Duchamp and the Baroness: End of the Fountain Affair

After posting the initial letters in The Burlington Magazine and Art Newspaper in these web pages we attempted to contact both Julian Spalding and Glyn Thompson, and although we eventually managed to find their addresses), neither has been willing to engage in any correspondence.

We also attempted to open a dialogue with Irene Gammel. We were aware she had been repeatedly asked to comment on Spalding and Thompson’s interpretation of her biography, but had refused to do so. This did not seem to us a particularly valid reaction to a request to verify academic research. We sent our original piece (Marcel Duchamp Was Not a Thief), to her personal and academic email addresses and by registered post to both her work and home addresses. We received no acknowledgment.

We post here the emails we sent to her at this time since they contain various questions that we hoped she would answer. None of these questions, which involve important factual verifications, have been answered, either privately or in the articles she has subsequently written, indeed, all of these emails were ignored.


Texts 2: Emails from Dawn Ades and Alastair Brotchie to Irene Gammel.

2a.Email of 26/11/19.

2b. Email to 9/12/19.

2c. Letter of 6/1/20.

2d. Email of 23/1/20.

Text 5. Irene Gammel. “Last word on the art historical mystery of R. Mutt’s Fountain?”, The Art Newspaper, 326, September 2020.

Texts 6. Letter to The Art Newspaper, 326, September 2020.

6a. Dawn Ades and Alastair Brotchie. “The last word? Not likely…”

6b. Dawn Ades and Alastair Brotchie. More detailed response to Irene Gammel (Text 5)

Text 7. Irene Gammel. “Plumbing fixtures: The vexing and perplexing case of R. Mutt’s ‘Fountain’” in The Burlington Magazine, January 2021.

Texts 8. Letter to The Burlington Magazine, January 2021.

8a. Dawn Ades and Alastair Brotchie. “The Authorship of ‘Fountain’”, (reply to 7).

8b. Dawn Ades and Alastair Brotchie. More detailed response to Irene Gammel (Text 7).

Texts 9. Letters to The Burlington Magazine, April 2021.

9a. Julian Spalding. “‘Fountain’, Marcel Duchamp and Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven” (reply to Gammel, text7).

9b. Glyn Thompson. “‘Fountain’, Marcel Duchamp and Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven” (reply to Gammel, text 7).

9c. Dawn Ades and Alastair Brotchie. “End of the Fountain controversy”, reply to Spalding & Thompson, 9a and 9b.)

9d. Dawn Ades and Alastair Brotchie. More detailed response to 9a and 9b.


Text 2b: The controversy re Duchamp’s “Fountain” (2)

9/12/2019, 17:13

Dear Irene Gammel,

I wrote to you two weeks ago re this, but may not have had your correct email address. So I am sending the same email again. In the meantime our article, with some minor updates, has been posted at https://atlaspress.co.uk/marcel-duchamp-was-not-a-thief/

I don’t see any great reason for us to be on opposing sides on this controversy, I hope you can agree that it is more a matter of establishing the real facts. These matter because Spalding and Thompson’s theories are now being taught as “real facts” in various higher education establishments.

Alastair Brotchie

           Anyhow, here was our previous email:

(Text 2a)

Dear Irene Gammel,

We are writing regarding the accusations by Spalding and Thompson that Marcel Duchamp stole the Fountain artwork from Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. You must of course be aware that this accusation is based upon your biography of the Baroness (a misinterpretation of it in our view). We are assuming you may have seen the article in the Burlington Magazine by Bradley Bailey, which we believe finally refutes this assertion, and has thereby aroused new interest in this controversy.

We attach here letters from ourselves that will appear in the next Burlington Magazine and in the Art Newspaper, intended to summarise the facts of this matter and show that Spalding and Thompson are incorrect. So far as we know you have not expressed an opinion upon Spalding and Thompson’s accusations, and we feel that now would be a good time to do so. Next year, all of this material will be published both online and in a small book by Atlas Press.

We also have a few specific questions we would like to ask you, to clarify certain points of fact.

