Taking the Piss

Urinating standing up has always been the privilege of men. Whenever I can, I take a leak in one of those old public pissoirs in Amsterdam. I have always found them very convenient and it is fascinating observing how some people tend to be embarrassed by them. Some women even giggle when a man goes in. This privilege was made iconic in art by Fountain (1917), a urinal by Marcel Duchamp. The infamous artwork used to be seen as another tasteless Dadaist joke. However, it became one of the most important art objects of the 20th century. So much so, that several replicas of it are on display in major museums around the world, such as the MoMA in New York and the Tate Modern in London.

Like a submerging artist, the urinal plunged to the depths. Eventually, it resurfaced to claim its position as a modern art icon. The artwork didn’t affect art much until the 1950s and 1960s, when a new generation of artists rediscovered the readymade and began to create new work informed by its concept. Hailed as paradigmatic, the work was reconsidered as a turning point in art. It questioned the whole art making business. Anyone could just choose something out of ordinary life and claim it as art. Of course, If you happened to be a better-known artist, that is. For the submerging nobodies, it was and still is a pointless gesture. By appropriating stuff, Duchamp became one of the most important artists of the last century. Nevertheless, his best appropriation act was in fact the urinal itself. Apparently, he did not conceive it. It was actually “created” by German Dadaist artist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.

A few months ago, when I first came across the news that Duchamp was not the author of Fountain I was shocked. I could not believe it. Such a masculine work. No! How could it have happened? Not it too! Well, in a recent article by writer Theo Paijmans published in the summer edition of the art magazine See All This, Duchamp committed his ‘brutal act’ against Baroness Elsa in the 1960s when he claimed the work. Until then, he had not officially confirmed nor denied his authorship. Paijmans’ compelling evidence shows that the urinal is by Baroness Elsa. She acquired the vessel and signed it ‘R. Mutt’ suggesting the idea of poverty (Armut in German), a concept that was later developed by the artists of the Italian movement Arte Povera (poor art). Baroness Elsa submitted the work to the inaugural exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York. As it is well-known, the urinal was rejected, an act that annoyed Duchamp deeply. Baroness Elsa was a close friend. Did Duchamp know that she was the artist who submitted it anonymously? Probably yes. The thing is, she has been unfairly portrayed as a crazy lady, treated in that Victorian way when women were threatened to be colonised by men.

The attribution of the work to Marcel Duchamp was challenged before. Its attribution to Baroness Elsa is vehemently denied by the major museums and the art-market for obvious reasons. Of course, they don’t want to see Duchamp’s liquidity flushed down the drain. The notion of Duchamp as a creator of the urinal is so deeply engrained in the normative art-historical discourse that the main question is: how will it all play out? What would have happened to the readymade if he had not claimed it? In any case, this “new” narrative must be taken into account. In the current climate, this misattribution can no longer be ignored. I always believed that eventually history vindicates people. Many ideas and things that get buried under tons of cultural trash or favouritism eventually gets dragged back up again. Who is taking the piss now?!


Fountain (1917) photographed by Alfred Stieglitz


Inexact replica of Fountain (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art), photo by Kim Traynor


Iconic Amsterdam Urinoir (2018) photographed by Marcelo de Melo



Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven | Fountain | Marcel Duchamp | Dada | Readymade | Society of Independent Artists | Alfred StieglitzKim Traynor | Pissoir | Me Too | Tate Modern | MoMA | Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art | Urination


2 thoughts on “Taking the Piss

    1. Thanks 🙂
      It’s so embarrassing to think that Duchamp was already in his seventies when he consciously decided to claim authorship of the urinal. Duchamp was such a douche! She was already dead and could not defend herself.


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