MARCEL DUCHAMP WAS NOT A THIEF

From The Burlington Magazine, December 2019 (with some subsequent small modifications)

DAWN ADES and ALASTAIR BROTCHIE

[Notes are at the end. We await a reaction from Irene Gammel,

Julian Spalding and Glyn Thompson, and David Lee, editor of The Jackdaw.]

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In November 2014 The Art Newspaper published an article by Julian Spalding and Glyn Thompson, ‘Did Marcel Duchamp steal Elsa’s urinal?’1 Their contention, and that of Irene Gammel, the biographer of the artist and poet Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, is that the Baroness was responsible for submitting the famous Fountain, an upturned urinal signed ‘R. Mutt’, to the Society of Independent Artists (SIA) exhibition in New York in April 1917.

The idea of Duchamp as an ‘art-thief’ has become something of an internet meme – accepted as true, without anyone ever bothering to check the evidence. Refuting it then becomes a matter of proving a negative, which is much harder to do. We are well aware that facts and evidence can be rather less amusing than speculation and conspiracy theories, but there is a truth to be revealed here that relates to the integrity of one of the most important artists of the last century. This truth has been carefully obscured by a blizzard of irrelevant research, the intention of which appears to have been to conceal the fact that no evidence whatsoever has been presented that links the Baroness to Fountain. However, Bradley Bailey’s recent article in The Burlington Magazine published evidence that finally puts paid to the speculative contentions of Spalding and Thompson. These contentions nonetheless need to be dealt with, and following Bailey’s article we wanted to summarise the facts of this affair.

There are three versions of the events that gave rise to this ‘sculpture’: firstly, the generally accepted account, based on what Duchamp himself said, and accounts by eye-witnesses, the perpetrators and contemporary publications; secondly, Gammel’s speculations in her biography of the Baroness; and thirdly, Spalding’s and Thompson’s account, which attempts to claim Fountain for the Baroness while avoiding the inaccuracies in Gammel’s version.

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According to Duchamp’s biographer,2 the idea for the urinal was a last-minute impulse. Following a lunch together, and just before the SIA exhibition was due to open, Duchamp, accompanied by Walter Arensberg and Joseph Stella, bought a urinal at a store, and he either took it to his studio or directly to the exhibition venue, signed it ‘R. Mutt’ and attached a submission label bearing the address of Louise Norton. It was then submitted for exhibition, but never was exhibited. Instead it was taken to Alfred Stieglitz’s studio so he could photograph it.3 Duchamp used the inevitable scandal (which would have occurred whether the exhibit was accepted or not) and Stieglitz’s photograph to explain the rationale behind readymades in his magazine The Blindman, again anonymously, through an article by his friend Beatrice Wood.4 Thus two of Duchamp’s female friends collaborated in this affair: Norton and Wood.

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Gammel’s version is that the Baroness may have sent the urinal to Duchamp, who put it in for the exhibition and then used the scandal to explain readymades. She casts doubt on Duchamp’s authorship of Fountain on the basis of a letter from Duchamp to his sister Suzanne, dated 11th April 1917, and a comment in a popular daily that ‘R. Mutt’ lived in Philadelphia. The relevant part of Duchamp’s letter reads:

‘Tell the family this snippet: the Independents opened here with enormous success. A female friend of mine, using a male pseudonym, Richard Mutt, submitted a porcelain urinal as a sculpture. It wasn’t at all indecent. No reason to refuse it. The committee decided to refuse to exhibit this thing. I handed in my resignation and it’ll be a juicy piece of gossip in New York.’5

Gammel translated this letter so that the pivotal sentence reads: ‘One of my female friends who had adopted the pseudonym Richard Mutt sent me a porcelain urinal as a sculpture’.6 Gammel then tentatively identified the ‘female friend’ as the Baroness, based on the fact that she was then living in Philadelphia (as was Mutt, according to a journalist), and suggests that she may have sent Fountain to Duchamp, and that it therefore might have been a collaboration.7

