A woman in the men's room: when will the art world recognise the real artist behind Duchamp's Fountain?
Evidence suggests the famous urinal Fountain, attributed to Marcel Duchamp, was actually created by Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. Why haven’t we heard of her, asks Siri Hustvedt.
Why is it hard for people to accept the intellectual and creative authority of artists and writers who are women? Why did Lee Krasner’s obvious influence on Jackson Pollock go unrecognised for decades? Why was Simone de Beauvoir’s original thought attributed to Jean-Paul Sartre? Why did it take centuries for art historians to recognise the canvases of the Italian baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi as hers, not her father’s, even those that were signed by her? I don’t believe the people involved in these attributions were all monsters out to destroy the reputation of the artist or thinker. The evidence was there. They couldn’t see it. Why?
Paintings, novels and philosophy made by men feel more elevated somehow, more serious, while works by women feel flimsier and more emotional. Masculinity has a purifying effect, femininity a polluting one. The chain of associations that infect our thought dates back to the Greeks in the west: male, mind-intellect, high, hard, spirit, culture as opposed to female, body, emotion, soft, low, flesh, nature. The chains are hierarchical, man on top and woman on bottom. They are often subliminal, and they are emotionally charged. Ironically, these enduring associations become all the more important when the artwork in question is a urinal – a pee pot for men.
The story goes like this: Marcel Duchamp, brilliant inventor of the “ready-made” and “anti-retinal art”, submitted Fountain, a urinal signed R Mutt, to the American Society of Independent Artists in 1917. The piece was rejected. Duchamp, a member of the board, resigned. Alfred Stieglitz photographed it. The thing vanished, but conceptual art was born. In 2004 it was voted the most influential modern artwork of all time.
But what if the person behind the urinal was not Duchamp, but the German-born poet and artist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874-1927)? She appears in my most recent novel, Memories of the Future, as an insurrectionist inspiration for my narrator. One reviewer of the novel described the baroness as “a marginal figure in art history who was a raucous ‘proto-punk’ poet from whom Duchamp allegedly stole the concept for his urinal”. It is true that she was part of the Dada movement, published in the Little Review with Ezra Pound, Djuna Barnes, TS Eliot, Mina Loy and James Joyce and has been marginalised in art history, but the case made in my book, derived from scholarly sources enumerated in the acknowledgements, is not that Duchamp “allegedly stole the concept for his urinal” from Von Freytag-Loringhoven, but rather that she was the one who found the object, inscribed it with the name R Mutt, and that this “seminal” artwork rightly belongs to her.
In the novel, I quote a 1917 letter Duchamp wrote to his sister, Susanne. I took the translation directly from Irene Gammel’s excellent biography of Von Freytag-Loringhoven, Baroness Elsa: “One of my female friends who had adopted the masculine pseudonym Richard Mutt sent me a porcelain urinal as a sculpture.” I got it wrong. Glyn Thompson, an art scholar and indefatigable champion of the baroness as the brain behind the urinal, pointed out to me that Duchamp wrote “avait envoyé” not “m’a envoyé” – “sent in”, not “sent me”. R Mutt was identified as an artist living in Philadelphia, which is where she was living at the time. In 1935 André Breton attributed the urinal to Duchamp, but it wasn’t until 1950, long after the baroness had died and four years after Stieglitz’s death, that Duchamp began to take credit for the piece and authorise replicas.
Duchamp said he had purchased the urinal from JL Mott Ironworks Company, adapting Mutt from Mott, but the company did not manufacture the model in the photograph, so his story cannot be true. Von Freytag-Loringhoven loved dogs. She paraded her mutts on the sidewalks of Greenwich Village. She collected pipes and spouts and drains. She relished scatological jokes and made frequent references to plumbing in her poems: “Iron – my soul – cast iron!” “Marcel Dushit”. She poked fun at William Carlos Williams by calling him WC. She created God, a plumbing trap as artwork, once attributed to Morton Schamberg, now to both of them. Gammel notes in her book that R Mutt sounds like Armut, the word for poverty in German, and when the name is reversed it reads Mutter – mother. The baroness’s devout mother died of uterine cancer. She was convinced her mother died because her tyrannical father failed to treat his venereal disease. (The uterine character of the upside-down urinal has long been noted.) And the handwriting on the urinal matches the handwriting Von Freytag-Loringhoven used for her poems.
All this and more appears in Gammel’s biography. All this and more reappears in my novel. All the evidence has been painstakingly reiterated in numerous articles and, as part of the Edinburgh festival fringe, Glyn Thompson and Julian Spalding, a former director of Glasgow Museums, mounted the 2015 exhibition A Lady’s Not a Gent’s, which presented the factual and circumstantial evidence for reattribution of the urinal to Von Freytag-Loringhoven.
The museums, including the Tate, have not budged. The standard Fountain narrative with Duchamp as hero goes on. I am convinced that if the urinal had been attributed to the baroness from the beginning, it would never have soared into the stratosphere as a work of consummate genius. Women are rarely granted such status, but the present reputation of Fountain, one that was hardly instantaneous but grew slowly over the course of many decades, has made the truth embarrassing, not to speak of the money involved and the urgent need to rewrite history. The evidence is there. They can’t or won’t see it. Why?
Expectation is the better part of perception, most of it unconscious. Past experience determines how we confront the world in the present. Prejudgment and stereotyping are part of cognition, but those preordained ideas – authority is masculine, for example – are cultural. Most people know about implicit bias. The media are full of it. Take the implicit association test to see if you are a racist or sexist. But as Perry Hinton put it: “The implicit stereotypical associations picked up by an individual do not reflect a cognitive bias but the associations prevalent in their culture – evidence of ‘culture in mind’.” We need “gut feelings”, but we also devise post hoc explanations for them: “Certainly, Freytag-Loringhoven had created broadly similar scatological works but nothing that held the thinking expressed in Duchamp’s piece.” I lifted this sentence from an online article at Phaidon.com called The Fascinating Tale of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. I quote it in the novel. The writer does not explain what he means by “thinking” or why works by the baroness lack thought.
To open oneself to any work – a sculpture, a book of literature or philosophy – is to acknowledge the authority behind it. When the spectator or reader is a man and the artist or thinker is a woman, this simple act of recognition can give rise to bad feelings of emasculation, what I call “the yuck factor” – the unpleasant sensation of being dragged down into fleshy feminine muck. But because the feelings are automatic, they may never be identified and can easily be explained away: she couldn’t think. She was a wild woman who wore tin cans for a bra. She turned her body into Dada. In 1913, she picked a rusted ring off the street, a found object, and named it Enduring Ornament, a year before Duchamp’s first readymade, Bottle Rack, but she wasn’t thinking. She couldn’t have influenced him. She was emotional, out of control – crazy. Duchamp, on the other hand, was dry, witty, a chess-playing genius of pure conceptual mind, a hero of high culture.
The baroness called herself “art aggressive.” She celebrated and elevated bodily machinery, rejoiced in verbal hijinks, and pitied Duchamp for devolving into “cheap, bluff, giggle frivolity”. She played with the outrage, contempt and disgust she incited. She wrote: “You forget, madame – that we are the masters – go by our rules.” She broke the rules. The evidence is there. She sent in the urinal. It’s time to rewrite the story.
Siri Hustvedt, The Guardian, March 29, 2019.