The Real Artist Behind Duchamp's Fountain?

Why is it hard for people to accept the intellectual and creative authority of artists and writers who are women? Why did Lee Krasner's obvious influence on Jackson Pollock go unrecognised for decades? Why was Simone de Beauvoir's original thought attributed to Jean-Paul Sartre? Why did it take centuries for art historians to recognise the canvases of the Italian baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi as hers, not her father's, even those that were signed by her? I don't believe the people involved in these attributions were all monsters out to destroy the reputation of the artist or thinker. The evidence was there. They couldn't see it. Why?

Paintings, novels and philosophy made by men feel more elevated somehow, more serious, while works by women feel flimsier and more emotional. Masculinity has a purifying effect, femininity a polluting one. The chain of associations that infect our thought dates back to the Greeks in the west: male, mind-intellect, high, hard, spirit, culture as opposed to female, body, emotion, soft, low, flesh, nature. The chains are hierarchical, man on top and woman on bottom. They are often subliminal, and they are emotionally charged. Ironically, these enduring associations become all the more important when the artwork in question is a urinal – a pee pot for men.

The story goes like this: Marcel Duchamp, brilliant inventor of the “ready-made” and “anti-retinal art”, submitted Fountain, a urinal signed R Mutt, to the American Society of Independent Artists in 1917. The piece was rejected. Duchamp, a member of the board, resigned. Alfred Stieglitz photographed it. The thing vanished, but conceptual art was born. In 2004 it was voted the most influential modern artwork of all time.

But what if the person behind the urinal was not Duchamp, but the German-born poet and artist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874-1927)? She appears in my most recent novel, Memories of the Future, as an insurrectionist inspiration for my narrator. One reviewer of the novel described the baroness as “a marginal figure in art history who was a raucous ‘proto-punk' poet from whom Duchamp allegedly stole the concept for his urinal”. It is true that she was part of the Dada movement, published in the Little Review with Ezra Pound, Djuna Barnes, TS Eliot, Mina Loy and James Joyce and has been marginalised in art history, but the case made in my book, derived from scholarly sources enumerated in the acknowledgements, is not that Duchamp “allegedly stole the concept for his urinal” from Von Freytag-Loringhoven, but rather that she was the one who found the object, inscribed it with the name R Mutt, and that this “seminal” artwork rightly belongs to her.

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