Contemporary art Comment USA

Did Marcel Duchamp steal Elsa’s urinal?

The founding object of conceptualism was probably “by a German baroness”, but this debate is rarely aired

Should museums re-label the work Fountain as “a replica, appropriated by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), of an original by Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874-1927)”? Photo: Felix Clay Photograph by Felix Clay.

Evidence that Marcel Duchamp may have stolen his most famous work, Fountain, from a woman poet has been in the public domain for many years. But the art world as a whole—museums, academia and the market—has persistently refused to acknowledge this fact. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York is the latest eminent body to bury its head in the sand. It has just published a new edition of Calvin Tomkins’s 1996 life of Duchamp, updated by its author. Ann Temkin, MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, praises Tomkins in her introduction for his “thorough research”. But Tomkins avoids addressing the implications of the question marks over the origins of the work that Duchamp himself raised in 1917.

The public has a right to believe what it reads on a museum label. The Moderna Museet, Stockholm, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Tate Modern, the National Gallery of Canada, the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, Indiana University Art Museum, Bloomington, the Centre Pompidou, Paris and the Israel Museum should all re-label their copies of Fountain as “a replica, appropriated by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), of an original by Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874-1927)”.

The extraordinary fact that has emerged from the painstaking ­studies of William Camfield, Kirk Varnedoe and Hector Obalk is that Duchamp could not have done what he said he did late in life. Irene Gammel and Glyn Thompson have revealed the truth of his much earlier private account that he did not submit the urinal to the Society of Independent Artists exhibition in New York in 1917. Nevertheless, Duchamp’s late, fictional story is still taught in every class and recited in every book.

Duchamp maintained that he bought the urinal from the J. L. Mott Iron Works in New York, signed it with the pseudonym R. Mutt, and submitted it to the Independents exhibition, calling it Fountain. The ­urinal was rejected despite the objection of Duchamp’s rich friend Walter Arensberg, who argued that the ­society must honour its own rule and hang everything submitted. The ­urinal was a work of art, he claimed, because an artist had chosen it.

The submission and rejection of Duchamp’s urinal is now regarded as one of the early turning points in the history of Modern art. Fountain is always cited as the source of conceptualism, the Modern art movement that America, rather than Europe, gave the world.

In conceptual art, the idea behind the work is more important than its visual appearance or any aesthetic considerations. Mere choice is enough to transpose any object into a work of art. The problem is that this new orthodoxy is based upon a myth, and this myth is not nearly as old as it claims.

Scholars have long since proved that Duchamp could not have bought the urinal from the J. L. Mott Iron Works because Mott didn’t sell that particular model. Most tellingly, on 11 April 1917, just two days after the board had rejected it, Duchamp wrote to his sister, a nurse in war-torn Paris, telling her that “one of my female friends under a masculine pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture”. The explosive contents of this letter did not enter the public domain until 1983 when the missive was published in the Archives of American Art Journal.

The mere fact that Duchamp referred to the urinal as a sculpture suggests that it could not have been his, since by 1913, prompted by the work of the wealthy, chess-playing writer Raymond Roussel, he had stopped creating art. His Roussel-inspired “Readymades” were elaborate, personal rebuses to be read, not viewed.

The literary historian Irene Gammel was the first to discover who Duchamp’s “female friend” was. She was born Else Plötz in Germany in 1874, the daughter of a builder and local politician who philandered freely and beat her mother. Afflicted with syphilis, her mother attempted suicide and died later in an institution. As Elsa put it, she “left me her ­heritage… to fight”.

Elsa first married the leading Jugendstil architect August Endell, then Felix Paul Greve, the translator of Oscar Wilde, who faked his own suicide to escape his creditors and fled with Elsa to America. Her third marriage was to Leopold Karl Friedrich Baron von Freytag-Loringhoven, the impoverished son of a German aristocrat who had also escaped to America to avoid debts. He soon ­vanished with Elsa’s paltry savings but left her with a title and entrée into artistic circles in New York.

Elsa simultaneously inspired and repelled all who came into contact with her, from Ezra Pound to Ernest Hemingway. Nevertheless The Little Review treated her as a star and ­published her poems alongside excerpts from James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Elsa’s genius was to find new ways to break out of the social straightjacket that bound women so that she could fight her mother’s battle in public, whenever and wherever she wanted, not when men told her she could.

In October 1917, the painter George Biddle described her room in New York filled with “odd bits of ­ironware, automobile tiles… ash cans, every conceivable horror, which to her tortured yet highly sensitive ­perception, became objects of formal beauty… it had to me quite as much authenticity as, for instance, Brancusi’s studio in Paris.”

