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How Duchamp stole the Urinal – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

How Duchamp stole the Urinal

November 4, 2014 | by SRB

Calvin Tomkins met Marcel Duchamp in 1959 when he wrote an article about him for Newsweek. They were friends until the artist’s death in 1968. The Museum of Modern Art has just published a new and revised edition of Tomkins’ now standard 1996 biography of Duchamp. Ann Temkin, Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA, praises Tomkins in her introduction for unfailingly bringing ‘a splendid lightness of touch to the weight of his careful and thorough research.’

Lightness is crucial to Tomkins’ assessment of Duchamp. He criticizes those who take Duchamp too seriously. ‘Approach his work with a light heart’, Tomkins recommends, ‘and the rewards are everywhere in sight.’ This affable attitude, which demonstrated a warm friendship, has led Tomkins to brush aside all the recent research that undermines Duchamp’s own account of his life, which Tomkins used as the basis of his biography.

The startling fact has now emerged that Duchamp stole his most famous work, the urinal, from a female artist, robbed it of its original meaning, and turned it into something it was never intended to be: a piss take against the whole of art. This revelation undermines the whole argument of Tomkins’ book, discredits his ‘careful and thorough research’ and changes the history of art.

When the mood took him, Duchamp could be honest about his dishonesty. In an interview for Vogue in 1962, he told William Seitz ‘I insist every word I am telling you now is stupid and wrong.’ Research has now revealed that Duchamp’s account of his life is a hall of smoke and mirrors. But, extraordinarily, there is a ‘smoking gun’ in all this subterfuge, and Duchamp is holding the incriminating weapon himself.

On April 11, 1917, just two days after the directors of the Society of Independent Artists had rejected a urinal as a submission for their exhibition, Duchamp wrote to his sister telling her that ‘One of my female friends under a masculine pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture’. This letter did not enter the public domain until 1983. It contradicts Duchamp’s own later account of this seminal incident.

In The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp (1979) Arturo Schwarz reports that Duchamp claimed that he and his friends Walter Arensberg and Joseph Stella went shopping on Fifth Avenue, ‘after a spirited conversation at lunch’, and bought a urinal from the J. L. Mott Iron Works. Duchamp then took it back to his studio, signed it R. MUTT, and submitted it to the Independents exhibition, calling it Fountain.

The board of the Society of Independents, of which Duchamp and Arensberg were members, had decided that they would hang every work of art submitted. Duchamp wasn’t present when the urinal, a late entry, was considered. Arensberg argued that it was art because an artist had chosen it. Mere choice, he claimed, could be transposed to an object and turn it into a work of art. The board, however, voted to reject the item on the grounds that it wasn’t art. Arensberg, and then Duchamp, resigned in protest.

The submission and rejection of Duchamp’s urinal is now regarded as one of the key, early turning points in the history of modern art, on a par with the revolutions of Fauvism and Cubism, De Stijl and Der Blaue Reiter. 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.

Many leading Duchamp scholars, in particularly William Camfield, Rhonda Roland Shearer and Glyn Thompson, in research published between 1996 and 2008, have discovered that this account of the urinal’s submission is simply not true. Duchamp and his friends couldn’t have bought the urinal from the J. L. Mott Ironworks because they didn’t sell that particular model. And the urinal was submitted untitled. Thompson argues convincingly that it was Alfred Stieglitz who named it Fountain when he photographed the rejected entry later.

The public outrage has also been hugely exaggerated. Since the urinal was never exhibited, no one saw it. Arensberg tried to generate publicity through his modest magazine, Blind Man 2, but there was little interest. Guillaume Apollinaire referred to the incident in the Mercure de France fifteen months later but he dismissed it as a pale American imitation of the famous blague known as the Boronali Affair of 1910 in which some abstract paintings which fooled the critics were later shown to have been made by a donkey’s tail. Japes against modern art were common by this time. They’d begun much earlier in Paris, when in 1883 Alphonse Allais exhibited a sheet of white paper in a frame and called it Anaemic Young Girls at their First Communion in the Snow.

