Yes, that urinal - “an icon of twentieth-century art”
(tate.org), “the loo that shook the world” (Independent). Reputedly
Marcel Duchamp (Dada* hero) signed a mass produced urinal R.MUTT and,
in a radical gesture in 1917, submitted it to an open exhibition of the
Society of Independent Artists, New York, under the title Fountain. It
was rejected in what is now seen as a crucial turning point in art.
Since then it has been celebrated (and castigated!) as the starting
point for all the subsequent installation and conceptual artwork that
dominates contemporary art today.
But, as a convincing article in this November’s Art Newspaper argues, Duchamp stole this iconic act from fabulous Dada poet and artist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.
The evidence is pretty damning: two days before Fountain was
rejected, Duchamp wrote to his sister (Dada artist Suzanne) to tell her
that “one of my female friends, under the masculine pseudonym, Richard
Mutt, sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture.”
It was not until decades later, in the late 50s/early 60s, that
Duchamp, wanting to re-establish his position as an artist, started
laying claim to Fountain. However he made a rather telling
error: the supplier he says he got it from never stocked this particular
urinal. The original was long lost but a photo survived (above) and
Duchamp authorized his dealer to make copies that he authenticated and
are now showcased in premier art museums around the world.
Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, however, has been lost from
mainstream histories. Friend and colleague of Duchamp, she made Dada
sculptures out of found objects and had a track record in plumbing as
art – the sculpture entitled God (below) was an S-bend mounted on a wooden block.
Jane Heap, the editor of an influential journal, The Little Review,
described the Baroness as “the only one living anywhere who dresses
dada, loves dada, lives dada” and published her poetry alongside the
first appearance of James Joyce’s Ulyesses.
Born in Germany in 1874, Elsa acquired her title from her third
marriage (to an impoverished aristocrat who deserted her) and pitched up
(alone) in New York in the teens of the century, a fully formed
avant-gardist. She was integral to the free verse movement and one of
the New York Dada group that including Duchamp, Man Ray, Francis Picabia
et al. She was outrageous, a kleptomaniac and proto punk challenging
all codes of behavior, arrested for dressing in men’s clothes or not
dressing at all (going about semi naked). One of the first performance
artists she concocted and sported amazing costumes – tomato soup tins as
a bra; hats of a bird cage (with bird) or a birthday cake complete with
burning candles; tea-balls and cocktail spoons as jewelry. She shaved
her head and lacquered it red, wore yellow face powder with black
painted lips. She demanded equality in sexual agency and mused on
ejaculation, orgasm, oral sex and impotence in her poetry which broke
all boundaries of form as well as content.
Breaking the rules of gendered behaviour and totally uncompromising in
her commitment to Dada, the Baroness was deeply threatening to the men
in her circle. Just as I have argued in relation to Pauline Boty (Pop artist), I think that, as a woman, she perhaps presented a transgression too far: dying, poverty stricken, in Paris in 1927 she has been written out of the mainstream histories.
How different the story of 20th century culture would feel now if a woman had been acclaimed as an epoch shattering, free thinking, paradigm shifting creator.
But hang on. Scholars have been aware of the Duchamp’s letter since
the 1980s! It’s in the news now because, although reprinting and
praising the book in which the revelation is made, Museum of Modern Art
(NY) has still refused to acknowledge Elsa’s role – as does Tate (check out Tate’s website account of Fountain no
mention of Elsa!) And this deceit is the really shocking news. There
is just too much is invested in the fiction of Duchamp’s heroic act. For
a re-vision to be made acres of critical theory, art historical and
curatorial analysis would, and should, be disrupted along
with comfortable, (gendered) notions of genius and innovation,
Doubly transgressive in rejecting both their social role as women and
all accepted notions of art they offer a radical, innovative take on
the Modernist shake up of art. Artists like Baroness Elsa von
Freytag-Loringhoven need to be put back into the frame – foremothers of
punk, riot grrls, pussy riot et al and inspiration to all women
challenging the status quo.