Battle over a Urinal: is it a Gender Issue?

Art Galleries, Art Books, Art Critics ascribe the signed and dated urinal, Fountain, as the work of Marcel Duchamp, the French-American artist and creator of ‘Ready-Made’ art.

Only cursory research is necessary to realise that neither statement should be accepted at face-value. A rider is required: it is the principally patriarchal art institutions and male critics that accept Duchamp as the originator of the artwork, and the concept of ‘ready-made’. Why? It could be a case of ‘not losing face’, or a matter of ‘the provenance is unquestionable, therefore we won’t question it’, or simply that ‘Duchamp took ownership and who are we to question his word’.

Another, more ominous reason is that the artists who have been hailed as the true creator are women, most especially the outrageous Dadaist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. Quelle horreur!

I hope to add another dimension to this polarised argument by looking at quotations and artworks from the artists themselves and to consider commentaries from their contemporaries.

Who first presented a public urinal as a piece of art?

In every art history of the twentieth century Fountain is attributed to Marcel Duchamp.

What did Duchamp and others claim at the time?

In 1917 when the urinal was sent in to the Society of Independent Artists in New York Duchamp made no comment and did not claim to be its originator; at the time no-one attributed it to him.

In a letter to his sister Susanne, dated 11 April 1917, he wrote, “Une de mes amies sous un pseudonyme masculin, Richard Mutt, avait envoyé une pissotière en porcelaine comme sculpture”. The letter is not disputed but the meaning behind “avait envoyé” is. To those who say Fountain is the work of Duchamp, he meant that his friend “sent me”; for those who do not agree that Duchamp was the originator he meant “sent in”. According to Google Translate, it is “had sent a porcelain pissotiere as a sculpture”. Whichever way you cut it, Duchamp acknowledged that his “friend” had ascribed the urinal as a sculpture. He was also very specific that the friend’s pseudonym was ‘Richard Mutt’, ‘R. MUTT’ that it was a masculine pseudonym. Why specify “masculin” if the friend was a man?

In a diary entry dated 13 April 1917 Beatrice Wood said that she had gone with Duchamp to the photographer Stieglitz to ask him to photograph the urinal. On 19 April 1917 Stieglitz wrote: “a young woman (probably at Duchamp’s instigation) sent a large porcelain Urinal on a pedestal to the Independents[s]”. The photograph was to become the only record of the original sculpture which was lost before many people had an opportunity to see it, as the Society had rejected it. Interestingly, photographs of Duchamp’s studio that were possibly taken the following year show Fountain hanging in a doorway.

What did Duchamp claim later, or not refute?
  • that he submitted the work anonymously, using an unknown artist’s name, so as not to influence the decision of the Society [R. Mutt was not unknown as he referred to ‘Richard Mutt’, not R. Mutt, in the letter to his sister]
  • he was asked if ‘R Mutt’ was a play on ‘Armut’ (German for poverty); he said that ‘Mutt’ was a play on ‘Mott Works’ the sanitaryware company, adding that ‘Richard’ was French slang for “money-bags”; he said he wanted to juxtapose wealth and poverty [Why use a German reference? He spoke and mostly wrote in French even after living in US for many years.]
  • by the 1920s Duchamp seems to have replaced making art with playing competitive chess and much of his work was lost or damaged; a 1934 review of his work by a leading surrealist appears to have been the catalyst for his taking ownership of the sculptures he had ostensibly abandoned
  • 1935 – 41 he gathered together notes from the Large Glass, previously titled The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even and created “The Green Box” that built on the preliminary notes for the work, “The 1914 Box”; he also created miniatures of Fountain and Large Glass for inclusion in “Box in a Valise”, so conflating the two as his own works
  • it was in 1950 that Duchamp began to claim to be the originator, and to have (allow) replicas to be made; by this date both Baroness Elsa and Steiglitz were dead
Case against Duchamp’s claims?

Baroness Elsa was also creating artworks from ‘found objects’, and was well-known for wearing them as physical adornments. The ring of rusty metal she found and titled Enduring Ornament dated back to 1913; the sculpture God was created from a piece of plumbing by her and Morton Schamberg in 1917.

I have come across the argument that the Baroness never claimed the work as her own. Perhaps not directly, not in words, but her painting ‘Forgotten’ (1924) speaks volumes for me.

There is the umbrella she stole, there is the urinal that was stolen from her; there is a smoking pipe on the urinal’s rim, and piss pouring from it; Duchamp smoked a pipe and took the piss out of the art world through his deception; lastly she accuses Bernice of forgetting her, and it was Bernice Wood who sided with Duchamp over the ‘Fountain’. They were all part of the same art world – perhaps Bernice knew the true story behind the work. She also chose to use the French ‘parapluice’ as part of the image as if writing to, and alluding to, Duchamp. Her contempt for him could hardly be more blatant.
Perhaps less obvious, but relevant to me, are other features in the painting. Was she referencing the sculpture ‘God’ in the top right? Is that a self-portrait in the wide-brimmed netted hat to the left?

What of the signature?

With only five alphas and four numerics to go on it would take an expert graphologist to answer that question. Here are samples of their handwriting:

  • Duchamp rarely used upper case for either his notes or his signature; Baroness Elsa rarely used lower case
  • Duchamp’s style was cursive, the Baroness’s was not
Final thoughts

I enjoy art. I enjoy research. Delving into the story / mystery of ‘Fountain’ was irresistible. Hopefully I’ve raised more questions than I’ve suggested answers.

  • The Tate website
  • Wikipedia entries for Marcel Duchamp, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, and Fountain
  • ‘A woman in the men’s room’, Siri Hustvedt’s article in The Guardian April 2019

I hope you have enjoyed reading my thoughts and my findings and have also found the background to the sculpture intriguing. If you have, please like, share, and comment.
Thank you for reading.

Stay well. Stay safe. Stay apart.