MARCEL DUCHAMP AND THE BARONESS

From The Art Newspaper 320, February 2020

by DAWN ADES and ALASTAIR BROTCHIE

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Following our piece in The Burlington Magazine, we published this letter in The Art Newspaper because none of those criticised had responded to our previous article. They still haven’t. We print here the letter to the Art Newspaper, followed by the responses by Spalding & Thompson, and by our replies to them. Since their responses are public letters, we assume they will not object, and, of course, we are simply following their own example when they published their correspondence with the director of Tate Modern and other officers from this institution in The Jackdaw.

 

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In November 2014, The Art Newspaper published an article by Julian Spalding and Glyn Thompson called “Did Marcel Duchamp steal Elsa’s urinal?” Their contention was that the artist and poet the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven was responsible for submitting the famous Fountain, an upturned urinal signed R.Mutt, to the Independents exhibition in New York in April 1917. These assertions appeared to confirm the worst suspicions concerning the art-world patriarchy, and so have become widely distributed on the internet.

This controversy was recently revived when, in November and December, two articles in The Burlington Magazine, by Bradley Bailey and then by ourselves, refuted these assertions in great detail. An updated version of the latter, a summary of the facts, can be found at https://atlaspress.co.uk/marcel-duchamp-was-not-a-thief/. Spalding and Thompson have yet to respond in a reasoned manner, and Spalding’s website continues to call Duchamp a thief and claims that “The Art World has been lying to us”: classic conspiracy theory rhetoric (note the capitals!).

Spalding and Thompson have never produced any evidence that connects the Baroness with Fountain; only interminable speculations about what might or could have occurred if their theories happened to be true. These speculations have been refuted or shown to be unproven in the articles mentioned, but they are all anyway irrelevant unless Spalding and Thompson can answer the only question that matters: “What evidence connects the Baroness to Fountain?”

If they cannot provide this evidence then their only honourable course of action is to admit they were wrong, or must be presumed to be deluded. However, we recall the old saying: “Reasoning will never make a man correct an ill opinion, which by reasoning he never acquired”. We are not holding our breath!

Dawn Ades and Alastair Brotchie

 

This letter was accompanied by the following responses:

 

We do not consider it necessary to reply to Spalding in detail. His response is mostly opinion, and he appears not to understand the question, because the only evidence he does present (Duchamp’s letter and the availability of the urinal), does not at all connect the Baroness to the urinal. Both of these pieces of “evidence” have also been shown to be unproven in our previous article.

Our reply to Thompson is as follows:

Thompson’s reply to our letter addresses only one of its authors: a basic lack of manners. And, like Spalding, he does not answer the question we actually asked (question 1 above). We shall go through his response in detail, and ask him again to afford us the same courtesy with regard to our previous article (in its revised version as published on this website).

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We have never claimed that there is much in the way of documentary evidence from April 1917 that Duchamp was responsible for the urinal since it was submitted pseudonymously, but there is a huge amount of subsequent and contextual evidence that does exactly that, in particular Louise Norton’s (question 2). By the same logic, what evidence, then or afterwards, connects the Baroness with it (question 1)?

Even so Stieglitz, for one, certainly suspected (or perhaps knew of) Duchamp’s involvement from the start, he wrote to Georgia O’Keeffe on 19 April 1917: “There was a row at the Independents – a young woman, (probably at Duchamp’s instigation) sent a large porcelain urinal on a pedestal to the Independents…”. (The Baroness, incidentally, was 43 at the time.)

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Duchamp’s letter to his sister can be interpreted in various ways of course as we have previously shown. We return to this letter below.

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Thompson writes that “Due diligence … demonstrates that the first citation [that Fountain was by Duchamp] was by Georges Hugnet” etc. This would be unsurprising because Hugnet was the first serious French historian of Dada. However, we have never once mentioned Hugnet in any our texts on this matter, and what he wrote is irrelevant to our disagreement with Spalding and Thompson. More relevant is that Mr Thompson is wrong. The actual first mention of the urinal in connection with Duchamp, dates from February 1919. Francis Picabia, in his news bulletin of what his friends were up to published in 391 (no.8, p.8), wrote: “Marcel Duchamp parti à Buenos-Ayres pour y organiser un service hygiénique de Pissotières – Rady-made [sic]” [Marcel Duchamp left for Buenos Aires to organise a hygienic service of urinals – Rady-made]. Thus Fountain was identified as a readymade soon after its exhibition. Spalding and Thompson have repeatedly denied that Fountain was a readymade because that would mean it was by Duchamp (e.g. in their issue of Jackdaw, p.7).