Gammel’s interpretation is mistaken. The letter actually says that Fountain was submitted to the SIA in the category of sculpture, and not sent to Duchamp personally. No one knows why the journalist gave the artist’s home as Philadelphia,8 and his article is unreliable as a source, because even though it is very short it contains several other blatant errors or inventions.9 There is, furthermore, a version of Alfred Stieglitz’s photograph of Fountain (Fig.2) in which the submission label is visible and the artist’s address is clearly legible. The address is not that of the Baroness but of Louise Norton. Gammel relegates this inconvenient but important information to an endnote.10 The writing on the label is not Louise’s,11 but Duchamp could have asked anyone to fill it in using Norton’s address, or could have done it himself and disguised his handwriting.12 Finally, Norton’s involvement was further confirmed when it was discovered that the phone number for contacting Mutt given to the critic Henry McBride was hers.13 Gammel does not mention this fact at all.

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While Spalding and Thompson acknowledge that their version is based upon Gammel’s ‘brilliant research’,14 they need a different story in order to avoid its shortcomings, namely her ignoring the evident part played by Norton, and her incorrect translation of the letter. So they speculate that the Baroness buys the urinal in Philadelphia and has it sent to Norton, who adds the label and then submits it. Duchamp then ‘steals’ it and uses it to explain readymades. Thus the whole of their case depends on the Baroness and Norton knowing each other, and they baldly state that Norton ‘knew Elsa well’.15 No source is given for this statement, and Bailey has revealed in his article that, according to Norton’s own words, she did not know the Baroness. The Spalding and Thompson version cannot, therefore, be correct.

Spalding’s and Thompson’s evidence for their version is the letter to Suzanne; the Philadelphia connection; and the assertion that Duchamp’s account of how he bought the urinal is incorrect (based on Thompson’s research intended to prove that the firm of Mott did not make this model of urinal, etc.).

The evidence against it is as follows: Spalding and Thompson repeatedly use the letter as evidence that Duchamp ‘lied’ about the origins of Fountain. In fact, Duchamp told his sister exactly what friends in the New York art scene who were not in on the conspiracy were allowed to know. Stieglitz repeated precisely the same story in a letter to Georgia O’Keefe.16 Spalding and Thompson criticise Duchamp’s biographer’s interpretation of the letter:17 ‘Tomkins [. . .] 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’.18

However, Tomkins is correct and Spalding and Thompson are wrong. There is no mystery as to why Duchamp needed to keep his identity secret. He was on the board of directors of the SIA exhibition and head of the hanging committee, and if he had submitted the urinal under his own name then some way would have been found to defuse the situation, as he explained in an interview in 1966.19 As for the assertion that the artist (rather than ‘the nurse’) Suzanne Duchamp was not in touch with the New York art scene, her partner was then Jean Crotti, soon to be her husband, who in 1915 had shared a studio with Duchamp in New York, where Crotti lived for several years. He was on amiable terms with nearly every person involved with the exhibition.

Spalding and Thompson have disputed Duchamp’s reason for secrecy, but not explained the Baroness’s.20 Why would she have gone to all this trouble to submit this ‘sculpture’ under an assumed name? Spalding and Thompson also speculate that R. Mutt should be read as ‘armut’, the German for poverty,21 and that this explains the work’s meaning when attributed to the Baroness: Fountain was ‘Elsa’s declaration of war against a man’s war – an extraordinary visual assault on all that men stood for’.22 But had the object been exhibited in this way, visitors would have assumed that ‘R. Mutt’ was the artist’s signature (because it was); nothing would have indicated that it was supposedly the work’s title, let alone that it should be read as a German homonym.

The extreme unreliability of the journalist’s reference to Philadelphia has already been noted, yet (so far as we can see) Spalding’s and Thompson’s identification of the Baroness as the ‘female friend’ is based solely on this source, which refers to “Mutt” and not to the Baroness. Thompson devotes interminable pages to proving that the firm of Mott did not make this model of urinal, and so on. This is all irrelevant if no connection between Fountain and the Baroness can be made, but it is still worth pointing out that Thompson’s arguments are almost entirely based upon a Mott catalogue dated 1908,23 and so cannot prove anything about events that happened in 1917.