1. We have to admit we are not wholly convinced regarding your conclusions as to when the Baroness first met Marcel Duchamp. It seems to us there is little solid evidence that this happened before the Independents exhibition. We notice that the chronology in your subsequent book of her writings (Body Sweats, MIT, 2016) is ambiguous on this point, so we wonder if you have had second thoughts about this? It anyway seems to us very odd indeed that her artworks and poems to/about Duchamp should all date from between 1919 and 1921 if she had met him (and fallen in love with him as she writes) some time between three or five years earlier.

2. We are also not really convinced that the Baroness ever attended the salons at the Arensbergs. She was not exactly unremarkable, yet no accounts of them ever place her there. There are two particular points we would be grateful if you could comment upon:

 — Please could you clarify the final phrase of the first sentence of this passage in your biography (p.168): “The Baroness was an early fixture in the Arensberg’s impressively large atelier salon — even when she was absent. The actress Beatrice Wood remembered her as a favourite subject of conversation among Arensberg, Roché and Duchamp, but these discussions ceased when Wood entered the room; the subject matter was too risqué for the young ingenue.” This can be read as “even though she was absent from it”, ie she was never there, but was just a subject of discussion. Or it can be read as “even when she happened not to be there”, which would imply she often was there. It would be very interesting for us to see a scan of Beatrice Wood’s original letter because as you know, the latter version, as it appears in your biography, contradicts completely what she says in her much earlier interview with Naumann, as published by Bailey.

 — Also, in your note to this passage (note 24, p.432), you identify the Baroness as “Sabine” in H.-P. Roché’s Victor. When Dawn and I came to write the commentaries to this book as published by Atlas Press (Three New York Dadas and The Blind Man, 2012), we were rather disappointed to discover that the Baroness did not seem to feature in it, since she is of course a fascinating figure. But we could not see any connection between the sophisticated and “smartly” intellectual figure of Sabine and the eccentricities of the Baroness (we identified Sabine tentatively as Mina Loy). We wonder, therefore, how you made this identification, and why you state that Sabine/Elsa was a regular visitor at the salon, because she plays a minor role in this book and is only mentioned once as being at the Arensbergs? (We would be delighted if it could be established that Sabine was a representation of the Baroness, since the one occasion that she attends the salon, as recounted in Victor, happens to be when the group discuss Duchamp’s urinal at the Independents, so this would be further evidence that she was not involved.)

3. In Body Sweats you state that she had a relationship with Duchamp (p.20). This is a little puzzling. The Baroness was one of several who fell in love with him, but it was not reciprocated in any way so far as we understand. Is that what you mean by a relationship? There was a friendship certainly, but the word relationship is rather more charged? And Duchamp is bracketed here with William Carlos Williams with whom she did have a sexual relationship, so there is an implication here that would benefit from being clarified?

We realise there are some criticisms of your biography in our letters that will be uncomfortable, but you were not responsible for the cynical use made of it by Spalding and Thompson (cynical because of course the Baroness’s artworks represent everything they elsewhere attack).

We hope, therefore, that you are concerned, like us, to establish the truth or otherwise of these accusations and thus will welcome the opportunity to clarify your position in print, especially given your prominent position in academia?

There is quite a lot of material here, so we do not expect any sort of detailed immediate response, but it would be helpful for us to have some information regarding the queries above, since these are facts which are still in contention, and to know if you would like to reply to the longer texts in due time, so we can include any such reply in the published version of this correspondence next year?

Dawn Ades & Alastair Brotchie


The following month we sent this letter with the printed versions of our text in the mail (text 2c):




Dear Irene Gammel,

I have been trying to contact you since November last year concerning certain interpretations of passages in your biography of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. Email has proved ineffective so I am sending this to your personal and work addresses.

Myself and Dawn Ades are the authors of an article on “the Fountain affair” which appeared in last month’s Burlington Magazine. I enclose an updated version of this article, which has also been posted at https://atlaspress.co.uk/marcel-duchamp-was-not-a-thief/

I don’t see any great reason for us to be on opposing sides in this controversy, I hope you can agree that it is more a matter of establishing the facts and discarding speculation and prejudices. The facts matter because Spalding and Thompson’s theories are now being taught in various higher education establishments, and as an academic yourself this must concern you?