Tomkins ignores all these discoveries in his new edition. He argues that Duchamp wanted (for reasons he doesn’t explain) to keep his involvement in the ‘affair’ of the urinal secret. This was why he pretended in his letter to his sister that a ‘female friend’ had submitted the object. But this explanation makes no sense because his sister, a Red Cross nurse in Paris, had no contacts with the New York media and, anyway, Duchamp’s letter would have taken weeks to arrive in war-torn Europe, long after public interest in the incident had fizzled out. The most obvious explanation is that Duchamp in his letter was telling the truth. But if he was, who then was this ‘female friend’?

The great new addition to the story of Duchamp, besides all the excellent, forensic work by Duchamp scholars, is the research of Irene Gammel. Her enthralling, moving and beautifully paced biography, Baroness Elsa, published in 2002, not only throws a spotlight, for the first time, on a highly influential creative figure in the maelstrom of art at the turn of the century, but radically changes our perception of Duchamp.

Baroness Elsa was born plain Else Plotz in Swinemunde, Germany, in 1874. Her father was a builder and local councilor who philandered freely, beat her mother and, Elsa believed, inflicted her with syphilis. In her poem, Coachrider (c 1924), Elsa wrote:

Look at Papa – Killer!
He beams – lovably – virile – despotic by blood – I adore – abhor him –

Elsa’s mother, Ida, forbidden to play her beloved piano by her husband, retreated into religion and romantic fiction. She insisted that her two daughters pray before they went to sleep. ‘Like going for a pee before bed,’ their atheist father laughed back. Ida attempted suicide and later died in an institution in 1893. As Elsa put it, she ‘left me her heritage … to fight.’

Elsa’s genius was to find new ways to break out of the social straightjacket that bound women in the 19th Century. She turned her life into a theatrical performance in which she could fight her mother’s battles openly, in public, in the street, whenever and wherever she wanted to, not when any man told her she could. Djuna Barnes, a friend late in Elsa’s life, wrote ‘People were afraid of her because she was undismayed about the facts of life – any of them – all of them.’

Gammel unravels the complex threads of Elsa’s marriages, first to the Jugendstil architect August Endell, and then to Felix Paul Greve (later Frederick Philip Grove), the translator of Oscar Wilde, who with Elsa’s helped, faked his own suicide in 1909 to escape his creditors. This event brought her to America a year later.

Her third marriage, in 1913, was to Leopold Karl Friedrich Baron von Freytag- Loringhoven, the impoverished son of a German aristocrat who had, like Felix Greve, fled Europe to escape debts. Soon after the marriage, Leopold vanished with Elsa’s paltry savings. However, he left her with a title and an entrée into the most exclusive artistic circles in New York. The Armory Show had just transformed New York, making it modern and cosmopolitan. The Baroness was soon a habituée of the Arensberg circle, where Duchamp himself held court.

Duchamp’s relationship with Elsa came at a crucial time in both of their lives and merited re-examination in Tomkins’ new edition. But the Baroness is given the same half paragraph as before, once more entertainingly dismissed as a woman ‘unhampered by sanity’. Though Tomkins acknowledges her innovative use of found objects – she sewed ‘flattened tin cans, and other strange talismans’ on to her dress – he doesn’t take her interest in them seriously. Found objects could be works of art for men; for women they were merely decorative fetishes.

The Baroness and Duchamp had studios in the same Lincoln Arcade Building, on 1947 Broadway in1916. According to Elsa, they enjoyed many midnight rendezvous. Elsa’s nickname for Duchamp was m’ars. She loved puns. M’ars was a word play on my arse and Mars, the god of war. She called herself ‘m’ars teutonic’, a female god of war, with, of course, a magnificent German posterior.

The American painter, Louis Bouché, recounted a remarkable incident. He’d bought Elsa a newspaper clipping showing Duchamp’s painting Nude Descending a Staircase. He described the scene: ‘she was all joy, took the clipping and gave herself a rub down with it, missing no part of her anatomy’, while reciting her own poem ‘Marcel, Marcel, I Love You like Hell, Marcel.’

Tomkins just quotes the line but leaves out the context, giving the impression that Elsa was, like many women, besotted with his hero. But, as Gammel correctly observes, Elsa’s ‘engagement with Duchamp was astutely critical.’ The rub down was cleansing as well as erotic; she presumably used the newsprint not just to arouse herself but also to wipe her ‘ars teutonic’.

