crush.4 Champions of the Baroness might just call them works in a series.
After returning to Berlin and spending some time at an inpatient psychiatric hospital where she wrote drafts of the memoir that comprises much of our knowledge about her, the Baroness died in 1927 by gas asphyxiation. Whether or not this was intentional is debated, but she did write a suicide letter to her friend and editor, modernist author Djuna Barnes, regarding her memoir/book of poetry, which she hoped would see publication: “Djuna—it is desperately necessary for me,” Freytag-Loringhoven wrote.5 However, her writing remained unpublished until 2011, when it was brought to light thanks to the work of Gammel, her biographer. The Baroness’s corpse, in a stunningly poetic, if grotesque, mirror of her body of artistic work, remains lost.
Meanwhile, the original Fountain disappeared after the SIA salon (a fabulous theory is that it was literally thrown in the trash) but was reclaimed as a treasured work in the ’50s—20 years after Freytag-Loringhoven’s death.6 Duchamp authorized production of 17 replicas, personally autographing some of them, and started preaching about the philosophy of the readymade. When asked about the original’s inscription, Duchamp explained that “Mutt” is a play on “Mott,” as in J.L. Mott Iron Works, the Fifth Avenue plumbing supply store in New York City where he said he bought the urinal, although, according to Gammel’s research, there’s no record of that model in the store’s catalogue.
The Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven suffered from what, in scientific research, is called the Matilda Effect. Margaret K. Rossiter presented this theory in her 1993 paper, “The Matilda Effect in Science,” responding to Robert K. Merton’s “The Matthew Effect in Science” (1968).7 Merton had pointed out a phenomenon where the work of junior researchers practising under an established scientist, is credited to their more esteemed colleague because the older scientist’s name is already recognizable. Thus the “have-nots of scientific history” are not credited for their contributions, Rossiter summates.8 She took Merton’s idea a step further by suggesting that cultural and systemic marginalization also impact attribution and recognition, specifically when women collaborate with men. Rossiter named her research after Matilda Joslyn Gage, a 19th-century feminist activist and critic of female underrepresentation in the history of technology, from New York, but cites a number of other “Matildas” in science, including Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Marić, and Lise Meitner, who worked with Otto Hahn for decades to discover nuclear fission, though he alone received the Nobel Prize. (Apparently, this happens disproportionately often when married couples work together.)
While Freytag-Loringhoven’s head-over-heels love for Duchamp was left totally unrequited, there are indications that she inspired his work, which I presume was like salt on her wounds. Duchamp and Man Ray’s first movie, The Baroness Shaves her Pubic Hair (1921), starred the Baroness; most of the footage is lost, but one can imagine. Rrose Sélavy, Duchamp’s drag persona was modelled in the Baroness’s image, a gesture perhaps flattering, so far as imitation goes, but apropos of her performance art, appropriative. Duchamp’s fame, which was arguably at least partially indebted to the Baroness, plus his indifference to her affection, inspired scornful, pained and desperately felt art and poetry. Her painting Forgotten Like This Parapluie Am I By You—Faithless Bernice! (1924) was made in Berlin after leaving Greenwich Village and sent to photographer Berenice Abbott. It depicts a urinal smoking a pipe and leaking onto a pile of soiled books, while, on the left side, a booted foot exits the frame: perhaps a snapshot of how Freytag-Loringhoven viewed her relationship to Duchamp at that time.
