She is not a Futurist. She is the future.
July 3, 2018 8:48 AM   Subscribe

So it turns out the most influential work of all of modern art (previously), "Fountain" (R. Mutt, 1917), the lowly urinal that changed how we think, isn't by Marcel Duchamp after all. The evidence is quite overwhelming: it's the work of Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (previously) - making her the least recognised artist of her time.

A letter to his sister in which Duchamp describes the work as submitted by "une de mes amies" was already known; the urinal's manufacturer was not the one named by Duchamp in interviews; the work was sent from Philadelphia (where Elsa, not Marcel, lived at the time); there's a match of the signature with her handwriting, and there's German wordplay behind the chosen pseudonym. In fact, the attribution to Duchamp only occurred years after its original showing, in a piece by André Breton - after which Duchamp happily went with it, producing fourteen replicas of the urinal and relating various versions of its origin story.
Is the modern art canon ready for its own updating?
posted by progosk (23 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
 
Here at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, they have proudly been displaying one of the Duchampian reproductions for a number of years. One of their great acquisitions. Prior to hearing this news, I’ve always thought it rather ludicrous to show a reproduction of a piece as if it was the same thing as the original piece. The original piece was an event, the displaying of a bought urinal at an art show. Though if I remember correctly it was never actually put on display at that show.

With this news, I feel that the reproduction should be put on display at SFMOMA with a large enough sign that states, correctly, the true artist, and maybe an apology too while they are at it. By the way, Baroness Elsa was more Dada than most if not all the others rolled together.
posted by njohnson23 at 9:05 AM on July 3 [6 favorites]


Woah!
posted by Secretariat at 9:05 AM on July 3


DAMN! this is so cool and so frustrating at the same time!
posted by nikaspark at 9:21 AM on July 3 [2 favorites]


H-o-l-y s-h-i-t.

I'm not at all honked off at Duchamp, since playing games with authorship was an enormous part of his project, and (I suspect) his core being.

On the other hand, I am totally honked off at Breton, because negligible respect for women's lives, work, agency, etc., was a rather substantial part of his project, and this is just that, over again.*

Still, this is huge. Despite the Breton-ire, as a massive fan of the women and gender-diverse folk in and around Surrealism and Dada, I am quite proud. Off to replace the book about Baroness Elsa that I lost three moves ago!

*(Note for potential, scrappy Breton defenders: Will be away from my books and not available to debate much today, or, indeed, much this week, so if you post a brilliant rebuttal, I'm not intentionally ignoring you. MeMail if you really want a response. If you care enough about Breton and Breton-adjacent stuff to want to spar about it on the internet (or anywhere else), you are 100% my fam and I value and treasure you.)
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 9:26 AM on July 3 [15 favorites]


I think Duchamp would be totally on-board with this development.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:27 AM on July 3 [6 favorites]


The See All This link includes an answer to a question that has bothered me about this for years:
Why did Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven never claim Fountain as her work? She never had the chance. While she lived the urinal was thrown out, became lost and quickly forgotten. She died in 1927, eight years before Bréton attributed Fountain to Duchamp for the first time. Decades after her death Duchamp began to commission the first replica of Fountain. While he rose to superstardom, she ended as a footnote in the history of modern art. Her artist career is exemplary for what has happened to countless other female artists who were ignored, marginalized and ostracized from the canon.
I'd never quite understood the timeline of this. It's quite helpful to know. They also note:
To attribute Fountain to a woman and not a man has obvious, far-reaching consequences: the history of modern art has to be rewritten. Modern art did not start with a patriarch, but with a matriarch. What power structure in the world of modern art prohibits this truth to become more widely known and generally accepted? Ultimately this is one of the larger questions looming behind the authorship of Fountain. It sheds light on the place and role of the female artist in the world of modern art.


New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) held an exhibition last year called "Making Space: Women Artists
and Postwar Abstraction."
The museum was founded by three women in 1929, (Miss Lillie P. Bliss, Mrs. Cornelius J. Sullivan, and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr.,) and yet women artists have been historically underrepresented in its galleries. In the 1960's and 70's there were various complaints, protests and demonstrations about it. (One memorable demonstration in 1976 saw Joanne Stamerra place erasers stamped with the phrase "ERASE SEXISM AT MOMA" throughout the Museum. Scroll about halfway down through this page to see a picture of one.)

The exhibition highlighted the work of
...nearly 100 paintings, sculptures, photographs, drawings, prints, textiles, and ceramics by more than 50 artists. Within a trajectory that is at once loosely chronological and synchronous, it includes works that range from the boldly gestural canvases of Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, and Joan Mitchell; the radical geometries by Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, and Gego; and the reductive abstractions of Agnes Martin, Anne Truitt, and Jo Baer; to the fiber weavings of Magdalena Abakanowicz, Sheila Hicks, and Lenore Tawney; and the process-oriented sculptures of Lee Bontecou, Louise Bourgeois, and Eva Hesse. The exhibition will also feature many little-known treasures such as collages by Anne Ryan, photographs by Gertrudes Altschul, and recent acquisitions on view for the first time at MoMA by Ruth Asawa, Carol Rama, and Alma Woodsey Thomas.
It also included fifty essays about art and gender, written by different artists and critics.

Clearly it goes without saying that the Museum shouldn't have needed to highlight the contribution of women in a special exhibition. They should have been doing so from the moment they were founded. Some of those artists had found their way to the Museum's walls. But how many didn't? How many were shunted aside?

