Historian pours cold water on urinal theory

Date: Monday 8th April 2019

AN Eden art historian has acquired what he claims is one of only two surviving replicas of an iconic work of art which inspired the modern conceptual art movement.

The urinal Fountain made artist Marcel Duchamp a legend in the history of art, though it is now widely thought it was wrongly attributed as his work.

Dr Glyn Thompson, of Appleby, has now re-created the original installation at his home after acquiring a replica via eBay which he says is unmistakeably an example of the same make and model as the lost original.

Dr Thompson, a recognised scholar, is a leading advocate of the deattribution of the urinal as being created by Duchamp and its reattribution to Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.

He said: “On 9th April, 1917, a urinal arrived at an art exhibition opening the next day at the Grand Central Palace in Manhattan, only to be turned away because the sender, not being a member of the exhibiting society staging the show, the Society of Independent Artists, unsurprisingly had no right to exhibit anything.

“A photograph of the offending article, taken a few days later by Alfred Stieglitz, appeared on 5th May in the second and last issue of an avant-garde rag called The Blind Man, published the day before the exhibition closed.

“And that was the last the world heard about the urinal until 1936, when it was misattributed to a certain Marcel Duchamp by Andre Breton, every detail of whose accreditation, contradicted rather than supported by all surviving evidence of the event, was demonstrably wrong.

“Nevertheless, the attribution entered the official account of modern art, establishing the popular fiction that Duchamp had submitted the urinal to demonstrate that art — such as pickled sharks and unmade beds — we are encouraged to believe, as a consequence, is no more or less than what an artist says it is, and so can be made from anything, ignoring the thornier question of what an artist is, who says so and according to which criteria.”

However, he claims Duchamp disqualified himself as the author in a private letter written two days after the urinal had been rejected, stating clearly that not he, but a female friend, had been responsible for sending it to the exhibition.

Dr Thompson says evidence points to Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven being the original artist, as she was in North America in 1917 and the sending of a urinal to an art exhibition was characteristic of her work.

However, in 1950, Duchamp himself claimed the original work as his own by designating an industrially-made French urinal as a replica. In 1963, he declared another, which was industrially made in Sweden. Both of these are in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Moderna Museet in Stockholm.

In 1964, Duchamp authorised the manufacture of a set of 13 replicas, one of which is in the Tate Modern Gallery, London. However, Dr Thompson says none is a genuine replica, as they are not of the same make and model as the original. He claims the only other genuine replica is at the Magic Chef Mansion in St Louis, Missouri.

“Since she died in 1927, Elsa wasn’t around to defend herself when Duchamp started claiming the urinal in 1950 with the first so-called replica, signed by Duchamp ‘R.Mutt’ in emulation of the lost original, exhibited at the Sidney Janis Gallery, New York.

“Now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, this is, however, no more a replica of Elsa’s original than it is a replica of the Eiffel Tower,” said Dr Thompson.