MARCEL DUCHAMP WAS NOT A THIEF

Click here for the letters subsequently published in the Art Newspaper, with their responses.

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

by DAWN ADES and ALASTAIR BROTCHIE

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Notes are at the end. This article is being updated (our thanks for corrections from Francis Naumann) in order to make it the definitive account of this affair. We await a response from Irene Gammel, Julian Spalding and Glyn Thompson, and from David Lee, editor of The Jackdaw, all of whom have received a copy. To date, they have refused to enter into correspondence about this text, nor to publish a reply to it in any journal. We do not consider this to be an acceptable response to serious criticism, but we are delighted that they have found our arguments so difficult to refute.

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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 by Spalding and Thompson, the intention of which appears to have been to conceal the fact that no serious 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 their speculative contentions. 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 due to a last-minute impulse. Following a lunch together, and just before the SIA exhibition was about 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. 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 solely on the fact that, according to a journalist (see note 23 for the text), Mutt lived in Philadelphia, as did she. Gammel suggests that the Baroness may have sent the urinal 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 relegated this 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 by Charles Demuth, 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 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, and the previously mentioned letter from Demuth to MacBride does essentially the same.16 Spalding and Thompson criticise Duchamp’s biographer’s interpretation of the letter to Suzanne: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, and avoid the scandal he was intent upon, 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 in Paris was Jean Crotti, soon to be her husband, who in 1916 had shared a studio with Duchamp in New York. Crotti had lived there for several years, and had been a habitué of the Arensberg salon. He was on amiable terms with many of those involved with the exhibition, as well as with members of the wider international avant-garde.

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, or “urmutter”,21 earth mother, and that this explains the work’s meaning when attributed to the Baroness: it was ‘Elsa’s declaration of war against a man’s war – an extraordinary visual assault on all that men stood for’.22 This is an amusing game, and we can all come up with possible meanings for artworks, but to be taken seriously they need to be based on some convincing similarity to the author’s other works or on documentary evidence. This is absent here, and it seems especially unlikely because for nearly everything else that the Baroness wrote or made in the USA, she used English (for obvious reasons).

There are a number of other objections to this scenario. According to the label, “Richard Mutt” (not R. Mutt) submitted an exhibit called ‘Fountain’, and not ‘Urinal’ as Spalding and Thompson suppose (note 11). Had it been exhibited, visitors would have assumed that ‘R. Mutt’ was the artist’s signature (because it was), and nothing would have indicated that the key to the work was not to be found in its title, which would be the usual practice, but in the artist’s name. Even that knowledge would be insufficent, however: the viewer had to read it as a German homonym. No clues were given, thus the supposed meaning of the work, as invented  by Spalding and Thompson, would have been completely unavailable to viewers at the exhibition. A rather ineffective ‘declaration of war’! And, finally, Spalding and Thompson have yet to explain why the title of Fountain would have assisted the visitor’s comprehension of this work?

The extreme unreliability of the journalist’s reference to Philadelphia has already been noted, even by Spalding and Thompson,23 yet (so far as we can see) their 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 noting that Thompson’s arguments are almost entirely based upon a Mott catalogue dated 1908,24 and so cannot prove anything about events that happened in 1917.

Finally, Spalding and Thompson repeatedly allude to the fact 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.25 These strictures did not apply to Duchamp, who was actually supervising the hanging of the exhibition. But we do not understand why Spalding and Thompson think this information supports, rather than refutes, 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. She did not even object to the second issue of The Blindman, which was dedicated to Fountain, to which she was not invited to contribute and which, of course, does not mention her name — why such extraordinary restraint? Likewise, none the many people involved ever mentioned 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 Their exact words were as follows:

BW: Who was that creature that I was told Marcel liked [. . .] the Baroness or something? Did you know about her?

LN: I don’t know.

BW: I never met her. She is supposed to be very eccentric and dressed in a very strange way.

LN: I never met her, no.

BW: You remember hearing about her?

LN: Vaguely, you see, it rings a bell that’s never rung before.

Thus the Baroness cannot have been the ‘female friend’ of Duchamp’s letter; it can only have been Norton, just as common sense indicated all along.28

Secondly, Norton, in the unpublished draft of an article written in 1972 that discussed the SIA exhibition, wrote of Duchamp that:

Marcel was more serious in one of his jests than I realised at the time. Co-Founder and member of the Sty. of Independent Artists he helped organise the Independents Show of 1917. There was to be no jury. Any painter’s work would be exhibited on payment of a six dollar fee. 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, confirmed Duchamp’s authorship of this work of art. Furthermore, she states that Duchamp himself ‘sent in’ the urinal, which confirmed 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.

This statement of Louise Norton’s needs putting in context. Almost the only undisputed fact in this affair is that Norton’s address was on the submission label attached to Fountain: this fact is agreed by Gammel, by Spalding and Thompson and by those who accept Duchamp’s account. Gammel consigned it to a footnote, Spalding and Thompson acknowledge it and assert that Norton submitted the urinal for the Baroness, in the accepted account it was either Duchamp or Norton who ‘submitted’ the urinal, but it seems from what she says here that she simply allowed Duchamp to use her address. Whatever the case, Louise Norton is the only person whose pivotal role of go-between is acknowledged in all three versions of these events, and because of this role she had to know what actually happened. And she wrote that the urinal was ‘sent in’ by Duchamp. Norton’s statement on its own refutes the versions proposed by Gammel, Spalding and Thompson. It is a great shame this statement not published when Gammel wrote her biography of the Baroness, because this whole controversy could then never have arisen.