Take a moment. Imagine how much different the entire history of modern art would be if the woman whose work helped spur an entire art movement had been recognized as its matriarch, rather than a footnote. This matters so damned much, and we should be examining it from every angle. Asking ourselves WHY? We should be shining a strong spotlight on why the art world marginalized women and their work for so long, and make sure it's not still happening today. We should be examining the preconceptions and assumptions about this genre, and how that speaks to the way we consider women in our society. As creators. Thinkers. Subversives. As artists and as contributors.

Who was Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven? With a single act, she scandalized people and pioneered an entire movement that shook the art world to its core and helped parallel the growth and evolution of Western society. The feminist movement. The anti-war movement. And more.

She should be remembered for it. Recognized for it. The injustice done to her by marginalizing her legacy needs to stop.
posted by zarq at 9:36 AM on July 3 [17 favorites]


Why did Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven never claim Fountain as her work? She never had the chance. While she lived the urinal was thrown out, became lost and quickly forgotten. She died in 1927, eight years before Bréton attributed Fountain to Duchamp for the first time.

I'd never quite understood the timeline of this. It's quite helpful to know.


Indeed, she died, alone and destitute, in Paris, after attempting to make ends meet in Berlin.

To attribute Fountain to a woman and not a man has obvious, far-reaching consequences: the history of modern art has to be rewritten. [...] It sheds light on the place and role of the female artist in the world of modern art.

It so happens that, beyond her artwork, her poetry has meantime earned her a place among the literary anti-canon.
posted by progosk at 9:56 AM on July 3 [6 favorites]


I learned about this already from reading John Higgs' book "Stranger than we can imagine: an alternative history of the 20th Century" [link is to a Globe & Mail review]. The relevant chapter has a lot more on Baroness Elsa's life and art (she was amazing).
posted by heatherlogan at 10:13 AM on July 3 [1 favorite]


There's also scholarship tying 'Fountain' to a different woman artist, Louise Norton.
posted by kickingtheground at 10:30 AM on July 3 [1 favorite]


Off to replace the book about Baroness Elsa that I lost three moves ago!
Citation? Other reading recs?
posted by sophrontic at 10:46 AM on July 3


I just read about this yesterday! My mind was absolutely blown. I'm so glad this popped up here with more context, and I can't wait to learn more about her!
posted by treepour at 10:57 AM on July 3


Not as egregious as outright theft, but here is some scholarship regarding male-female collaborative work that pop culture credits, usually, to a Solitary Genius Man:

Mothering the Mind [writers]

Creative Collaboration [artists, thinkers]

Creative Couples In The Sciences

Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages [writers]
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 11:09 AM on July 3 [3 favorites]


There's also scholarship tying 'Fountain' to a different woman artist, Louise Norton.

That scholarship seems tenuous, at best (and I think that wikipedia link is a different painter of the same name, actually).
posted by progosk at 11:11 AM on July 3 [1 favorite]


This is pretty mind-blowing stuff. Reminds me of Rhonda Roland Shearer's detailed argument that many of Duchamp's readymade objects are not what they appear.
posted by hyperizer at 11:21 AM on July 3 [1 favorite]


Books:

Freytag-Loringhoven, Elsa von - Body Sweat: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

Gammel, Irene - Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity
posted by njohnson23 at 12:50 PM on July 3 [3 favorites]


That scholarship seems tenuous, at best (and I think that wikipedia link is a different painter of the same name, actually).
Thanks for that link - a great read, and very convincing that Duchamp is indeed the creator.
posted by kickingtheground at 1:56 PM on July 3


Thanks for that link - a great read, and very convincing that Duchamp is indeed the creator.

Interesting that that's your take-away - admittedly, philosopher, cognitive scientist, and aesthetician Prinz does his utmost to uphold the conventional attribution and discredit art historians Gammel, Thompson and Spalding.
posted by progosk at 3:38 PM on July 3 [1 favorite]


Asking ourselves WHY?

She was a woman and our culture hates women. That's literally everything right there. I am not even a tiny bit shocked. Sigh.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:50 PM on July 3 [2 favorites]


I am a Duchamp fan. I think he would be delighted that this has finally been revealed. Regardless, I am delighted.
posted by evilDoug at 6:57 PM on July 3 [1 favorite]


Duchamp played a very subtle hand, stating "the readymade chooses you"...
posted by progosk at 1:53 AM on July 4 [1 favorite]


In the article it says "to a German eye "R. Mutt" suggests armut, meaning poverty or, in the context of the exhibition, intellectual poverty". I'm not sure that's true - a German would surely pronounce "R" more to rhyme with "air", so "R. Mutt" would be pronounced "Ermut", which isn't a word. But "ermutigen" (to encourage), is. FWIW. Probably nothing at all.
posted by Grangousier at 2:49 AM on July 4 [1 favorite]


To this German eye, the main wordplay that comes to mind is Mutt R. = Mutter (mother); Armut... is stretching things a bit.
posted by progosk at 7:53 AM on July 4 [2 favorites]


This German eye read R. Mutt, knowing it is an artists name, as "Armut", poverty. But the shere possibility to read it in different ways really makes it a rather good pseudonym for an artist, imho ;)
posted by SAnderka at 8:10 AM on July 4 [2 favorites]


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