Elsa was a poet of found objects, but she didn’t leave them as they were—she transformed them into works of art.

Elsa exploded in fury when the US declared war on her motherland, on Good Friday, 6 April 1917. Her ­target was the Society of Indepen­dent Artists, whose representatives had consistently cold-shouldered her. We believe she submitted an upside-down urinal, signed R. Mutt in a script similar to the one she sometimes used for her poems.

Armut—the homophone of R. Mutt—has many resonances in German. It is used in common phrases to mean “poverty”, and in some contexts “intellectual poverty”. Elsa’s submission was a double-pronged attack. The society was hoisted by its own petard, for in accepting the entry it would demonstrate its inability to distinguish a work of art from an everyday object, but in rejecting it, it would break its own rule that the definition of what was art should be left to the submitting artist. Hence the “intellectual poverty” of its stance.

The urinal was Elsa’s declaration of war against a man’s war—an extraordinary visual assault on all that men stood for. As a sculpture of a transformed everyday object, it deserves to rank alongside Picasso’s Bull’s Head, 1942, made of bicycle ­handlebars and a saddle, and Dali’s Lobster Telephone, 1936.

If Duchamp did not submit the urinal, why would he pretend later that he did? After Elsa died in 1927, forgotten and in abject poverty, Duchamp began to let his name be associated with the urinal, and by 1950, four years after the death of Alfred Stieglitz, who photographed the original Fountain, he began to assume its authorship.

After he reluctantly abandoned his ambition to become a professional chess champion in 1933, Duchamp started to rebuild his artistic career by repackaging his early work. The problem was that there was not much of it. Only one of his original Readymades still existed, forgotten, in a drawer in Walter Arensberg’s desk. It is from this period, beginning in 1936, that replicas of the “lost” Readymades began to appear. Elsa’s urinal plugged a hole, but to make it his own Duchamp turned it into an attack on art itself.

Duchamp had long hated art. Both his elder brothers had become successful artists; he had not. Envy seeps out of many of his unguarded utterances: “Why should artists’ egos be allowed to overflow and poison the atmosphere?” he said in 1963. “Can’t you just smell the stench in the air?”

When the mood took him, Duchamp could be honest about his dishonesty. In an interview in 1962, he told William Seitz: “I insist every word I am telling you now is stupid and wrong.” Why, then, has the art world persisted in believing an account grounded in the myths he promulgated?

The reason is simple: too much has been invested in Duchamp’s ­fiction. Countless artistic, curatorial and academic theories have been based upon it. And national pride is at stake, for conceptual art was America’s contribution to Modernism, supposedly dating from 1917, not the 1960s when Duchamp’s work began to weave its spell.

Added to that is the money. Millions of pounds have been invested not just in the 17 or so copies Duchamp authorised of Elsa’s urinal, but in the oceans of conceptual art legitimised by his anti-aesthetic. And in the wake of these ideas, expensive studio equipment and lengthy craft training have been swept out of ­education because it’s cheaper to think than make.

Duchamp’s mean and meaningless urinal has acted as a canker in the heart of visual creativity. Elsa’s puts visual insight back on to the throne of art.

A longer version of this article will appear online at www.scottishreviewofbooks.org


Marcel Duchamp in 1934. Photo: CONDÈ NAST ARCHIVE/CORBIS
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Comments

25 Mar 15
16:11 CET

MILTOS MANETAS, BOGOTÁ

iamgonnacopy.com Duchamp was the artist who made that Urinal famous: that work is his.

21 Nov 14
19:55 CET

MICHAEL WENYON, NEW YORK

FYI, the New York Public Library has digitized its copy of "Catalogue 'G,' Illustrating the Plumbing and Sanitary Department of the J.L. Mott Iron Works." http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/search/index?filters%5Btitle_uuid_s%5D%5B%5D=Catalogue%20'G,'%20Illustrating%20the%20Plumbing%20and%20Sanitary%20Department%20of%20the%20J.L.%20Mott%20Iron%20Works.%7C%7C7abeb350-c614-012f-2253-58d385a7bc34&keywords=&layout=false#/?scroll=200

20 Nov 14
17:4 CET

JESSE PRINZ, NEW YORK

It is wonderful to bring attention to Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, but I think there is powerful evidence against her authorship and in favor of Duchamp's. I make the case in a blog post here: http://www.artbouillon.com/2014/11/pilfered-pissoire-response-to.html

19 Nov 14
16:37 CET

THOMAS K NAGANO, LOS ANGELES

"Art is whatever, whatever you want it to be." Stuart Rapeport, circa 1992.