New evidence has appeared since the publication of your biography, and this surely deserves comment on your part. It is no dishonour to change one’s mind in the light of new evidence — quite the opposite, and all the more so when the reputation of an important artistic figure is being unjustly slandered in unnecessarily insulting language? These are the characteristics of “fake news”, which I am sure you agree should be fought in the arts as vigorously as in politics. You are in a unique position to do that on this occasion, whereas silence is likely to be interpreted as condoning this state of affairs.

Please be in touch, and we would be delighted if you would eventually contribute to the book which will contain all the documentation relating to this “affair”, including this correspondence.

Alastair Brotchie (and Dawn Ades)


We wrote again a few weeks later (text 2d):


Duchamp and the Baroness: update

23/01/2020, 12:45

Dear Irene Gammel

We are disappointed not to have heard from you, but perhaps we may do so soon? We sent print-outs of our article by registered post to both your home and university address. They appear to have been delivered.

We are especially keen to see the original of the letter from Beatrice Wood to the Baroness’s daughter. Perhaps you could tell us where this document is located, your book does not give this information?

This note is to let you know that the article on the Atlas Press website has been updated (https://atlaspress.co.uk/marcel-duchamp-was-not-a-thief/), and that the following letter will appear in the next issue of The Art Newspaper:

Alastair Brotchie & Dawn Ades


Again, nothing. The letter of ours referred to here is text 4 on the previous page. (The location of the critical letter by Beatrice Wood remains unknown, and we still do not understand why it was paraphrased rather than cited.)

At this point it seemed to us the only thing left to do was to appeal to her editor at MIT Press and in April 2020 we wrote suggesting that “is not the academic reputation of MIT Press somewhat at stake here, when one of its authors will neither defend her book nor admit that one of its central theses is incorrect?”

In May we were informed that Professor Gammel would indeed respond, probably by July, but it took a little longer than that. This was her response, in The Art Newspaper (September 2020):


Text 5



The Art Newspaper gave us space for a brief reply in the same issue:


Text 6a

Dear Art Newspaper,

Unfortunately, Gammel’s much-awaited comment on the Fountain “controversy” is not the last word on this matter, because she continues to maintain her impossible position that the Baroness may have been involved, and because she makes no serious attempt to answer any of the questions raised since her book appeared in 2002.

Fountain is a readymade, and everything we know shows that Duchamp arranged for it to be submitted via his close friend Louise Norton. Bradley Bailey recently discovered an unpublished note in which Norton categorically attributed Fountain to Duchamp and also stated that he had “sent [it] in”. Norton’s statement is critical (see https://atlaspress.co.uk/marcel-duchamp-was-not-a-thief/ for a transcript). Gammel simply ignores the first part of it in order to make the somewhat absurd observation that the documents “exclude Norton as a candidate for shipping Fountain”. She had no need to “ship” it anywhere; Duchamp simply required the use of her address for the submission.

Thus if Fountain’s label had Norton’s address on it, and Norton said that Duchamp submitted it, and that she never knew the Baroness, what possible role can the latter have played? Perhaps Gammel can suggest one? Perhaps she can even supply a smidgeon of documentary evidence for it? We believe that a respected academic who casts doubt on an attribution as important as this — Fountain has been considered the most influential artwork of the last century after all — should have a few sourced and documented facts to hand. So where are they? We repeat: what facts connect the Baroness to Fountain?

There are many deliberate distortions of fact and interpretation in Gammel’s letter, and a lot of irrelevancies — all serve to disguise the fact that Gammel has once again avoided replying to this question, and until she does so the only real “mystery” here is one that she has summoned out of thin air and wishful thinking.

Dawn Ades & Alastair Brotchie


Text 6b: Response to Gammel, text 5.

We were exceedingly disappointed that Gammel had not taken the opportunity to concede that her supposition regarding the Baroness had been proved incorrect by evidence that was not available to her at the time she wrote her book. Not only that, rather than bringing clarity to the debate, she used this article to further obfuscate the whole affair. Since we were given so little space to reply, we do so here and apologise for having to repeat ourselves. Gammel, like Spalding and Thompson, tends to repeat her assertions even when they have been disproved; a common strategy in politics, but it is rather depressing to find it in academia, let alone Art History!

Paragraph 3. We are in full agreement that the factors cited make it “problematic” that Duchamp appropriated an object by the Baroness. We are at a loss to understand why they are not equally problematic to Gammel’s claim that the Baroness was involved in any way whatever with Fountain.