Finally, Spalding and Thompson repeatedly point out that neither Norton nor the Baroness were members of the SIA and therefore they were not eligible to submit anything, let alone after the submission deadline.24 These strictures did not apply to Duchamp, who was actually supervising the hanging of the exhibition. We do not understand why Spalding and Thompson think this information supports their case?

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Such was the state of this debate until recently. No connection had been established between Fountain and the Baroness. On the contrary, many facts suggested that it was extremely unlikely that she had anything to do with it, not the least of them being that she herself never claimed the work as her own, at the time, nor in the years afterwards, in private or in print.25 Nor did any of the many people involved ever mention her name in connection with this affair at the time, nor in any of their subsequent interviews or numerous memoirs.26

In his genuinely brilliant research published in The Burlington Magazine, Bailey has revealed two crucial facts which confirm the generally accepted version of events. First, the Baroness could not have sent Fountain to Louise Norton: Bailey cites an unpublished interview of March 1978 with Norton and Beatrice Wood in which both say that they neither met nor knew of the Baroness, although subsequently they vaguely heard of her.27 Thus she cannot be the ‘female friend’ of Duchamp’s letter; it can only have been Norton, just as common sense indicated all along.28 Second, Norton, in the unpublished draft of an article written in 1972 that discussed the SIA exhibition, wrote of Duchamp that ‘To test the bona fides of the hanging committee he sent in a porcelain urinal which he titled, Fountain by R. Mutt. The committee promptly threw it out and Marcel very angry promptly resigned’. With this statement, ‘the female friend’, Louise Norton, confirms Duchamp’s authorship of this work of art. Furthermore, she states that Duchamp himself ‘sent in’ the urinal, which confirms Duchamp’s version: there was never any need for it to go to Norton’s house, and only in Spalding’s and Thompson’s version of events does Norton herself send it from there.

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Despite Gammel’s welcome aim of restoring agency to women artists and poets, it is unfortunate that she chose to champion the Baroness rather than the other women in the New York avant-garde who were actually involved in the 1917 Fountain incident, and who are no less forgotten by history: Louise Norton and Beatrice Wood. Contrary to Gammel’s approach, Spalding and Thompson have been belligerently abusive from the start. So we repeat what we wrote at the beginning of this letter: there is no evidence of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven being involved in any way whatsoever with Fountain. Unless they can provide evidence on this specific point, we suggest that the honourable course of action on their part would be to admit they were mistaken and to apologise for their accusations, which have turned out to be unfounded.

 

NOTES

1 J. Spalding and G. Thompson: ‘Did Marcel Duchamp steal Elsa’s urinal?’, The Art Newspaper, 3rd November 2014, available at http://ec2-79-125-124-178.eu-west-1.compute.amazonaws.com/articles/Did-Marcel-Duchamp-steal-Elsas-urinal/36155, accessed 12th November 2019.

2 C. Tomkins: Marcel Duchamp, A Biography, London 1997, p.181. See also A. Schwarz: The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, London 1969, p.466; W. Camfield: Fountain, Houston 1989, p.21; S. Haworth: ‘Fountain: summary’ (2009), rev. J. Mundy (2015), Tate, www. tate.org.uk/art/artworks/duchamp­fountain-t07573, accessed 12th November 2019; and G. Thompson: ‘Recognise this?’, The Jackdaw 125 (January/February 2016), p.12.

3 See S. Greenhough, ed.: My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, I (1915– 1933), New Haven and London 2011.

4 Wood claims in her autobiography that she wrote it, and there is no reason to disbelieve her, but in an interview Duchamp later remembered it as a joint effort between her, himself and H.-P. Roché, for which see S. Stauffer: ‘Marcel Duchamp’, Die Schriften, 1 (1981), p.280. These two versions can be easily reconciled if the article was the result of conversations between these three that were summarised by Wood. The article does not specifically use the word “readymade” but does explain Duchamp’s ideas behind this concept. The connection between the urinal and readymades was made by Picabia in 391, VIII (February 1919), p.4, although Spalding and Thompson repeatedly assert that this connection was first made by André Breton in 1935 (e.g. at www.openculture.com).

