Shaving the Baroness

Lene Berg

Shaving the Baroness is a video-projection with Dunja Eckert-Jakobi and Leander Djønne. It was first shown at Manifesta 8, Murcia, Spain 2010.


Still from Shaving the Baroness, 2010.

I. Sources

* Steven Watson, Strange bedfellows: The First American Avant-Garde, New York: Abbeville Press, 1991, s. 265.

Several times during my research on the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven I came across descriptions of the filmBaroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven shaving her pubic hair, which was probably shot in New York in 1921. One of the things that struck me was how contradictory the sources were about the authorship and the purpose of the project. Some say it was Man Ray's film, others that it was Duchamp's, and yet others claim it was a three-way collaboration thereby including the Baroness in the circle of genius. Some say the Baroness originated the idea, others that it should be viewed as the death knell of New York Dada and yet others that it was done as part of Duchamp's research. How Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven shaving her pubic hair functions in many of the texts is in reality quite predictable and not truly contradictory: the film is used as an example of whatever the authors set out to illustrate or express and whom they chose as the focus of their writing.

Such is the nature of written history and of the stories that compose history. The event has long vanished and as soon as it is retold the reason for retelling it tends to cover up what actually happened. Yet, it does not make sense to approach history with the purpose of telling the truth, no written or aural history can tell the truth. However, it can be realin the sense that at certain moments it can be integrated into ongoing reality.


* John X. Cooper, Modernism and the Culture of Market Society, Cambridge University Press, 2004, s. 1.

Some recorded descriptions appear to be based upon viewings of the film though it seems more likely the film was never shown. What we know is that either Marcel Duchamp or Man Ray accidently destroyed the negative during development.Sad, I thought, because it would certainly have been interesting to see the long dead Baroness alive (from 90 years ago), moving, naked, performing a thoroughly risky act in front of two cameras and three fully dressed men (Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and an anonymous technician). As I thought about restaging the film, I knew that it would never be the same as the 1921 version and that was actually not so important. The idea for the film is quite simple and not very personal, and could in reality be staged by almost anyone.

But even if the scenario is simple, the staging was not necessarily easy. For instance, to shave someone's pubic hair cannot be rehearsed and you only have one take. It also turned out to be far from easy to find someone who wanted to do it and whom I wanted to see do it. Any film will naturally turn out very differently depending on who is acting in it. The individuals performing will bring their individuality and aura to the film, and because they do what they do in their own personal way the images become unique and not interchangeable with any other images, even if they were to show the exact same actions.


* Man Ray, Self Portrait, London: André Deutsch, 1963, s. 262 - 263.

I must admit I was a bit embarrassed by the idea and maybe my own shyness was one of the reasons I decided to do this film: I wanted to see a woman shaving her pubic hair in front of a camera without being shy or embarrassed about it. I wouldn't have been able to do it and like many directors and photographers, I pay people to do things I cannot do.

I didn't want an actress to do it and I didn't want someone to act the Baroness. I just wanted someone to be there as herself, doing what the Baroness did, or is said to have done. Even if the situation would be totally staged and controlled, I wanted something real, something which I could not instruct, to enter the frame.

Embarrassment is something real. Arousal is also real. Risk is real. Real is not the same as true. Real is something in itself and cannot be totally controlled by the words used to describe it, or the descriptions applied to it. I imagine the sense of the real changes with time and with context.


* Irene Gammel, Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and everyday Modernity - A Cultural biography, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002, s. 293.

One can only speculate in how a film like Shaving the Baronesswould have been received in 1921 and how the reactions would differ then from now. It is possible that the reactions would not have been as different as one spontaneously thinks or at least, not so essentially different to what one might be lead to believe. Western culture today prides itself with an enlightened and liberated sexual culture combined with a high degree of visual sophistication. But even if access to images of naked bodies, both pornographic and others, is much easier today than in 1921, it is not certain that our uninhibited and sophisticated self-image is fully in accordance with reality. Even if thisdiscussion is rather too complex to fully address here, I would like to mention one example: there are not many women in our time and our culture who share the Baroness's attitude towards posing naked in front of a camera. Her attitude remains rare, especially when one takes into consideration that she was not a porn-actress and that she was not paid for her performance in the film. To use today's jargon: this film was part of her project and sprang from her experience as a nude-model and street-performer. Seen in this light she can be called a visionary: a woman who expressed feelings and possibilities that were in the air but not necessarily practiced or accepted at the time.


* George Baker, The Artwork Caught by the Tail: Picabia and Dada in Paris, October Books, MIT press, 2007, s. 172.

Shaving the Baronesscan be seen as homage to the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who died in poverty and is forgotten by history. But the decisive factor for me making the film was the central idea about the essence of moving images. It shows a unique moment where the past and the future are not important. It involves a certain risk and a certain ambiguity. The main character is transformed, yet no story in the conventional sense of the word is taking place. The situation is intimate and the experience would not normally be possible to share with others unless it was documented. Even if what can be seen already belongs to the past, it will always take place in the present whenever the film is screened, be it a hundred years from now or a hundred years ago.


Kunstjournalen B-post nr. 1_10/11: The Past Now!