A Lady’s Not A Gent’s: Revolution in the water closet

Duchamp’s famous urinal exhibit was actually the work of an eccentric German woman protesting against war, two art experts tell Susan Mansfield

IF ONE were to describe the moment when conceptual art began, it might go something like this. Manhattan, 1917: after a boozy lunch with three friends, Marcel Duchamp walks into the downtown showroom of ironworks company JL Mott and buys a urinal. Given the title Fountain and submitted to an exhibition, it becomes the first work of conceptual art and – according to a poll in 2004 – the most influential artwork of the 20th century.

But what if it didn’t happen like that? What if the urinal wasn’t Duchamp’s work, but the work of a female artist who made it for a very different purpose? What if he only claimed it as his near the end of his life? What if the predominant movement in contemporary art was built on a fraud?

An exhibition for the Fringe at Summerhall, A Lady’s Not A Gent’s, reveals the results of an investigation by art historian Glyn Thompson. He has joined forces with Julian Spalding, the director of Glasgow Museums from 1989-99, to reveal what they believe is the truth about the urinal: that it was the work of a German emigre, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.

“This blows conceptual art out of the water,” Spalding says. “The whole thing is founded on a myth. This will change art history – all the history books on modern art will have to be rewritten. All the artists who claim their work comes from Duchamp’s urinal, people like Damien Hirst, will have to rethink. All this junk that is filling art galleries now will be chucked out because it isn’t art.”

Thompson, who was Hirst’s tutor on his foundation year at art college in Leeds, says his primary aim is to present the evidence as one might in a court of law. “It dawned on me that certain fundamental evidence which had been in the public domain for 30 years had been ignored,” he says. “If you regard that simply as evidence you would take to court, it very clearly overturns orthodoxy.”

The story goes like this. On 9 April, 1917, a package arrived at the Grand Palace in New York, next to Grand Central Station, which was hosting an exhibition by the Society of Independent Artists. Unwrapped, it revealed a ceramic urinal, signed “R Mutt”. Unlike most exhibitions at the time, the show was committed to open submission. Duchamp, who was on the organising panel, would later claim that the urinal was a practical joke, to test how “open” this really was.

DUCHAMP DOUBTERS: Glyn Thompson (left) and Julian Spalding investigated the story behind Fountain for their show at the Fringe. Photographs: Greg Macvean

However, at the time, he told a different story. On 11 April, he wrote to his sister Suzanne in Paris, stating: “One of my female friends, under a masculine pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture…” Thompson believes the letter, which lay undiscovered until 1982, proves that Duchamp did not send the urinal. He has also discovered, from research into the history of bathroom fixtures, that the urinal could not have been purchased at JL Mott in New York.

But if Duchamp didn’t send the urinal, who did? A report in the New York Evening Herald four days later says the submission came from Philadelphia. That points to Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who was then living in Philadelphia, as “the only female friend who can possibly have done it”. It also bears a resemblance to other work she made.

Elsa’s story begins in pre-war Germany. Having trained as an actress and vaudeville performer, she married a German architect, but lived in a ménage à trois with Felix Paul Greve, the translator of Oscar Wilde, and moved to the United States with him, helping him to fake his suicide to avoid his creditors. In 1913, she married impoverished German aristocrat, Baron Leopold von Freytag-Loringhoven, but the marriage was short-lived and she was left penniless in New York, working as an artist’s model and stealing to survive. She wrote poetry and she made art out of objects she found in the street. She later returned to Europe, where she died in 1927.

“She was an amazing poet, and an outrageous figure,” says Spalding. “She shaved her head and had two tin cans which she wore instead of a bra. An artist, George Biddle, wrote a description of the room where she worked; it was full of scrap, bits of iron work, things she’d found. She was seeing beauty and meaning in things nobody saw beauty in.”

Thompson and Spalding believe she submitted the urinal as an anti-war statement. Spalding says: “She sent it six days after America declared war against Germany. She realised that the urinal was a perfect symbol of what American men were doing to her beloved country, and it was a shot at the artists who were representatives of that system. It was a powerful anti-war statement, and a work of feminism.”

The arrival of the urinal prompted a discussion among the exhibition’s organisers, a report of which was later published in a small magazine, Blind Man 2, with a photograph of the object taken by Alfred Stieglitz. The urinal was never exhibited and vanished after the photograph was taken. Spalding and Thompson have commissioned an exact replica, by a Glasgow ceramic sculpture, which is in the Summerhall show.

But that was not the end of the story. In 1935, an article by André Breton mentioned the urinal as Duchamp’s work. This is then taken up enthusiastically in 1945 by an American magazine, View, in a special issue which, Thompson says, “reinvents Duchamp as an Dada iconoclast”. In 1964, four years before his death – and, Thompson believes, after he checked his sister’s paperwork and was convinced his letter of April 1917 had been lost – he announced the work as his own, and commissioned a suite of replicas (one of which was bought by Tate Modern in 1999 for $500,000).

Spalding and Thompson believe that Elsa’s urinal was not a work of conceptual art. Spalding says: “She was not a conceptual artist. She was doing something much subtler, she was making a sculpture. Her urinal deserves to rank with Picasso’s bull’s head, made out of an old saddle and handlebars, or Dali’s lobster telephone.”

Thompson says at the time the urinal was submitted, Duchamp was making very little work, but was creating a living for himself playing chess and wooing wealthy patrons. “He was a shyster, a courtier. Near the end of his life, he had the opportunity to establish himself as one of founding fathers of modern art, and he took it. If the gesture of sending the urinal in 1917 is the prototype of conceptual art, why did it take 40 years for other conceptual art to be made?”

Spalding and Thompson have written to institutions which own Duchamp urinals, asking for attributions to be changed to von Freytag-Loringhoven, with little success. “Everyone says Duchamp is the grandfather of modern art, but he doesn’t exist,” says Spalding. “Elsa’s the new grandmother of modern art and she’s fantastic.”

A Lady’s Not A Gent’s is at Summerhall until 5 October

Published in Scotland on Sunday on 9 August 2015

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