Why did a piece of soap cause such a stir in the art community?
In 1917, a French artist would change art forever. Inspired by his recent connections to the New York Dada movement, Marcel Duchamp submitted a work that not only made him famous but is also considered one of the most innovative pieces to be presented at the Society of Independent Artists exhibition. You might have heard the story: Duchamp submitted his piece, a porcelain urinal titled The Fountain, and although the committee rejected it, it had to be displayed because he paid a fee. However, the organizers decided to hide it from the audience. The Dada Movement, however, decided to photograph the urinal and show it in a magazine called The Blind Man, and the rest is history, right? Well, not really.
As outrageous as it was, Duchamp's work wasn't the one that caused an uproar in the 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibition. It was actually Beatrice Wood’s defiant Un peut (peu) d'eau dans du savon ('A Little Water in Some Soap'). The little ceramic artwork depicted a headless body of a Venus with her hands behind her back. Right on the vulva, the artist placed a small heart-shaped soap representing a shell. In this work, the goddess is standing on a bed of the seafoam that gave her life. The main idea of this work is the creation of cycles: just as the foam created from the castrated organ of Venus' father gave her life, the soap with which the artwork is made can create enough foam with just a little water to represent something even greater. As you can imagine, the audience was shocked because of the highly symbolic and erotic work, which the condemned as a "vulgar" piece.
Beatrice Wood was a woman who expressed her thoughts and beliefs through her art, not caring about facing criticism. Without a doubt, she was an artist ahead of her time. That's why a work of art that represented the female sexuality we're still fighting to explore freely was considered vulgar. Even when the artwork wasn’t that difficult to decipher, at the exhibition the audience could get a copy of the famous The Blind Man in which Woods narrated how one night she dreamed about her being the Venus she later represented, as well as the piece of soap. In this sense, a man represented the water that later took her into a whirlpool of erotic sensations before melting in one single being. As you can imagine, that was the coup de grace that scandaled the audience, since it was unimaginable for a woman to express herself in that way. But how could an artist as provocative and sardonic go into oblivion?
If you take a look at some of the few articles that actually talk about her, you’ll see that most of them prioritize the fact that she was sexually and emotionally involved with Duchamp, what she learned from him, and that, basically, she owes her work and creative process to him. In fact, that’s far from accurate. Being born to a very wealthy family from San Francisco, she knew what she wanted in life from a young age. She wanted to break the social chains that her position had placed on her, and at a very early age she decided to renounce to the commodities her family’s fortune offered her and tried her luck as an independent and autonomous woman in Paris, where all the cultural and artistic things were happening at the time. There she studied painting and acting and lived among the many modern and avant-garde currents in art.
She’s acknowledged as one of the pioneer members of the New York Dada group, even being known as the “Mama of Dada,” and one of the first modern female sculptors. So, why are people still so insistent on only valuing her for her relationship (artistic or not) with the urinal’s creator? Her interest for arts and her innovative vision inspired her to create, together with the famous author Henri-Pierre Roche and Duchamp, the magazine I’ve already mentioned, which she saw as a medium where she was free to comment and explore her artistic concerns and her vision.
Beatrice Wood lived fully for 105 years until her death in 1998. She might not be as recognized as she deserves, but if we’re so quick to believe that contemporary art owes everything to Duchamp, I’d say that a huge part of that heritage belongs to Woods, a woman who not only revolutionized the artistic circle in the US, but also created a path for other women. Although she never called herself, nor her art, feminist, she's definitely a character to look up to, especially if we consider that the women's situation, regarding the open exploration of their sexuality, hasn't changed at all.
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