Paragraph 4. “Duchamp and Freytag-Loringhoven were friends”. Indeed, but were they friends at the time of Fountain? There is no proof at all of this, and in subsequent articles she appears to have dropped this claim. The rest of this paragraph is irrelevant as it concerns later events (a tactic Gammel often employs).

Paragraph 5. This is the sole piece of evidence that connects the Baroness to Duchamp as early as 1917. It may seem nit-picking to suggest it does not mean they had actually met or were close. Biddle actually says “Spring 1917” and the Baroness had been in Philadelphia since January so it is difficult to see how she played any role in Fountain from such a distance, especially given her well-documented poverty at this time. So far, so ok, but this phrase is quite extraordinary: “The fact that their love was unconsummated only… etc” Their love! It is obvious that the Baroness fell in love with Duchamp, it is equally obvious he was not at all interested, there was no “their”. At the time he was having an affair with Louise Norton as Gammel states in paragraph 9.

Paragraph 6. Stieglitz did not surmise the person involved was “young”, he stated it, and assumed it was Wood. He seems not to have known of Louise Norton. But why assume the urinal was “shipped”, this is part of the Spalding and Thompson narrative and completely unproven. Duchamp said he bought the urinal in a store, it didn’t need to be shipped anywhere by anyone.

Paragraph 7. Finally we get to Louise Norton. Here Gammel, instead of accepting that Bradley Bailey’s new evidence makes her account impossible, either deliberately misrepresents it, or simply does not understand. Neither is acceptable, although the second may be excusable. It was not the address he “presented”, which has indeed been well-known for some time (though Gammel relegated this information to an endnote in her book, as we have previously noted), but an unpublished article and an unknown interview in which Norton stated that Duchamp was the author of Fountain and that he “sent it in”. And again, no shipping was required, there was no “mystery person” only an address on the submission label that could not be Duchamp’s own since that would rather destroy the point of a pseudonymous submission.

Paragraph 8. It is an amusing notion that Duchamp chose Fountain for its masculine aspects as part of “an important strategy for its long-term acceptance and presence in museums”. Who knew he was so long-sighted, so ambitious! This process, according to Irene Gammel, was to be completed by “aestheticizing what would come to be known as Fountain over the course of the 20th century” — a statement that shows she is unaware of what Fountain signifies and thus why it was indeed voted “the most important artwork of the 20th century” (paragraph 1). Fountain is a readymade, an object chosen for rigorously non-aesthetic reasons to demonstrate that art is based, in the end, on the artist’s choice, thus the significance this work acquired with the arrival of conceptual art some 40 years later. It is baffling that someone could be making these claims about Fountain without understanding its rationale, which Duchamp explained many times. This aspect of Gammel’s misapprehension is covered in more detail in our reply to her next article in The Burlington Magazine (below).

Paragraphs 9 to the end. What is one to make of these clumsy descriptions of the relationships between Norton, Wood, Roché and Duchamp, etc? Gammel appears to blame Duchamp for refusing to have an affair with Wood when he was already involved with someone else! She must have read Wood’s autobiography? (Wood and Duchamp remained close friends for life.) Gammel has Duchamp ridiculing people, brushing them off, blaming them. It is all fiction, Mills and Boon even… Norton losing something Duchamp did not particularly value is given some sort of moral significance (all the early readymades were lost, Duchamp showed little concern). In the penultimate paragraph she repeats the claim that “we should not dismiss the Baroness as a candidate for having submitted Fountain” when this is precisely what the new evidence from Bradley Bailey means we should do. It is no good making such a statement: she has to explain why the new evidence does not make this impossible. There is only a mystery here if one does not accept the simple narrative that Duchamp bought the urinal and submitted it pseudonymously in order to liven things up as he had done in the Armory Show four years before, and Gammel has failed to show any reason to doubt this version. As for the concluding paragraph, this seems to be all smoke and mirrors, and we suggest an account of Fountain’s “inherent social dimensions” should be based upon simple criteria, such as an understanding of what it is, and why it is considered important in the history of Western modern art. This is missing from her account as it stands.

And she might like to answer some of our specific questions?


This was followed by a second article in The Burlington Magazine (January 2021), that covered much the same ground, and avoided the same inconvenient truths and questions.