Nude Descending a Staircase was the painting that had made Duchamp famous in America when it was exhibited at the Armory Show in 1913. Its notoriety had been predictable. Nudes didn’t move, and certainly didn’t come downstairs. The implications were scandalous: nudes in the living room, whatever next!

The year before, the Salon des Indépendants in Paris had rejected the picture not because it was too radical as a work of art but because its title was too provocative. They didn’t want any fuss in the press; they were, by then, trying to establish Cubism as a serious art form. They asked Duchamp to remove the title, but he refused.

The understandable row in the American media, as it happened, proved to be remarkably good-humoured. The American Art News offered a ten-dollar prize for the best poem about the picture, and awarded it to a ditty that ended: ‘You’ve tried to fashion her of broken bits,/ And you’ve worked yourself into seventeen fits;/ The reason you’ve failed to tell you I can,/ It isn’t a lady but only a man.’

There remains a deep ambiguousness about Duchamp’s sexuality. This was most obviously manifested in his female persona, Rrose Selavy, who appeared intermittently from 1920 to 1941, wearing furs and make up. But it also appeared in his art. His female nudes are masculine and mechanical. It was this coldness in Duchamp that Elsa caught in the portrait she painted of him on celluloid. It is now lost but was remembered by the artist George Biddle: she depicted him as an electric light bulb spitting icicles.

This contrasts with Elsa’s own bracing and embracing personality. She inspired all who came into contact with her, from Frank Wedekind to Ezra Pound, Djuna Barnes and Ernest Hemingway. The photographer Berenice Abbott said ‘The Baroness was like Jesus Christ and Shakespeare all rolled into one… perhaps she was the most influential person to me in my early life.’ Elsa became famous in literary circles from 1918 to 1921 when The Little Review presented her poetry side by side with excerpts from James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Visual art was vitally important to Elsa, but hardly any survives. George Biddle described a visit to her studio in October 1917: ‘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.’

Irene Gammel, with immaculate scholarly precision, draws together the threads of the circumstantial evidence surrounding the submission of the urinal to the Independents exhibition in 1917 and comes to the conclusion that Duchamp’s mysterious ‘female friend’ was the Baroness. As Elsa’s, the urinal becomes meaningful. Gammel relates it to several incidents in her life, including her father’s comment that saying one’s prayers was the same as taking a piss before bed. The urinal sent to the Independents exhibition, which was essentially a gentleman’s club, was another sally in her mother’s war against her abusive husband. But it was a much richer image than that.

The urinal, amazingly, was one of a pair, one of the very few sculptures by Elsa to survive. This was a U-bend plumbing trap turned upside down and mounted on a carpenter’s mitre block (therefore framing it, by punning implication, in religion). It looked like a metal ‘g’ and Elsa called it God.

God in one of Elsa’s poems is described as being ‘densely slow – He has eternity backing him’. If god is everywhere, as many believers maintain, he has to be in the most despised corners – in a U-bend to catch blocking waste that could have once been plumbed into a urinal.

Elsa’s sculpture God, however, could also be a portrait of Duchamp. She wrote ‘m’ars [Duchamp] came to this country – protected – by fame – to use his plumbing features – mechanical comforts – He merely amused himself. But I am m’ars tuetonic… I have not yet attained his heights. I have to fight.’ If God is Duchamp, a bent pipe, then the urinal could be a self-portrait. Laid on its back, it takes the form of a womb cradled in a pelvic girdle that could have received Duchamp’s sperm.

America’s declaration of war on Elsa’s beloved Germany on Good Friday 6th April 1917 could have been the trigger that made the spontaneous Elsa submit the urinal, as a late entry, to the Independents exhibition in New York. It would normally have taken three hours to send by train from Philadelphia, where she was living at that time, but the Easter weekend meant that the urinal didn’t arrive at the Independents until Monday, 12 days after submissions had closed.

Elsa didn’t title the urinal but signed it R. Mutt in a script close to the one she sometimes used for her poems, but which is unrelated to Duchamp’s handwriting. R. Mutt, Gammel explains, is a pun on Urmutter, the German Earth Mother whom Elsa’s symbolist friends had adulated in Munich in 1900. R. Mutt could also have been a pun on armut, meaning poverty, Elsa’s own material poverty and the poverty of American culture, which she frequently railed against. And Elsa’s favourite expletive was shitmutt. Everything fitted. The urinal was Elsa’s declaration of war against war, praise for her motherland, and her challenge to the privileged, aloof, sexually ambivalent Duchamp.