But we should note too that André Breton, in his essay “Marcel Duchamp” (Littérature 5, October 1922, p.9), alludes to these words from the editorial in The Blind Man (May 1917) on Fountain: “Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it.” Breton commented: “… the personality of choice, whose independence Duchamp is one of the first to announce by signing, for example, a manufactured object…”

There is also at least one other mention before Hugnet of the urinal being by Duchamp which we will leave to Thompson to diligently discover!

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Thompson then refutes two phrases which we assume are citations from Hugnet: “in order to test the impartiality of the jury” and “Duchamp had wished to signal his disgust for art and his complete admiration for ready-made objects”. The fact that Hugnet is perhaps wrong is completely irrelevant here (in a reply to our letter) unless we said he was right. We did not say that, and it is dishonest of Thompson to imply that we did.

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His next point is that the handwriting on the exhibition label was not Louis Norton’s. However, her statement cited in Bailey’s article is clear (question 2): Duchamp “sent it in”, all Duchamp needed was her permission to use her address, why would he need her handwriting? Another irrelevance, as we have already pointed out in our previous article.

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Bailey is criticised for “introducing into the practice of provenance the innovative concept that the absence of a signature from a work of art proves its authorship.” Is it too blindingly obvious to point out to that Thompson does precisely the same thing, since the Baroness’s signature is likewise absent?

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We have never written or implied that Duchamp’s sister “put it about the New York art scene that Duchamp was not responsible for the work” or even that she “put it about” that he was responsible. This is another invention of Thompson’s. We merely pointed out that she was in a relationship with the artist Jean Crotti, and that he was on familiar terms with a large number of the people directly involved, and with significant others in the avant-garde, especially Picabia. Thompson’s “contextualisation” of Suzanne as a “petit bourgeois provincial, with no profession” seems a little patronising from a professed feminist. She had temporarily signed up as a (war-time) nurse but was also working as an artist, and Duchamp, in the same letter, asks about her work and suggests he might get her an exhibition in New York. In this letter he is simply telling her what is going on while not revealing his own involvement – it was news to be passed on to friends and family, and one of their brothers had a work in the Independents exhibition. Duchamp was preserving his anonymity for reasons we have pointed out in our previous article. Thompson states that “Ade’s position … assumes that Suzanne had contacts in New York”, but it does not assume that, it assumes that persons to whom Suzanne was likely to pass on the contents of this letter had contacts in New York, and just to spell it out, these persons are principally Jean Crotti, her lover, but also her brother, Jacques Villon.

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He then states: “there is no record that anybody suspected … Duchamp of having anything to do with the urinal”. Wrong, see the letter from Stieglitz and the comment from Picabia already mentioned.

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In his final paragraph he asserts “that only members could show” works at this exhibition and that therefore Thompson’s critics, as supporters of conceptual art, have confused the “‘no jury’ rule with a carte blanche to show anything”. This is because “they didn’t bother to read the publicity issued by the society that made it explicit that only members could show.” More unnecessary personal aspersion… and here particularly inappropriate because “this publicity” says the opposite of what he claims. So, for example, the catalogue of the Independents exhibition clearly states: “There are no requirements for admission to the Society save the acceptance of its principles and the payment of the initiation fee of one dollar and the annual dues of five dollars. All exhibitors are thus members…” (Archives of American Art). So yes, you had to be a member, but to become a member you simply had to pay six dollars and then, since there was no jury, you could indeed submit whatever you liked, just as the first line of the editorial in The Blind Man no 2 implied: “They say any artist paying six dollars may exhibit.” So: wrong again.

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We have felt obliged to reply to Thompson’s criticisms of our position. We will be very reluctant to do so again unless he answers reasonably and succinctly the two questions we have asked.

Dawn Ades & Alastair Brotchie