How The Artwork That Started Conceptual Art Was Actually Stolen

March 27, 2018

|Ariel Rodriguez
duchamp stolen fountain

Duchamp, father of Conceptual Art, once said: the Baroness 'is not a Futurist. She is the future.'

Women artists are rarely mentioned by history because the male dominated-industry focuses more on their beauty than on their talent. Misinterpreted, hidden away from the spotlight, and undiscovered, these artists of the past were not taken seriously and sometimes their artworks were just stolen by others. For instance, recent discoveries suggest that Marcel Duchamp's most famous piece of work Fountain was not conceptualized by him. Instead, the acclaimed art revelation of the 20th century belonged to German Dadaist Artist and Poet, Baroness Elsa von Freytag- Loringhoven.

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The Baroness wasn’t discovered for over a century, until her book of poems, Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, was published in 2011– almost 84 years after her death. Her personality was unusual and extravagant, like her outfits. She would be spotted wearing homemade hats of dessert, ordinary kitchen items as accessories, and was arrested a few times for public nudity. When Elsa wasn’t working at a cigarette factory in New York City, she served as a posing model for many artists like Theresa Bernstein. Her husband, who she received the title of “Baroness” from, flew back to Europe to fight in the First World War, leaving her alone. Time later, she met Marcel Duchamp and the Baroness became fascinated with his work to the point where she developed feelings for him: “Marcel, Marcel, I love you like Hell, Marcel,” wrote Elsa in a poem.

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So, how did he take credit for her work? It all started at the first annual exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917, Duchamp submitted a sculpture under the pseudonym of “Richard Mutt.” I was an upside-down urinal titled Fountain with the signature of “R. Mutt” on it. The committee, who allegedly accepted any work of art as long as the artist paid the fee, saw Fountain as a joke and rejected it. As a member of the board, Duchamp resigned in sign of protest because he believed that art should be considered a concept, not an object. After that, nobody remembered what happened to the original urinal, some say it was thrown away, but a photograph of it was published in The Blind Man’s next day edition allowing future generations to value the artwork. Between the 1950s and 1960s it was rediscovered and recognized as Duchamp's most valued and intellectual work. It gave his movement of “readymades” (existing objects from real life turned or recontextualized into art concepts) a face. In 2004, a poll of 500 art experts voted Duchamp's Fountain to be the most influential modern artwork of the 20th century. However, a letter addressed to his sister in 1917 exposed the Fountain’s possible true creator: the Baroness. The letter stated the following:

One of my female friends who had adopted the pseudonym Richard Mutt sent me a porcelain urinal as a sculpture; since there was nothing indecent about it, there was no reason to reject it.

Long before the submission of Fountain, the Baroness had be known for collecting street items and proclaiming them as art. In fact, a sculpture named God by Morton Livingston Schamberg is also under investigation for apparently being an original idea from her. In addition, “Richard Mutt” was an artist from Philadelphia, which is where Elsa lived at the time and her friendship with Duchamp indicates she is this “indecent” friend who he refers to.

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It is believed that Duchamp sent the urinal to the Society of Independent Artists as a provocation because they would be forced to consider it art since their policies didn’t allow room for the rejection of any piece. Duchamp had long abandoned traditional art, like painting on canvas. He was trying to mobilize his “Conceptual Art” movement, and perhaps Fountain would fasten the process. But on the way, not only did the urinal got lost but the Baroness’ name went unrecognized with it for a very long time. Since that night in NYC, 17 replicas of Fountain have been reinvented by different artists and they sit at different museums' exhibitions.

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Some recognized sculpture works from the Baroness include Enduring Ornament, Earring-Object, Cathedral, and Limbswish. She lived in poverty most of her life time and wasn't recognized as an artist until newer generations stumbled upon her works. Always behind male artists, who took advantage of her talent, perhaps, she was just too far ahead from her time. Luckily, for us, we can remember her as one of the artists who pioneered and reinvented modern art in the 20th century. If she truly is the author behind Fountain, she should be remembered as the "Mother of Conceptual Art."

Ariel Rodriguez

Ariel Rodriguez

Creative Writer