The only evidence that survives of the original urinal is the photograph Alfred Stieglitz took of it for Arensberg’s Blind Man 2 magazine. He lit it carefully so that the shadow within the urinal forms the profile of a pristine white, veiled Madonna – Elsa’s and his own German motherland is being fired at. Even more pointedly, as Glyn Thompson has pointed out, Stieglitz chose to photograph the urinal against the American Modernist Marsden Hartley’s painting Warriors, which was not hanging in his gallery at the time but had to be taken out of the storeroom. Warriors was Hartley’s hymn to the German military manhood. Stieglitz, an American German Jew, by photographing them together, identified the urinal with pro-German feeling as America went to war. Stieglitz did not take photographs casually. This suggests that he knew who had submitted the urinal and what it meant.

Gammel, bamboozled as so many have been by the towering status of Duchamp, does not go so far as to suggest that the urinal was solely Elsa’s, but meekly proposes that she ‘was involved in the conception’ of it. The implication is that Duchamp took the final step and made the actual submission to the exhibition. But it was in fact submitted from the address of Louise Norton, the wife of the poet Allen Norton, who knew Elsa well. Duchamp’s name wasn’t linked to the urinal until 1935, when André Breton tried to recruit him into the ranks of the Surrealists.

Any lingering doubt that the urinal could be in whole or even in part by Duchamp has been removed by Glyn Thompson’s examination of what Duchamp was actually doing at that time. Duchamp stopped painting after 1912 and became a follower of the wealthy, indulgent, chess-playing writer Raymond Roussel who built absurd verbal fantasies on words that happened to sound alike but had different meanings.

By 1917 Duchamp wasn’t interested in provoking a debate about art; he was trying to do without visual art. His Readymades made use of ordinary, found objects that had no aesthetic value. They were elaborate, private rebuses, to be read, in a Rousselian way, not seen. None of them were exhibited in galleries because they weren’t works of art. The fact that Duchamp called Elsa’s urinal a ‘sculpture’ in his letter to his sister proves that the urinal couldn’t have been his. Sculpture by then was anathema to him.

Duchamp, on his own admission, didn’t do the urinal. That is proven. Why then did he claim later that it was his? He was, in part, taking his revenge on art. Both his elder brothers, Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp Villon, were successful artists, whereas he was not. Envy and self-loathing seep 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?’

He also appropriated the urinal for practical reasons: he had so little of his own to show. When he eventually gave up trying to be a chess champion in 1933 (his serious ambition till then) it dawned on him that he could build an artistic career by repackaging his early notoriety in America. The problem he faced was that few of his early paintings survived and his Readymades were not visual art, and most of them, anyway, no longer existed, having been allowed to slip back into the visual anonymity from which they had come. Nevertheless, he managed, especially after gaining American citizenship in 1955, to turn himself into one of the grandfathers of modern art, as great as Picasso, Matisse and Mondrian, even though the ‘iconic masterpiece’ he built his reputation on was stolen property.

Tomkins’ upholding of the Duchamp myth has to be considered in the light of MoMA’s support in republishing his ‘updated’ book. The art world as a whole sustains the orthodox view that the urinal is by Duchamp. Countless curatorial and academic reputations and the whole school of Conceptual Art have been founded on this attribution. And national pride is at stake: the urinal was America’s contribution to the founding of Modernism. The date1917 adds authority, for the urinal is contemporary with Dada and Surrealism.

Added to that is the money. Millions of pounds have been invested in the copies Duchamp commissioned of Elsa’s urinal (there are thought to be 14 of these though the number is disputed), the majority of which are now in public galleries around the world from Paris to Tokyo, London to San Francisco, Ottawa to Jerusalem. It is a sad reflection of our culture that artists can become billionaires by creating collectable objects, whereas poets, even if they make as great a contribution to society, rarely earn more than pennies. Elsa died destitute; she was frequently arrested for shoplifting. In prison she learnt how to make pets of rats.