Text 7


Again we were given a small space to reply:


Text 8a. Response to Gammel, text 7.

Professor Gammel’s biography of the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven successfully brought an extraordinary and unjustly forgotten poet and artist back into history. Unfortunately, in also trying to give the Baroness a central role in one of the most influential episodes in the history of modern art, she triggered a campaign to claim Fountain for the Baroness. Gammel here at last distances herself from the attempt by Spalding and Thompson to re-attribute Fountain and discredit Duchamp, but still seeks to link the Baroness to Fountain. In later editions of the biography she corrected some of her original mistakes, such as claiming (‘metaphorically’!) that Fountain was actually exhibited, and that Duchamp told his sister a female friend ‘sent him’ the urinal. To keep the Baroness in the picture, she now emphasises the collaborative nature of the episode. This, however, is well known and neither needs nor points to the Baroness’s involvement in any way.

None of the ‘pertinent details’ listed by Gammel support her claim with reliable evidence, nor do they add up to a plausible reason for changing the now well-documented account of Fountain’s genesis. The only ‘fact’ that connects the Baroness to Fountain is the report in a popular newspaper, which no one has ever mistaken for a newspaper of record, stating that the supposed artist R. Mutt lived in Philadelphia. So did the Baroness. That is the totality of the evidence, everything else is surmise and conjecture. The collaboration of Stieglitz and others such as Norton and Wood is well known and does not further her case. And anyway, it was a simple consequence of Duchamp’s pseudonymous testing of the ‘jury-less’ New York Independents exhibition, rather than a collaborative gesture aimed at ‘undermining traditional notions of the singular artist genius’. It seems pointless to go on arguing that the ‘female friend’ of Duchamp’s involved with Fountain was not Louise Norton. Although there are unknowns around Fountain that have fuelled groundless speculations, when Gammel here accepts that Norton, whose address was on the submission label, stated that Duchamp was Fountain’s author and that he had sent it in, she is accepting that these are now the established facts. No role can then be envisaged for the Baroness.

The Baroness’s unrequited passion for Duchamp was very public during the brief period of her celebrity in New York c.1918-22. Her association with Duchamp and Man Ray featured prominently in the single de luxe issue of New York Dada (1921). There is great pathos in her painting Forgotten… made after her return in poverty to Berlin. It is totally plausible that this was a call for help addressed to Duchamp as well as Bernice Abbot, and she identifies Duchamp with those objects for which he was famous, pipe and urinal: which tends to confirm Duchamp’s authorship.

We cannot agree, therefore, that her “book still provides the most accurate representation of the evidence we have available today”. Even her article here differs from the biography in important respects. For example, it seems that Duchamp and the Baroness now no longer had a friendship between 1915 and 1917, or a “relationship” as she wrote in her introduction to the Baroness’s poems. So there is now no evidence that they knew each other before the exhibition at all. A big difference. There are plenty of others. We need not trouble the readers of the Burlington Magazine with any of these; we laid out the “facts” of this matter in the December 2019 issue, and a revised version can be found at atlaspress.co.uk/marcel-duchamp-was-not-a-thief/. There we have already explained Duchamp’s letter to his sister and other “mysteries” that Professor Gammel returns to in her article.

We do not wish to go over them again here, but to point out that Gammel’s thesis is also marred by a more basic misreading of the significance of Fountain in the history of Western art. With this object, Duchamp became the first to ask what the minimum requirements were for something to be considered an art work. He chose his readymades very deliberately to exclude all aesthetic considerations (which Norton and Stieglitz did not quite understand). He had to be indifferent to them in every possible sense, so that their status as an art object (or not) was reduced to this act of choosing, to the artist’s intention. This is the work’s meaning, subsequently acknowledged by art history, especially since the beginnings of conceptual art in the 1960s.

This meaning, clearly given it by Duchamp, and prefigured in his earlier notes, was initially expressed in Wood’s essay in The Blindman and soon afterwards by Breton’s in Littérature (1924). We do not accept that the Baroness had any role whatsoever in this object, but even if she had, it would be irrelevant historically because the significance of Fountain lies not in the object itself but in the conceptual meaning that Duchamp gave to it.