18 Nov 14
18:16 CET

MIZ TEE, PINOLE

The signature "R. Mutt" has always made me think that a dog (our mutt) saw the urinal as a fountain, and considered it art.

18 Nov 14
18:19 CET

MYRNA PINCHINAT, FLUSHING, NY, 11355

Duchamp's action has been sugarcoated if he actually stole the(urinal) and based on how some of us admire his work. If this seems conceptual, as from other claims. Yet, if the evidence goes beyond the shadow, why then, must he take credit for an art form which he did not create and also in theory, since, it could have been the possession of the Baroness:( Elsa Von Freytag-Loring-hoven) to begin with... There is no proof, that MarcelDuchamp reasoned it out, the way that it shows throughout most exhibits to which he has been promoted. There should become, a full investigation, before the emblem is considered in Theory to the public, since it has become so popular, in such a grand scale. since we would not know whom that we are talking about and in the event of auctions, which usually take place, percentages must fairly become attributed toward the Baroness's family survivor's, her Foundation if one does exist, or to a State Museum in Germany, her country.

18 Nov 14
18:18 CET

PATRICIA ALLMER, EDINBURGH

This has been thoroughly researched and argued for by both Amelia Jones and Irene Gammel in their truly groundbreaking studies on the Baroness. Failure to mention Jones, but citing instead the work of other male critics, is frankly shameful, and perpetuates precisely the suppression of women's work that the article ostensibly questions.

15 Nov 14
17:29 CET

BRONWYN MERRITT, CARRBORO

The arguments against Elsa's authorship fall apart for me this way: 'It's clearly Duchamp's work '(even though he said in writing at the time that it was not) and if it isn't, 'it isn't really good or important work anyway'. It was good, and it worked, and he got the credit. Simple.

11 Nov 14
16:36 CET

B. DIDDLE, ERIE

The urinal is to art as rap is to music. Feh! But everything changes. Who does the changing is not important.

10 Nov 14
20:1 CET

GLYN THOMPSON, APPLEBY-IN-WESTMORLAND

Dear Edward Shanken. I think I recall that the word ‘readymade’ does not appear among the pages Blind Man 2, and that Arensberg’s defence of the urinal, on the basis that Mutt had made it possible for a new thought to be conceptualized for the object, unfortunately defaults into an old one, manifested in the sculptural beauty of the urinal’s sensuous curves—hardly theorizing the readymade, surely. The fault with the later theorisation of the readymade lies with the hare that Breton started in 1935, predicated on a complete misunderstanding of the concept of the readymade that Duchamp’s described in letter to Suzanne, of 15 January 1916, which lay unsuspected and unread until 1983, making no contribution to later art theory. Duchamp’s definition of the readymade in that letter provided the theoretical grounding for a genre which had nothing to do with art, at least that’s what the man said. Arensberg was in no doubt that he was defending a work of art.

10 Nov 14
15:47 CET

EDWARD SHANKEN, SEATTLE

"In Advance of a Broken Art" and "Bicycle Wheel" predate "Fountain" are more surely attributable solely to Duchamp. Contra the authors, the alleged mythic nature of Duchamp's authorship of "Fountain" is of only tangential importance to the foundational solidity of conceptually-oriented art practice. Elsa did not originate the idea of the assisted readymade, which is Duchamp's mindflower. Although she may deserve more credit than that granted by MOMA, her role in the myth-making that surrounds the "Richard Mutt Case" appears to be minimal. Given that the work was lost or destroyed, the discursive justification (first articulated in The Blind Man, 1917, purportedly by Beatrice Wood, H.P. Roché and/or Marcel Duchamp) is at least as important as the object itself in establishing a theoretical foundation for later conceptual and post-conceptual art practices. This position is consistent with Duchamp's theorization of readymades and the later theories of Kosuth, Art & Language, etc.

10 Nov 14
15:48 CET

DR GLYN THOMPSON, APLLEBY-IN-WESTMORLAND

Any of the global curatorial elite contemplating changing a label also have the problem of what to attach labels to, because the problem for a work art that draws its legitimacy from the acceptance by Duchamp of the attribution of Mutt’s urinal is that it is now required to obtain it’s legitimacy from somewhere else. Had Duchamp merely exhibited a urinal at the Janis Gallery in 1950 and explained it as homage to Elsa, whose urinal had been rejected by the Independents in 1917, there would be no problem, but there is, because the replica of 1950, attributed to Duchamp, and signed R Mutt, drew its authenticity from the attribution of Mutt’s original to Duchamp, a process which had begun with no complaints from Duchamp in 1935.The implications of this conundrum for the future of avant-garde art must now be addressed: those for the art of the past are another question. Guidance through this thicket will shortly be available from ‘A Hospital for Blind Children’, on Academia.edu.

