Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” has long stood as a defining moment in the annals of modern art history. A urinal, unceremoniously signed and dated “R Mutt 1917”, it is a piece that has sparked endless debates. For some, Duchamp is the visionary father of conceptualism, the precursor of art as ideas. For others, he remains a controversial figure, credited with the demise of traditional craftsmanship. Yet, behind the scenes of this artistic saga lies a woman whose story has been overshadowed.
In a surprising revelation, the bedrock of conceptual art has been challenged. Two art historians have boldly challenged the very core of this artistic movement, questioning its fundamental pillars. Their research has upended the longstanding attribution of one of modern art’s central pieces, Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain.” According to their findings, the urinal, long regarded as Duchamp’s brainchild, was, in fact, the creation of a German Dada artist, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.
Glyn Thompson, a former art history lecturer at Leeds University, spearheaded this paradigm-shifting research. His meticulous study has brought to light a different narrative that challenges Duchamp’s authorship of “Fountain.” Thompson’s assertion rests on compelling evidence—a distinctive handwriting on the urinal, unmistakably belonging to Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. Furthermore, Thompson dismantled Duchamp’s claim that he purchased the urinal from a New York plumbing shop. Instead, he established that the urinal was a unique model from Philadelphia, a city Duchamp had never visited but where Elsa resided during that period, having fled charges of shoplifting in New York.
Thompson’s research even pinpointed the exact urinal model submitted by Elsa to the Society of Independent Artists exhibition in 1917, although it remained undisplayed, surviving solely through an Alfred Stieglitz photograph. Astonishingly, he found the only two surviving examples of the same make and model, solidifying the authenticity of Elsa’s creation.
Duchamp’s 1966 explanation of his cryptic “R Mutt” signature was a cornerstone of his claim to the urinal’s authorship. He insisted that “Mutt” was a playful alteration of “Mott,” derived from the sanitary equipment manufacturer J L Mott Iron Works, where he supposedly sourced the urinal. However, Thompson’s findings obliterate this explanation. The company never made nor sold the specific model attributed to Elsa. Thompson contends that “R Mutt” was, in reality, a subtle pun on the German word for impoverishment, “armut,” cleverly inscribed by Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven herself.
As the art world grapples with this seismic revelation, the legacy of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven is resurrected from the annals of obscurity. Her audacious creativity, once buried under the shadows of history, now emerges as a beacon of artistic revolution. In this paradigm-shifting moment, we are compelled to reconsider the origins of “Fountain” and the broader narratives shaping the course of conceptual art. Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, the unacknowledged trailblazer of her time, finally takes her rightful place in the pantheon of artistic pioneers.
In 2022, Cecilia Alemani, curator of the Venice Biennale, sought to right the historical wrongs by paying tribute to eighty deceased artists, mainly focusing on women artists who had been unjustly overlooked. One such luminary was Else Hildegard Plötz, later known as Baroness Dada, a woman whose brilliance illuminated the avant-garde landscape but whose legacy had been buried under layers of art historical neglect.
Born in 1874 in Swinemünde, a city that was then part of the German Empire and now in Poland, Elsa’s life was marked by turbulence. Raised in a stifling environment under an oppressive father, she escaped to Berlin at 18, embarking on a journey leading her to the heart of the Dada movement.
Elsa’s life was a mixture of defiance and creativity. She embraced a bohemian existence in Berlin, immersing herself in the avant-garde circles of the time. Her relationships defied societal norms, as she engaged in heterosexual and Lesbian affairs. A move to the United States with her second husband marked a turning point. In New York, she married Baron Leopold Freytag-Loringhoven, and amidst financial struggles, Elsa emerged as a prominent figure in the Greenwich Village Dada scene.
Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven was not merely a participant in the Dada movement; she was its beating heart. Her performances were bold and provocative; she challenged conventions at every turn. Walking naked through the streets of Manhattan, adorned with everyday objects like tomato cans and coffee spoons, Elsa disrupted the bourgeoisie and pushed the boundaries of artistic expression.
However, history tends to favour the privileged few. Elsa’s neighbour and contemporary Duchamp is celebrated as the mastermind behind the revolutionary “Fountain.” Yet, recent revelations have cast a new light on this narrative. Analyses and studies by historians have unveiled a different truth: Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, not Duchamp, was the creator of the iconic urinal that rocked the art world in 1917.
Elsa’s audacious act was her response to a world at war, a symbolic protest against the chaos and destruction. Her rejection of societal norms was encapsulated in the urinal, signed “R. Mutt,” a pseudonym with profound meaning. Through her art, Elsa declared war on men, holding them accountable for the global turmoil.
In the wake of her death in 1927, Elsa’s legacy faded into obscurity. It took decades for her contributions to be recognised, her story pieced together from fragments of history. Her work was recently showcased at the 59th Venice Biennale alongside other pioneering female artists like Leonora Carrington. Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven’s rightful place in the annals of art history is being corrected.
René Steinke’s biography, “The Baroness of Greenwich Village”, and Irene Gammel’s meticulously researched work, “Baroness Elsa,” have played pivotal roles in resurrecting Elsa’s story. Additionally, Lily Benson and Cassandra Guan’s documentary, “The Filmballad of Mamadada,” has brought her life and art to the screen, ensuring that Elsa’s legacy endures.
In the vibrant spectrum of the Dada movement, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven emerges not as a footnote but as a central figure. Her audacity, creativity, and unyielding spirit challenge the essence of art, reminding us that brilliance knows no gender and that true artistic revolution comes in all forms. As her story unfolds, the art world is compelled to reassess its narratives, embracing the multifaceted and often overlooked genius of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, the true provocateur of the Dada movement.
Photo: ‘Fountain’ by Marcel Duchamp? © Artlyst 2023