Fountain was not connected to Dadaism or “anti-art” as Gammel suggests. It was the first time an artist proposed the possibility of saying: “it’s art because I say it is” (to use the vernacular), an assertion which only gained traction some 40 years later. Thus when Gammel re-presents the Baroness’s dressing up as “performance art” (pps.170-174) and, in her edition of the Baroness’s poems, even appears to re-title a photograph of her from 1915 as a “Body Performance Poem”, she is making a retrospective re-categorisation that seems to us wholly illegitimate. The huge irony, of course, is that Gammel can only now see such things as art (mistakenly in our view, since the Baroness’s intentions are unknown) because of Marcel Duchamp’s original interpretation of Fountain. This was indisputably his innovation, and his alone, and it is the only reason why Fountain matters.

Dawn Ades & Alastair Brotchie


Text 8b: Response to Gammel, text 7.

This long piece by Gammel for The Burlington Magazine contained so little of immediate relevance that it does not really require a more detailed refutation than our published reply. But here are a few brief observations.

Paragraph 1: “Pissing contest”. Gammel has implicitly accused Duchamp of deliberately erasing the Baroness from an important moment in art history, in other words, of theft and lying. She should not be surprised that those who knew him or knew those who knew him should be a little unhappy with this! And if this text was really intended as an “open response” to her critics, it was much too late and contains far too little that actually engages with that critique. In fact, all four pages of this text appear to say as little as possible so as to avoid further pitfalls.

Paragraph 2. What has Thompson finding a replica of the original got to do with anything? It neither verifies the claim re the Baroness nor refutes it.

Paragraph 3. What does Gammel mean by the word “intervention”? Is she referring to her changing the translation of this letter to his sister, already published in correct translations by both Naumann and Camfield? It looks like shoe-horning evidence to fit a predetermined narrative, and providing the French original next to a mistranslation (the only time the original language is given in her book) is strange in such circumstances, why did she not just use the existing translations — unless she was attempting to impose a different inflexion on this letter?

Paragraph 4 is full of speculations that one either finds convincing or not. We do not see anything scatological in either a urinal or a plumbing trap. And did very poor people go about suing exhibition organisers or anyone else at this time? As for R. Mutt meaning armut, our first page on this site has already shown the absurdity of this argument, perhaps Gammel might read it?

Paragraph 5 Not really relevant.

Paragraphs 6 and 7. Fountain was exhibited the same month as the first Dada show in Zurich. Duchamp has repeatedly stated it was at least another year before he knew anything about Dadaism, so Fountain was not made in this context and there was no Dada movement in New York at this time. Gammel then returns to her interpretation of readymades as ordinary objects that have been made aesthetic, in our view a significant misunderstanding of Duchamp’s intentions. The fact that Norton and Stieglitz were still “stuck” in such an interpretation means nothing. Wood, on the other hand, expressed very well Duchamp’s thinking about this.

Paragraph 8 “Facts themselves are part of what make up the regimes of truths.” So far as we can understand what this means, we agree, which is why our critiques have stuck to facts (a “regime” being “an ordered way of proceeding”). Should she mean that facts are somehow authoritarian, perhaps she prefers “alternative facts”, because that is the only alternative. If this paragraph is intended as a veiled critique of what we have written about her then Gammel needs to be a little more precise as to what “ideological apparatus” we are supposedly a victim of, or are promoting.

Paragraph 9. Those pesky facts again! Writing that something happened when it didn’t is not a metaphor!

Paragraph 10. The translation of the letter. We agree with Bailey (and see para 3 above), not everyone reads French and we wonder why it was done. If she was so unsure of her version as to give the French, then why not get it accurately translated, there is no ambiguity in the original?

Paragraph 11. No, there is no rationale dispute about the author. People helped him. This is not a difficult concept. Gammel fails to recognise that Norton’s involvement does erase the Baroness from the history of Fountain, because Norton says she never knew the Baroness, so in what way could the Baroness have been involved?

Paragraph 12. More mysteries! All Norton appears to have done is allow Duchamp to use her address, might she not have forgotten this in 50 years, or considered it uninteresting? And to repeat for the nth time, there was no need for a go-between.

Paragraph 13. Not relevant.