10 Nov 14
15:49 CET

AMCDONALD, NEWCASTLE

The founding object of conceptual art is not the urinal but Duchamp`s unassisted readymade `Bottlerack` - at least according to conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth in his 1968 `Art after Philosophy` articles in Studio International. The urinal/fountain is a minor work of dada anarchy and functions as such for academics who like a hobbyhorse. The books mentioned in the comments here sound interesting but the main points of the article are plain wrong.

7 Nov 14
17:58 CET

GLYN THOMPSON, LONDON

A number of contributors to the comments section, posted below ‘Did Marcel Duchamp Steal Elsa’s Urinal’, on the electronic version of The Art Newspaper, have called into question the methodological probity underpinning the composition of the article. Any reader wishing to confirm for themselves the veracity of these accusations are invited to consult, for reassurance, two sources. Firstly, all the publications of the manifold writings of Julian Spalding, and secondly, the twenty-eight papers published by Dr. Glyn Thompson presently posted on the online academic journal, Academia.edu, access to which is as simple as expressing an opinion in the comments sections located at the end of articles posted on The Art Newspaper. It is greatly to be hoped that readers with no experience of the delights of academic rigour will benefit particularly from this experience, and consequentlyfeel confident in their future enunciations.

6 Nov 14
21:59 CET

PETER PICK, BESSAS

I believe it - ithe name doen`t matter - it`s the work -

5 Nov 14
18:24 CET

GRAHAM S., NEW YORK

This article is so rife with basic inaccuracies it is difficult to take seriously. It would appear to be the work of author(s) with a meager understanding of both history and aesthetics who thinks they will gain something but attacking an old lion. Duchamp had made five sculptural 'readymades' before FOUNTAIN (and after 1913, so he was clearly still at work). Even if Elsa did submit the piece (of which there is no particular evidence, just speculation based on work by Irene Gammel) it is only a showier (and less funny, in my opinion) development of work Duchamp started years earlier with IN ADVANCE OF A BROKEN ARM. Furthermore, neither of M.D. brothers were especially famous or successful, and there is absolutely no indication of 'envy' in his writing or interviews. He spent a remarkable amount of time developing the ideas and craft that went into his two major works (The Large Glass and Étant Donnés)- clearly much more time than these authors spent fact checking their silly tirade.

4 Nov 14
20:41 CET

DIPTI DATTA, DHAKA

1917 to 1956, it’s a long time to develop any idea. So, if ‘fountain’ submitted by Elsa at first with the concept of ‘intellectual poverty’ then of course the first and basic concern should be that when, why and visually what prepared as an art work. Who done this, to avoid anything as a feminine issue also could be the basic concern if the art world could be informed that artist is female. In this way may be an interesting question is lying here why Elsa chosen a ‘masculine pseudonym’ which written by Duchamp to his sister. I think to keep eye in history(specially male dominated modernism)- Masculine take the place of authority, when have a chance art to be product And art only is to be a psychic statement if it’s done by feminine.

4 Nov 14
19:36 CET

MIRA SCHOR, NEW YORK

It is really crucial to note not only Irene Gammel's wonderful book "Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity," but also Amelia Jones equally impressive and important scholarship on Duchamp and on the Baroness elsa, including her fabulous book "Irrational Modernism: A Neurasthenic History of New York Dada" (both books published by the very prestigious MIT Press). If you are talking about a woman's work being erased, then don't continue that practice now

4 Nov 14
19:30 CET

AMELIA JONES, LOS ANGELES

Please read my two books, one on the construction of Duchamp's heroic authorship (1993), Postmodernism and the En-Gendering of Marcel Duchamp, the other on the Baroness's performative radical practice in the context of NY Dada--Irrational Modernism. I have already completed extensive scholarship on all of these questions.

4 Nov 14
19:30 CET

BRIDIE LONIE, DUNEDIN

I'd like to see more documentation. Duchamp played with gender so often that I can quite imagine him referring to his own acts as being those of a woman. the somewhat vengeful nature of the second part of the article detracts from the fascinating story of Elsa.. can we hearmore?..

3 Nov 14
15:36 CET

AMCDONALD, NEWCASTLE

So the authors think there is no "lengthy craft" in Duchamp`s `Large Glass` and no "visual insight on the throne" in his `Given 1.The Waterfall...` ? There`s a pic of both in this months Art Review Power 100. If Elsa made the original RMutt it`s an intriguing addition to the story but in no way invalidates Duchamp`s art or his art criticism.

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