Duchamp’s urinals need to be relabeled Elsa’s. This could have a profound impact on the future of art. Duchamp’s pinched urinal is nasty, empty and spiteful. His belated explanation of ‘R. Mutt’ as a reference to the J.L. Mott Iron Works (where no-one could have bought this particular urinal) and to the popular newspaper comic strip

Mutt and Jeff is a meaningless obfuscation. Elsa’s original urinal is fulsome, loving and furious. Its form is disquietingly beautiful and its punning signature painfully profound.

That one object can mean two such different things is the chief drawback of Conceptualism. What you see in a found object is not totally orchestrated by the artist, as it is, say, when you look at a Goya, a Matisse or a Michelangelo. Conceptual art is dressed, in part, by the viewer’s own thoughts.

Duchamp made this point in a lecture he gave in Houston in 1957: ‘The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator… adds his contribution.’ And then he added, ‘This becomes even more obvious when posterity rehabilitates forgotten artists.’ He was describing what he himself was doing at that time: faking his own reputation by stealing Elsa’s work and changing what it meant. Conceptual art started then, when he began to build this lie, not earlier, as the orthodox view maintains, in 1917.

Egalitarians in art, Tomkins among them, have argued that participation is liberating for the public because it enables them to contribute to the artistic process. This might be true of minor manifestations of art, like country dancing, but not many feel the need to add their pennyworth to a creation by Rembrandt, Shakespeare or Beethoven.

Spectator contributions are, moreover, subject to deception and self-deception. The naked Emperor was dressed not only in the minds of his beholders but also in his own. Conceptual Art carries such wishful thinking to extremes: it argues that anything can be art if an artist says it is, and that no one has the right to say that something isn’t art nor that someone isn’t an artist. Conceptualism strips art of aesthetic judgment, which is essential to all creative expression. This politically correct philosophy of ‘anything goes’ has to led to the art world being awash with the detritus of found objects, tracks left by would-be shaman, while the disciplined skill of visual creativity, above all the arts of painting and sculpture, have been marginalised.

When Duchamp stole Elsa’s urinal and robbed it of its meaning he was attacking the whole of visual art. Tomkins repeatedly quotes Duchamp as saying that he wanted to put art ‘once again at the service of the mind.’ Since the time of Courbet, Duchamp argued, art had become exclusively ‘retinal,’ in that its appeal was primarily to the eye. This is nonsensical. The retina can’t see. The mind sees. All art is a mental perception, and, in that way, conceptual. To imply, as Duchamp so often did, that the marks of Van Gogh, Picasso, and, later, Pollock were mindless gestures hid his secret loathing of visual art itself.

Elsa’s urinal is the opposite; it is a glorious celebration of visual art. It declares that even the most unlikely, despised object can become, in the hands of an artist, a beautiful, resonant work of art. Elsa’s urinal wasn’t an idea ‘chosen’ by the mind; it was ‘seen’ in an inspired moment of revelation. As such, it re-affirms the primacy of sight in visual art. It deserves to rank alongside Dali’s Lobster Telephone, Picasso’s Head of a Bull made of a bicycle saddle and handlebars and Niki de St Phalle’s target, I Shot Daddy (to which it is similar in feeling).

The back cover of this new edition of Tomkins’ biography is emblazoned with a quote from the critic Richard Dorment: ‘What Tomkins makes us see more clearly than ever before is that Duchamp set art free. By making it more intelligent, he made it more interesting and also more fun. What he did cannot be undone.’ It has to be because he didn’t do it. What he did do has led future generations into making increasingly tedious, repetitious piss-takes of art. Duchamp’s theft is a canker in the heart of visual creativity.

** *

Duchamp – A Biography by Calvin Tompkins. New and Revised Edition. MoMA 2014. 539 pp. £16.95

Baroness Elsa – Gender, Dada and everyday Modernity, a Cultural Biography by Irene Gammel. MIT 2002 534 pp £36.29

* **

Other Articles referred to in this review:

Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain: Its History and Aesthetics in the Context of 1917 by William Camfield (in Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century. eds. Kuenzli and Naumann, The M.I.T. Press, 1996)

Marcel Duchamp: A readymade case for collecting objects of our cultural heritage along with works of art, by Rhonda Roland Shearer. Tout-fait. vol. 1 / issue 3. December 2000.

Jemandem ein R Mutt’s zeugnis ausstellen, Monsieur Goldfinch, by Glyn Thompson, Wild Pansy Press, 2008.

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