Paragraph 14. Who signed Fountain? Who knows? But it was signed with a brush not a pen and any artist will tell you there is a deal of difference between the two. That said, all of the Baroness’s manuscripts have rounded Ms… If the handwriting does not much look like Duchamp’s that is hardly surprising since he was making a pseudonymous submission and so would have disguised his handwriting. Why the Baroness would be using a pseudonym at all goes unexplained in the alernative versions of events.

Paragraph 15. “There is a belief that the Baroness had little contact with Duchamp before 1918.” This belief appears to be correct. She was dead-broke in Philadelphia for almost the whole of 1917 and there is no evidence they had met before then. Second part irrelevant.

Paragraphs 16 and 17. All irrelevant, since they concern matters after Fountain.

Paragraph 18 is also mostly irrelevant speculation, but the final citation from the Baroness: “M’ars [her name for Duchamp] came to this country […] to use its plumbing fixtures” seems to us to suggest that Duchamp is being identified here with Fountain, not that she had any claim to it!


Finally, Spalding and Thompson replied to Gammel’s article in The Burlington Magazine (March 2021), and we replied to them in the same issue.


Texts 9a, 9b and 9c.


Text 9d, Response to Spalding and Thompson 9a and 9b.

We here respond to Spalding and Thompson at a little more length, but first point out that they have still not answered the critique of their version of events in the first page on this site nor shown any consequential link between the Baroness and Fountain.

Spalding’s Letter.

Paragraph 1. We are in almost complete agreement, Fountain was not a “collaborative exchange” with Marcel Duchamp.

Paragraph 2. The next two paragraphs are a mass of misunderstandings. So we will try to explain certain aspects of this matter, not least to ourselves, although some of Spalding’s arguments are beyond our understanding.

— “Duchamp’s Urinal is not, really, a work of art at all because it cannot be seen.” First of all, Duchamp never made a work of art called Urinal, the work is called Fountain and it was submitted under the pseudonym of Richard Mutt, as was confirmed by its submission label. Secondly, as was explained in Beatrice Wood’s article the whole point was to challenge what a work of art might be, and it is not up to Julian Spalding to decide that! Thirdly, what has the fact that “it cannot be seen” go to do with its validity? On the one hand it is a conceptual piece, so this is not a problem, on the other, are there not many works of art that cannot be seen? And anyway, we do not understand what point is being made here?

—“Many people imagine … that Duchamp exhibited a urinal so visitors could piss in it and, by inference, piss on the rest.” Given how much has been written about Fountain, it is surprising that, so far as we know, no one has ever suggested this before! More to the point, Duchamp did not ever envisage doing this, so Spalding is criticising him for something that he himself seems to have invented? Which is odd.

—“When people see Duchamp’s Urinal they are confused because it does not look like a urinal, not at least one can urinate in.” To reiterate, there is no such work as “Duchamp’s Urinal”, it is called Fountain. Secondly, haven’t we just been told that it is not a work of art because it cannot be seen, yet now people are seeing it? As for the “confusion”, this arises because Duchamp recontextualised a urinal so that it wasn’t functional, which is exactly what he did with many of the readymades (Bicycle wheel, Coat Rack etc), but Spalding doesn’t accept that this was a readymade… And the interpretation Spalding here attributes to the Baroness was not her’s, but Stieglitz’s and Norton’s, and to imply otherwise is more than a little dishonest, especially when the Baroness never once made the slightest comment about Fountain. Furthermore, this interpretation is not now the reason Fountain is considered important, but perhaps, like Gammel, he has not understood that?

Paragraph 3. And then once again, “Duchamp’s Urinal cannot be seen”: baffling! Next he states that Duchamp wanted to claim that “anything can be a work or art” whereas the Baroness wanted the “freedom to create art from anything”. What’s the difference? And why should Duchamp’s ideas “lift artists above criticism”? In what way would the Baroness have “created” it, if she had bought it, whereas Duchamp didn’t when he bought it? None of this makes a lot of sense…

Paras 4 and 5. Even Spalding himself seems unconvinced by his absurd pronouncements here! Bosch, Goya, Picasso, Freytag-Loringhoven. Is this really the new canon of Western art… ? One can over-egg a pudding.

