‘Famous urinal ‘Fountain’ is not by Marcel Duchamp’

Art history Art experts claim ‘Fountain’, the world famous piece of art, was created by German Dada artist Elsa von Freytag, not by Marcel Duchamp.

Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Dada artist and Marcel Duchamp’s friend, seen here posing as a model at the New York academy of art.
Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Dada artist and Marcel Duchamp’s friend, seen here posing as a model at the New York academy of art. Foto Bettmann/Getty Images

Fountain, the famous urinal credited to Marcel Duchamp, is not by the famous French artist, according to four academics and historians in the latest edition of Dutch art magazine See All This.

Instead, the urinal, which dates from 1917, should be credited to German Dada artist, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, the experts say.

The theory that a female artist rather than Duchamp is hiding behind the name R. Mutt – the signature on the urinal – has been doing the rounds in the art world for a longer period. And various academics have been trying to determine who is the real maker since 1982, when a letter by Duchamp popped up in which he denies any involvement. In 2002, academic Irene Gammel wrote in her biography of Baroness Elsa that Von Freytag-Loringhoven was at least partly responsible for the work.

In 2004, Fountain was described in the British press as „the most influential modern work of art ever”. The original urinal was probably lost in 1917 and is only known from a photograph. Replicas, authorized by Duchamp, can be found in some of the world’s most prominent museums, including the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Tate Modern in London and the San Francisco MoMA.

Dit is een vertaling. Lees ook het Nederlandstalige artikel: ‘Befaamd urinoir is van Von Freytag’ en het achtergrondartikel over de leugen van Duchamp

Last year, however, new evidence emerged that indicates Von Freytag-Loringhoven rather than Duchamp dreamt up the urinal. Towards the end of his life, Duchamp circulated a story in which he claimed to have bought it in a sanitary fittings shop on Fifth Avenue in New York. That story turned out not to be true. In 1917, the address he gave was actually occupied by JL Mott Iron Works, which did not sell products.

R. Mutt’s urinal 1917 Foto Stieglitz/ Wikipedia

British art historian Glyn Thompson was the first to track down a similar urinal to the original, in an old factory in St Louis. It had been made by Trenton Potteries Company in New Jersey. And according to the Mott company inventory, that particular type had never been sold in New York.

There is more indirect evidence which points to Baroness Elsa. When Fountain was submitted to an exhibition in New York, the label carried an address in Philadelphia, the city where Von Freytag-Loringhoven lived in spring 1917. Later that same year, the artist made another sculpture from a waste water pipe called God, which would appear to seamlessly fit the urinal.

Theo Paijmans, the author of the article in See All This, says all this evidence is overwhelming. „The letter, Duchamp’s weak arguments, the finding of a second urinal, the fact the original was sent from Philadelphia not New York – when I put everything together, I knew it. Elsa made Fountain.”

Paijmans says the myth Duchamp created is a „one big cover up” and „an old scandal that has to be revisited.” Now, with the #MeToo movement, the time is right for change, he says. „There is real momentum to put works by women in the spotlight again. It is high time that art history is rewritten and this mother of modern art is given the place in it that she deserves.”