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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. (We note the casual sexism of the title, with the male artist formally referred to by surname and the female more familiarly by her first name.)

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 (I Shock Myself, San Francisco 1985, p.31), 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 (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, as implied by the entry in her diary for 7 April 1917: “Discussion about Richard Mutt’s exhibit[ion]. Read Roche my articles. We work at Marcel’s” (Archives of American Art, Beatrice Wood Papers). The editorial does not specifically use the word “readymade” but does explain Duchamp’s ideas behind this concept. The connection between the urinal and readymades was first specifically made by Picabia in 391, VIII (February 1919), p.8, 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 states that Fountain was displayed at the SIA exhibition, and makes 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 likely that he or his informant was being ironic, in the manner of W.C. Fields. Philadelphia, due to its Mormon and Quaker roots, was considered to be notoriously dull, and thus the last place one would expect to find anything ‘avant-garde’. Within the Arensberg circle, Boston and Pennsylvania were thought of as opposites (see Mina Loy’s compilation of overheard conversation there in The Blindman 2, p.15, and see note 16 below). Even according to Harper’s Magazine, at that time, ‘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. Concerning this label, Spalding and Thompson, who assert that the true title of this work by the Baroness should be ‘Urinal’ (op.cit. p.16), repeatedly state (op.cit. pps.6, 7 and elsewhere) that it does not bear the title Fountain, and that this was only given to the sculpture afterwards by Duchamp or Stieglitz. This is vital to Spalding and Thompson’s account, due to the importance given, in the editorial by Barbara Wood in The Blindman 2, to the act of re-labelling the object, so as to give it a new conceptual context. Thus if the object was not re-labelled, it could not be by Duchamp. Recent scans of the photograph, however, allow one to read the last 5 letters of the word “Fountain” on the first line of the label (for example in Stefan Banz: Marcel Duchamp: Richard Mutt’s Fountain, Les Presses du Réel, 2019, p.43).

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 In Jackdaw 2015, p.7, 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. Alternatively, Stieglitz might have been “in” on the affair and simply repeating the “story” to O’Keefe. It is also interesting that the article by McBride, following the letter from Demuth, mentions the Philadelphia connection. Demuth, a lifelong Pennsylvanian, was therefore involved with press relations on this matter and so may be the original source of this witticism.

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 somewhere…, but if so, is it backed up by evidence, or is it just speculation?

21 Ibid., p.27.

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

23 Spalding and Thompson admit this unreliability in Jackdaw 2015, p.22, specifically in relation to this claim that the artist was from Philadelphia. They write: “Whilst the journalist’s report contain some inaccuracies they were not sufficient to discredit the veracity of other details confirmed by other secondary sources at the time, such as Beatrice Wood’s diary.” This is a pure opinion, and a very convenient one! It is not supported by Beatrice Wood’s diary (Archives of American Art, Beatrice Wood papers), which does not mention the matter in question, Philadelphia, and the only “details” in her very brief diary entries are those cited in note 4, none of which are relevant to the journalist’s reliability. The other “secondary sources”, being unidentified, cannot be checked. So that the reader may judge whether this was a serious account of the exhibition, or otherwise, we give here the article in full (from the New York Herald, 11 April 1917, section 2, p.6):

Mr. Mutt Thought He Could Exhibit Almost Anything, but the Society Thought Differently.

You may call him what you will, a conservative is a conservative still — and Marcel Duchamp knows it. Therefore, the painter of Nude Descending a Staircase fame has declared his independence of the Independent Society of Artists, and there is dissension in the ranks of the organization that is holding at the Grand Central Palace the greatest exhibition of painting and sculpture in the history of the country.

It all grew out of the philosophy of J.C. Mutt, of Philadelphia, hitherto little known in artistic circles. When Mr. Mutt heard that payment of five dollars would permit him to send to the exhibition a work of art of any description or degree of excellence he might see fit he complied by shipping from Quaker City a familiar article of the bathroom furniture manufactured by a well known firm of that town. By the same mail went a five dollar bill.

To-day Mr. Mutt has his exhibit and his $5; Mr. Duchamp has a headache, and the Society of Independent Artists has the resignation of one of its directors and a bad disposition.

After a long battle that lasted up to the opening hour of the exhibition, Mr. Mutt’s defenders were voted down by a small margin. The Fountain, as his entry was known, will never become an attraction — or detraction — of the improvised galleries of the Grand Central Palace, even if Mr. Duchamp goes to the length of withdrawing his own entry. Tulip Hysteria Co-ordinating, in retaliation. The Fountain, said the majority, “may be a very useful object in its place, but its place is not an art exhibition, and it is, by no definition, a work of art.”

24 Jackdaw 2015, p.18.

25 Ibid., p.11.

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. Georges Hugnet’s L’Aventure Dada, the first comprehensive history in French, appeared in 1957 with the same attribution. Nobody challenged these attributions, not even the Baronesses closest friends, such as Berenice Abbott, Margaret Anderson and Djuna Barnes (all were Americans who spoke French). Only after all those involved had died did Gammel, Spalding and Thompson make their accusations.

27 This also seems to confirm that the Baroness never attended the Arensberg salon, and indeed she is never mentioned as being present there by anyone who was. A statement attributed to 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.