Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain has long stood as a defining moment in modern art history. The urinal, rudely signed and dated ‘R Mutt 1917’, is a work that has sparked endless debate. For some, Duchamp is the visionary father of conceptualism and a pioneer of art as an idea. However, he remains a controversial figure and is thought to have brought about the end of traditional craftsmanship. But behind the scenes of this artistic story is a woman who is overshadowed.
Shocking facts have come to light, and the very foundations of conceptual art are being challenged. Two art historians boldly attacked the very heart of this art movement and questioned its fundamental pillars. Their research overturned the long-held attribution of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, one of the central works of modern art. Their findings suggest that the urinal, long thought to be Duchamp’s invention, was actually the creation of German Dada artist Elsa von Freytag-Roringhoven.
Glyn Thompson, a former lecturer in art history at the University of Leeds, has spearheaded this paradigm-changing research. His in-depth research revealed another story that calls into question the authorship of Duchamp’s “The Fountain.” Thompson’s claim is based on convincing evidence of distinctive handwriting on the urinal, which is undoubtedly that of Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven. Additionally, Thompson denied Duchamp’s claim that he had purchased the urinal from a New York plumbing store. Instead, he proved that the urinal was a unique model for Philadelphia. Although Duchamp never visited Philadelphia, it was the city where Elsa was living after fleeing a shoplifting charge in New York.
Thompson’s research also identified the exact urinal model that Elsa submitted to the Society of Independent Artists exhibition in 1917, but it was not exhibited and remained only in Alfred Stieglitz’s photograph. Remarkably, he discovered his two extant examples of the same make and model, solidifying the authenticity of Elsa’s creation.
Duchamp’s explanation of the mysterious “R Mutt” signature in 1966 became the basis of his claim to be the author of the urinal. He claimed that “Matt” was a playful modification of “Mott”, which comes from JL Mott Iron Works, a sanitary equipment manufacturer that allegedly procured the urinals. But Thompson’s findings obliterate this explanation. The company has never manufactured or sold the specific model attributed to Elsa. Thompson argues that “R Mutt” was actually a subtle play on the German word “armut,” meaning poverty, which was cleverly written by Elsa von Freytag-Roringhoven herself.
As the art world grapples with this shocking revelation, Elsa von Freytag-Roringhoven’s legacy is revived from the obscure archives. Her bold creativity, once lost to history, has now emerged as the vanguard of an artistic revolution. This paradigm-shifting moment forces us to reconsider the origins of Fountain and the broader narrative that shapes the course of conceptual art. Elsa von Freytag-Roringhoven was a pioneer of an unknown era and has finally earned her rightful place in the pantheon of artistic pioneers.
In 2022, Venice Biennale curator Cecilia Alemani sought to right the wrongs of history by paying homage to 80 deceased artists, focusing primarily on women artists who have been unfairly ignored. One such celebrity was Else Hildegard Pretz, later known as Baroness Dada. Her brilliance illuminated the avant-garde landscape, but her legacy was buried beneath layers of art historical neglect.
Born in 1874 in Swinemunde, then part of the German Empire and now in Poland, Elsa’s life was full of ups and downs. Raised in a stifling environment under her repressive father, she fled to Berlin at the age of 18 and embarked on a journey that led her to the heart of the Dada movement.
Elsa’s life was a mixture of rebellion and creativity. She embraced the bohemian life in Berlin and immersed herself in the avant-garde circles of the time. Her relationships went against social norms as she was involved in heterosexual and lesbian relationships. Moving to the United States with her second husband was a turning point for her. In New York, she married Baron Leopold Freytag Loringhoven, and amid financial hardship, Elsa emerged as a prominent figure in the Greenwich Village Dada scene.
Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven was not just a member of the Dada movement. She was its beating heart. Her performance was bold and provocative. She challenged convention at every turn. Walking naked through the streets of Manhattan, decorated with everyday objects like tomato cans and coffee spoons, Elsa confounded the bourgeoisie and pushed the boundaries of artistic expression.
But history tends to favor a privileged few. Elsa’s neighbor and contemporary Duchamp is hailed as the mastermind behind the revolutionary Fountain. However, recent revelations have shed new light on this story. Analysis and research by historians has revealed another truth. The creator of the iconic urinal that shook the art world in 1917 was not Duchamp but Elsa von Freytag-Roringhoven.
Elsa’s bold actions were her response to a world at war, a symbolic protest against chaos and destruction. Her rejection of social norms is reflected in her nickname “R. Mutt,” a pseudonym with deep meaning. Elsa declares war on men through her own art, blaming them for her global chaos.
After Elsa died in 1927, her legacy was forgotten. It took decades for her contributions to be recognized, and her story was pieced together from the fragments of history. Her work was recently exhibited at the 59th Venice Biennale alongside other pioneering female artists such as Leonora Carrington. Elsa von Freytag-Roringhoven’s rightful place in art history is being revised.
Rene Steinke’s biography The Baroness of Greenwich Village and Irene Gammel’s meticulously researched work The Baroness Elsa played a pivotal role in reviving Elsa’s story. In addition, Lily Benson and Cassandra Guan’s documentary “The Film Ballad of Mama Dada” brings Elsa’s life and art to the screen, ensuring that her legacy continues.
Within the vibrant spectrum of the Dada movement, Elsa von Freytag-Roringhoven emerges as a central figure rather than a footnote. Her boldness, her creativity, and her tenacity challenge the nature of art, reminding us that brilliance has no gender and true artistic revolutions come in all forms. As her story unfolds, the art world embraces and reevaluates the multifaceted and often overlooked genius of Elsa von Freytag-Roringhoven, a true provocateur of the Dada movement. I am forced to do that.
Photo: Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”? © Art List 2023
Dada, Elsa von Freitag, fountain, Marcel Duchamp, urinal