5 F. Naumann and H. Obalk, eds: Affectionately Marcel, The Selected Correspondence of Marcel Duchamp, transl. J. Taylor, London 2000, p.47.

6 I. Gammel: Baroness Elsa, Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity, Cambridge MA and London 2002, p.224. Gammel incorrectly stated that Fountain was displayed at the SIA exhibition, and made various other conjectures that are rebutted in D. Ades: ‘Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”: a continuing controversy’, Journal of the London Institute of ’Pataphysics 14/15 (2018), pp.109–11.

7 Gammel, op. cit. (note 6), p.225. However, Spalding and Thompson consistently exaggerate Gammel’s position, and in their correspondence with Nicholas Serota they write that she had concluded that the evidence that Fountain should be attributed to the Baroness was ‘overwhelming’, Thompson, op. cit. (note 2), p.4.

8 It is possible that he or his informant was being ironic, in the manner of W.C. Fields. According to Harper’s Magazine, ‘The one thing unforgivable in Philadelphia is to be new, to be different from what has been’, quoted in R.F. Weighley et al.: Philadelphia: A 300-Year History, New York and London 1983, p.535, cited in https://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/History_of_Philadelphia, accessed 12th November 2019.

9 Cited in J. Spalding and G. Thompson: ‘Who did it? Not Duchamp!’, The Jackdaw (hereafter Jackdaw 2015), 4th September 2015, www.thejackdaw.co.uk/ wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Duchamp­Fountain-II1.pdf, p.22.

10 Gammel, op.cit. (note 6), p.446, note 53.

11 Jackdaw 2015, p.6.

12 He was eminently capable of this, as shown by his work Cheque Tzanck (1919; Israel Museum, Jerusalem).

13 Camfield, op.cit. (note 2), p.30, and Jackdaw 2015, p.6.

14 Jackdaw 2015, p.17.

15 Spalding and Thompson, op. cit. (note 1), an assertion repeated in Jackdaw 2015, p.11.

16 Jackdaw 2015, p.7, where Spalding and Thompson assume that it was Duchamp who told Stieglitz this story, which would in fact strengthen the case that this was what he told everyone not directly involved, including his sister, but this assumption is not proven.

17 Tomkins, op. cit. (note 2), p.181.

18 [editorial]: ‘How Duchamp stole the urinal’, Scottish Review of Books, 4th November 2014, available at https:// www.scottishreviewofbooks. org/2014/11/how-duchamp-stole-the­urinal/, accessed 12th November 2019. This is a longer version of Spalding and Thompson, op. cit. (note 1).

19 See Camfield, op. cit. (note 2), p.22.

20 Jackdaw 2015, p.11. Unless they have…, but will it be backed up by any evidence?

21 Ibid., p.27.

22 Spalding and Thompson, op. cit. (note 1). Elsewhere they devote many pages to interpretations of ‘Elsa’s’ urinal.

23 Jackdaw 2015, p.18.

24 Ibid., p.11.

25 In the following year she would be writing passionate love poems about Duchamp.

26 The attribution of Fountain to Duchamp seems first to have appeared in English in R. Motherwell: The Dada Painters and Poets, New York 1951; and then in R. Lebel: Marcel Duchamp, London 1959. Nobody challenged it. Only after all those involved had died did Gammel, Spalding and Thompson make their accusations.

27 This also confirms that the Baroness was not a member of the Arensberg salon, and indeed she is never mentioned as being present there by anyone who was. A statement by Beatrice Wood in Gammel (p.168) is ambiguous, and we await Irene Gammel’s clarification of it.

28 As exemplified in the admirable response by the long-suffering Jennifer Mundy, Head of Collection Research at the Tate, in her reply to Spalding and Thompson, Jackdaw 2015, p.17.