And again, whereas Gammell imagines a urinal to be scatological, for Spalding it now appears to be sexual, even “magisterially” sexual, when just previously it had been both Buddha and Madonna. Maybe a few more eggs won’t matter, because surely this must all be a joke? .

Thompson’s letter

Paragraph 1. The fact that Glyn Thompson has wasted 18 years trying to prove something which he has failed to prove is a tragedy for him, but a little boring for us. McBride, and so probably Kobbé, was briefed by Charles Demuth, a friend of Duchamp’s who was a part of the hoax. He also gave McBride the supposed artist’s phone number, it was Louise Norton’s: in New York and not in Philadelphia!

Paragraph 2. In fact Thompson failed to demonstrate that the handwriting was the Baroness’s in his previous letter. (Just as he has failed to demonstrate why she was submitting a supposedly militant feminist artwork under a pseudonym, let alone a male one.) That the label and the signature on Fountain are in different hands is irrelevant, Duchamp was disguising a pseudonymous submission. Hugnet’s attribution in 1932 was preceded by Picabia’s in 1919, and by another we have challenged Thompson to find (he too has not read our original text it seems). And according to Irene Gammel in the article Thompson is responding to, the Baroness herself referred to it twice in the early 1920s, in a painting and a poem, and both times in the context of Duchamp rather than herself.




When we entered this dispute, we assumed there must be some evidence to support its basic premise. Having soon realised that both of these party’s arguments were based only on speculation and wishful thinking, we then hoped to draw them into a reasonable debate. Finally, after much prodding, they at least replied, but only to repeat their now disproven arguments and to ignore inconvenient questions they should have been able easily to answer if their version of events were correct. We have concluded that they are well aware they do not have any actual evidence to support their accusations, and thus, since they will not engage meaningfully with specific critiques, all rational discourse has reached its logical conclusion.

We have no doubt that Spalding and Thompson will continue to peddle their absurd “theories” and those who do not want to check the facts because such a narrative conforms to their prejudices will continue to believe them.

Gammel’s position is more nuanced, but the central tenet of her version is not supported by any evidence so far as we can see, and to be taken seriously she really should produce some, Baudrillardian simulacra just will not suffice!

For our part we believe that we have refuted this counter-narrative by research into the facts, and that those who read what we have written and continue to believe otherwise are bracketing themselves with other rather more sinister conspiracy theorists. If that is the company they wish to keep, so be it, but if they imagine that there is anything feminist in this attempted re-writing of art history, then they have been duped. The Baroness was a remarkable woman who led an equally remarkable life, and it does not detract from her to maintain that she had nothing to do with something she never claimed authorship of: Duchamp’s Fountain.

To conclude we would like to suggest what we believe actually happened at the Independents Exhibition, and the reasons for it, and in doing so briefly to move from facts to speculation (albeit supported by the facts).

When the Independents Exhibition was set up it was to be jury-free, and of course most of those on the committee did not consider it necessary to specify that submissions must consist of “art”, i.e. paintings, drawings, sculpture etc. It seems to us, however, that certain of the committee members, Duchamp, Roché, Arensberg, Covert, Demuth, etc., were well aware of what they were doing and had ensured such criteria were deliberately omitted in the hope that they would receive some much more outrageous submissions. Yet this did not happen, precisely because, before Fountain, it was conceptually impossible for anyone to do so. Fountain was the first, and on this depends its art historical importance. And so, all of these avant-garde artists from around the world dutifully submitted their more or less conventional paintings and sculpture. A few days before the exhibition opened, Duchamp and a few of these friends had a discussion in which they reviewed the situation — after which he purchased and submitted Fountain. It was an act of last resort because it simply could not occur to anyone else to do such a thing. It seems, according to Norton, that Duchamp was genuinely angry when it was refused, since he was hoping for a furore in the press. All he could do was resign and try to foment a scandal that way instead. He needed various things in order to do so, such as a photograph of Fountain, and he and his collaborators needed a “story”, both to make the newspapers bite and so as to avoid all and sundry discovering he was behind the affair, in which case there would be no newspaper story and no scandal. In the event they had two, “the young lady” for friends, and for the Press: “the man from Philadelphia”. Despite the committee’s refusal to show it, Fountain eventually changed everything, even though no one realized it at the time.

And the Baroness played no part in any of this.

Dawn Ades and Alastair Brotchie