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Duchamp's urinal is said to belong to female artist. Or does the business stink?

It had been hanging in the air for a while, but now there seems to be fairly incontrovertible evidence that Marcel Duchamp did not invent his urinal artwork himself. A book to be published next month claims that the inventor of 'conceptual' art nicked his thing from German artist Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. 

That in itself was a long-standing rumour and the matter has been occupying minds for years, including in the Netherlands, where journalist Theo Paijmans talked about it in 2018 published., but the new arguments given by the authors, historian Glyn Thompson and art critic Julian Spalding, come across as quite convincing. 

"Art heaven is only for men"

For instance, Duchamp would never have been near the only site of this type of pissbox, and von Freytag-Loringhofen did, and the story he told about it, namely that it was sent to him personally, is also not entirely true: Freytag-Loringhofen, according to the authors, sent in her work for an exhibition in which Duchamp also participated, but it was never shown under her name.

Because Duchamp, man as he was, published the work under his name without further recourse, it became art, it is argued: "There is also the simple fact that if the work had been attributed to Elsa from the beginning, it would never have reached art heaven. Its perception would have been very different. Contextual reality, including the male enhancement effect, is part of perception."

Fly in the pot

A typical example of suppression of female input in art history? It looks suspiciously like that, and indeed it would not be the first time a man has appropriated a woman's work. Still, there is a catch, or, rather, a fly in the ointment: Julian Spalding has been fighting the phenomenon of 'Conceptual Art' all his life, and he is now using Duchamp's jat work to undermine the whole idea behind that movement. 

Conceptual art, that is, for example, art in which everyday objects are presented as art, would thus not tolerate a deeper intention of the author. And, Spalding argues, Else von Freytag-Loringhofen did have an idea behind her work. The letters R.MUTT, prominently displayed on the urinal, are said to stand for Armut, and Mutter. By doing so, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhofen, a German living in poverty in New York, wanted to send a signal to the US. The latter, in 1917, the year she sent in the work, were about to engage in the First World War against Germany. 

Used twice by a man?

A fiercely anti-war work of art, by a woman, was thus turned into a meaningless, Dadaist work by a nonchalant man and, according to the critic, moderate artist. According to Spalding, this marks the end of conceptual art. In an e-mail to the Artnet, he states: "It debunks the proposition that anything can be art. Art is communication or it is nothing. Elsa's urinal disproves all Found Object, conceptual art and the millions invested in it. It is a bubble about to burst."

In response to the claim, several art historians have already argued that Spalding and Thompson's evidence is mostly circumstantial. One might also wonder whether Spalding is not engaging in appropriation by using the unfortunate female artist Else von Freytag-Loringhofen in his struggle against the world of conceptual art. If so, she would have been put in front of his own cart for the second time, posthumously, by a man. 

Ironic, actually. Those men and their match-fixing.

Sources: The Guardian and Artnet

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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