In her poetry and letters, Freytag-Loringhoven referred to Duchamp as “M’ars,” a conjugation of “my arse.” Her identification with M’ars in these texts is so great, often saying that she is him, which scholars had long noted as artistic affinity for Duchamp, but after reading Gammel’s theory, sound more like attempts at reclaiming stolen identity. Consider this letter Freytag-Loringhoven wrote to the editors of The Little Review: “M’ars came to this country [America]—protected—carried by fame—to use his plumbing fixtures—mechanical comforts… He merely amuses himself. But—I am he—not yet having attained his height—I have to fight.”9 Fame, according to Hannah Arendt, is one of the only defenses against the precarity of statelessness, the migrant’s tenuous existence between the securities of citizenship.10
Despite Freytag-Loringhoven’s, in her own words, “unfitness to deal with the world—
unprotected” while she was alive, and because of her unprotectedness from disappearing into the folds of history, she is emblematic of Benjamin’s hope for “messianic” redemption.11 This belief in a saviour that is yet to come, which borrows from Jewish theology, is woven into his Marxist thinking—both Marxism and Jewish Messianism draw their energy from the belief in a future emancipation—and compels Benjamin to conduct history through a lens which he calls “historical materialism.”12 Religious inspirations aside, the historical materialist approach means attempting to excavate a “true picture of the past” by necessarily focusing on the stories of those who have been suppressed, rather than citing those which are already documented.13 “Only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments,” he writes.14 Here, one might consider Sarah Ahmed’s critique of citation as a “reproductive technology,” wherein dominant narratives are forever restated.15 “There are no mysteries of power, for power lies always on the surface” writes Agata Bielik-Robson, one of the foremost contemporary scholars on Benjamin’s messianic inspirations. “What is truly cryptic, always-in-the-hiding, is only the promise: the nothingness of not-yet.”16
Because Duchamp is carried by fame, both as a protection in his life, and in his afterlife as a canonized historical figure, focusing on his legacy cannot contribute to the project of history, according to Benjamin’s conception of it. Insofar as he is written on the surface, Duchamp’s life cannot reveal to us what Freytag-Loringhoven’s can. The Baroness has hovered in the margins of history, but is now offered a chance for redemption, if only in memory, since forgetting always implies the possibility of remembering. While Duchamp was protected in his life by a Modernist discourse that privileged male figures, Freytag-Loringhoven suffered inside the same paradigm, which could not recognize her. Benjamin’s historical materialist approaches the past by acknowledging those anonymous figures who, rendered unimportant in their life (often by structural inequities), are most at risk of disappearing in their afterlives. As Bielik-Robson explains, we ought to tell stories of the past with the responsibility of knowing they’re incomplete, that they inevitably point “toward something we forgot, but were not supposed to have forgotten.”17
We’re now left with fragments, which is more than what can be said for the majority of those omitted from history. What we know of the Baroness and her art is in large part due to Gammel’s work. Then we have her memoir, and images of her flickering through the works of her contemporaries: in Duchamp’s drag persona, in Man Ray’s movies and photographs, and as a fragmented image in Barnes’s autobiographic fiction Nightwood (1936) as Robin Vote—a composite of sculptor Thelma Wood, whom Barnes loved, and Freytag-Loringhoven, with whom she began a long-distance relationship with around the same time Barnes’s relationship with Wood was in decline. Vote floats around the periphery of the novel, hooking up, ghosting and generally drifting in and out of others’ lives as they sit around waxing philosophical. “The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again,” writes Benjamin in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”18 These fragments offer an opportunity for Benjamin’s historian, who, as Bielik-Robson writes “never tires of searching attentively for signs and traces of redemption that did not take place, and precisely because of that, can only be read through signs and traces.”19
My research with C Magazine began with a pedagogical reading of Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Inspired by the tragedy of the Baroness’s story, and the sad but hopeful investigative project of Benjamin’s text, I wondered how to work through C’s history without simply reproducing it (and its attendant blind spots). My goal was to uncover and profile those who had not yet been spotlighted in the magazine’s pages, but were footnoted—artistic practitioners mentioned as collaborators, colleagues, assistants, muses and other sources of support and inspiration. While Rossiter centres her account of Matildas on the marginalization of women, and the Baroness is certainly emblematic of a patriarchal tradition of suppression and misattribution, I widened the scope of my research to consider other systemic forms of marginalization that have left certain people out of the archives, invoking Benjamin’s call to “brush history against the grain.”20 Providing myself with this methodological framework, I ended up finding artists, writers and thinkers who raise nuanced questions that are less about misattribution, and more about what constitutes notability, or whose projects have the explicit mandate of historicizing marginalized figures, or who choose to work collectively (toward a dissolution of solo authorship), and who attempt to account for such collective labour in written discourse, as is crucial for the encoding of history.
To read the 2020 Writer in Residence Chelsea Rozansky’s essays in her Shifting Spotlights series, please visit: