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The Fountain 1917 Essay

The Fountain 1917 is considered to be one of the Marcel Duchamp’s most famous and most controversial readymade sculptures. The sculpture was often directly opposed to conventional beliefs of what can be qualified as a work of art. Moreover, it was treated as vulgar, immoral and not worth being shown to the public. The Fountain was forbidden to be exhibited in the 1917 Independents Exhibition which was organized by the Society of Independent Artists. Afterwards, the sculpture disappeared making the artists create numerous replicas. Due to some evidences which prove that the idea of the Fountain did not belong to Duchamp, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven is often treated to be the person whose relationship to the readymade concept is the greatest. The Duchamp’s Fountain catches the attentions of positive and negative criticism which make the sculpture be in the center of art history.  The Fountain 1917 made an enduring impact on the cultural understanding of art and is worldwide recognized as an art icon of the 20th century.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain 1917 and the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

Duchamp is the most famous for his readymade sculptures. He belived that an artist chooses the object to be art and he did not need to manufacture it. The Fountain is considered to be one of his most famous and most controversial  sculptures. Duchamp’s Fountaint entered the art history in April 1917 during the first exhibition of the American Society of Independent Artists. This piece of readymade art has been so influential in changing our understanding of artistic expression as nothing else before. People’s understanding of what could be qualified as an artistic expression was transformed with the help of Duchamp’s work, and because of Duchamp’s modified background his art gained significance.

Fountain is considered to be one of the Duchamp’s most famous works in the modern art history. It is recognized worldwide as an icon of the 20th century. The missing original, signed “R. Mutt 1918” was made of a typical laid flat urinal on its back instead of the upright position. The 1964 replica by Tate was made from glassy ceramic material aimed to look like the original work. It is signed with black paint. Duchamp used to call Fountain a ‘readymade’, a commonly shaped object considered to be the work of art.

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Dada Movement and the Duchamp's Fountain

At the rise of World War I, a meeting was organized by a bunch of revolutionary artists in 1916 in Zurich, Switzerland, to discuss their future plans for a new movement. There exists an ongoing legend that when viewers asked the artists to name their collection, they threw a directory of French phones against the wall and called themselves d-a-d-a (the first four letters on the exposed pages). Dada artists such as Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Man Ray and others were aiming at never keeping up with the rules of any norms, never conventional and making funny and ironic statements on society, challenging traditions, circumstances and normal items into absurd things. In the center of the scandal around the introduction of the Dadaism concept into American Art was Duchamp’s urinal. The artist did not change any detail; he just removed it from its original place, called it “Fountain” and signed “R. Mutt.” 

Cultural movement of Dada began to form and increase, art experts from across the globe began to understand that Dada wasn’t like any other movement they had known. Marcel Duchamp characterized this movement in his work Fountain 1917, and it had an intellectual and enduring impact on the cultural understanding of art. Fountain wasn’t only a work of art, it also helped to turn over the experts’ minds about art, making it more important in art history.

Duchamp’s Fountain was often directly opposed to conventional beliefs of what can be qualified as a work of art. Many times in his career, Duchamp favored himself in appearance opposite to art, called “readymades,” where he had found a conventional object - like a bicycle wheel, urinal - used in the Fountain - presenting it as a piece of art with a slight modification. This method showed the least possible interaction between an artist and his work, and also was considered as brutal withdrawal of other pieces of art ever created.

It is sometimes difficult to imagine how a usual urinal can be pulled out from somewhere on artist’s decision and remain proudly alongside with such works like Mona Lisa in museums.  In 1917, the year the Fountain was created, it was not considered as a work of art by anyone’s definition. Though in 1918, lots of people had to adjust their definition to recognize it as a piece of art.

Without historical background, from where it started, it is impossible to understand Fountain and its aftermath, like most works of art itself. Dada movement was exactly what people were looking for in art, after World War I, when anti-cultural sentiments were uncontrolled. Dada found its place in a disappointed, itching for cultural changes during disrespectful and conservative actions against a system of institutions which led Europe to collapse. It doesn’t mean that Duchamp’s timing was perfect by anyway - but he made himself an average amount of enemies, making a drastic take on artistic expression. Generally, Fountain and Dada movement had indeed a good timing to transform art and make fun of tradition during a time of rising conventional culture.

Origin of the Fountain 1917

The term ‘readymade’ was used by the Duchamp in 1915 to indicate an object that was not altered in any way, but was exhibited as a piece of art. Duchamp had a discussion with his friends from America, a collector Walter Arensburg and an artist Joseph Stella, about the idea of making such a humble object to be a piece of art. During this discussion, Duchamp submitted a urinal from a plumber’s merchant to a Society of Independent Artists exhibition. Being obligated by the Society constitution to accept all receiving submissions from members, the Board of Directors, decided to make an exception and refused to exhibit the Fountain. After such an exception, Duchamp and Arensburg (both of them were on the Board) tried to protest immediately. There was an article published in favor of the Fountain and convincing the public that Mr Mutt’s fountain was not absurd or immoral and was compared with a bathtub since both of them are seen every day in the shop windows of plumbers.

Duchamp was going to display the Fountain at the 1917 Independents Exhibition. It was considered to be the largest show of modern art in America. The exhibition was organized by the Society of Independent Artists that constituted from a group of forward-looking, free thinking intellectuals who made attempts to make a stand against what they perceived to be a conservative attitude to modern art imposed by the National Academy of Design. The board members declared that any artist could become the Society member for the price of 1 dollar. They also noted that any member could display up to two works, as long as he paid an additional charge of 5 dollars per artwork. Marcel Duchamp was a director of the Society and a member of the 1917 Independents Exhibition organizing committee. This is thought to be a reason of taking a pseudonym for his mischievous entry. By choosing a urinal to turn into a ‘readymade’ sculpture, Duchamp wanted to question the very notion of what constituted a piece  of art. The submittion of the Fountain was considered to be a provocation act, but it was lost after the exhibition. There are still a lot of arguments concerning the originality of the urinal as it was invented by somebody else as a household piece. The Fountain submission was a kind of challenge to academics and critics, whom he saw as largely unqualified and the self-elected individuals. Duchamp believed that it was for artists to decide what could be treated as a piece of art.

Duchamp sent in his readymade sculpture with the required fees and followed all exhibition rules. He was sure that the Fountain was to be accepted. However, the fact that it was a urinal changed the plan of actions. The sculpture was considered to be inappropriate and controversial for the society of the time and was turned down. A long battle concerning the acceptance of the sculpture to be exhibited lasted till the opening hour of the exhibition. The defenders lost it with a small margin. The Fountain did not even appear in the exhibited work catalogue. There are rumors that the sculpture was exhibited only behind the curtain and did not reach the public view.

It still remains unknown what happened to the Duchamp’s pseudonymous work. According to one of the versions., the sculpture was smashed by one of the committee members. Duchamp claimed that the Fountain was bought by Walter Arensberg and later the owner lost it. However, there existed different ideas concerning its disappearance. It was said that this piece of art was broken by William Glackens. According to another version, it was stolen or just hidden. The Fountain was reproduced in May 1917 in the second issue of The Blind Man.

The majority claimed that the Fountain might have been useful in the place. However, the place of the object was not the art exhibition. Hence, it was without a doubt, an art work. There appeared a lot of articles in newspapers regarding the sculpture, but nobody knew who R. Mutt was. The Fountain brouhaha spread for a couple of weeks. On April 25, it was said in Boston that Richard Mutt was a Philadelphian member of society, and he had not any relation to the person of the cartoons about Mutt and Jeff, he just presented a bathroom unit as an artwork. It was also mentioned that R. Mutt wanted to start sueing the board of directors as they decided to remove the bathroom unit which was submitted as an artwork. However, in spite of the press interest, the public was not acquainted with the Fountain. No one knew that it was a urinal as the sculpture did not figure in the catalogue, was not exhibited, and was described only as a bathroom fixture.

In 1917, after the exhibition, the gallery owner and photographer Alfred Steiglitz made a photo of Duchamp and the Fountain. But later, when the original got lost, this photo was of vital importance. All of the fifteen Fountain authorized replicas were issued one by one in 1951, 1953 and 1963 and the rest twelve in 1964.

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Galleria Schwarz edition of eight included the Tate’s version by number two, which was presented in Milan, October 1964. Four examples were manufactured at this time, Duchamp and Arturo Schwarz received one for both and two were made for the museum exhibition. Each of the replicas was signed by Duchamp on the back of the left edge ‘Marcel Duchamp 1964’. A copper plate was made on the base of each work Duchamp had signed, dates of the original and the replica were mentioned, the title, publisher’s name and edition number. Duchamp’s reproductions ended up in such important public collections at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Indiana University Art Museum, Centre Georges Pompidou, Philadelphia Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Canada, and Tate Modern.

When Marcel Duchamp arrived in the United States, together with his friends Beatrice Wood and Henri-Pierre Roché, he published three issues of Dada journals: The Blind Man No. The Blind Man No. 2 and Rongwrong. All of them were small and very short-lived. But, the Blind Man No. 2 is best known and remembered as it published documents which surrounded the Duchamp's 1917 Fountain scandal.

The Richard Mutt Case” was an unsigned editorial, but it is thought to be written by Beatrice Wood and partly by Duchamp himself. Duchamp summarized the objections to the Fountain in a brief response in The Blind Man, he said that some people believed the sculpture to be vulgar and immoral. Others found it a plain piece of plumbing and plagiarism. As indicated in the Blind Man, Duchamp incorporated the name, place, visual and conceptual point of view. He took an object out of its usual place and used it in a different context with a new title and point of view.

It has been claimed that the fact whether Richard Mutt made the fountain himself or no was not as important as the fact that the artist chose it. He took the object of everyday life, placed it in the way which eliminated its useful significance, gave a new title and a point of view, and created new thoughts for that object.

Later, Duchamp commented on the pseudonym he created for this work that Mutt came from Mott Works, who was a large manufacturer of sanitary equipment. But, Duchamp decided to alter Mott into Mutt, as it was too close. Richard was a mere old name which was used by him. Duschamp adopted his alter ego known as Rose Sélavy, because of his false signature ‘R. Mutt’(it’s known, that in one of Duchamp’s letters Mutt was mentioned as a woman). Some journalists noticed that the inverted urinal looks like a female body and considered this as a kind of a game with gender bounds, an important Duchamp’s career leitmotif.

He wanted to undermine the taste by his readymades and turn them into objects of art. In the interview with Hans Richter, the artist stated that discovering his readymades he discouraged aesthetics. Duchamp’s choice on readymades was mainly based on the visual indifference reaction and a total absence of taste. He chose the urinal because he wanted to make an experiment and choose the object which had no chances to be liked.

Duchamp’s motive was to challenge taste and aesthetics. His Fountain questioned the role of the artist as it was an attempt to break the social values and norms that defined an individual as an artist. The urinal submission as an art object was an attempt to kick out the pedestal from under the artist and to destabilize and change the artist’s status in the social hierarchy. In 1963, Duchamp noted in an interview with Francis Roberts that the found taste to be an enemy of art.

The Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and the Fountain

The Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven was a self-proclaimed anarchist. Her personality was controversial as she used postage stamps as beauty marks, wore shower curtain rings as bracelets, tin-can bras, and other extraordinary things. She was a real representative and living artwork of the Dada movement as she did everything to look absurd and ugly

At the age of 40, Elsa Plötz Endell Greve decides to marry Leopold Karl Friedrich Baron von Freytag-Loringhoven. On the way to their wedding the future Baroness finds an iron ring. Later she said that the ring was the first piece of her so called found-object art. Two years later, Picabia and Duchamp arrive in New York where Duchamp makes up the term “readymades”.  The evidence key piece in Gammel's compelling case for why the Fountain may have been Elsa’s idea is a letter which Duchamp wrote to his sister in April 1917. Gamel characterized the essence of Elsa's practice as the one that would confirm an identity with R. Mutt's gesture because her materials were considered to be perishable and the material products showed a lack of permanence. Gamel claimed that Elsa was literally ingested, consumed by her art, and audience assimilated. Duchamp had long talks with Elsa during their occupation of the Lincoln Arcade studios when he informed the friend of the readymade concept. Elsa also told about the proto-Dada aesthetics.

The early press coverage of the affair concerning Richard Mutt’s urinal locates its author in Philadelphia which was the city where the Baroness lived since the February of 1917 in poverty and bathed in public fountains which were a part of the station landscaping, she often slept on park benches. In October she returned to New York.

In 1917, he signed a urinal with the pseudonym “R. Mutt” and confounded he world of art. In the letter to his sister Suzanne Duchamp had mentioned that he was not the author of the urinal that he had submitted to the New York Independents. He spoke about a female friend who had given the idea of the Fountain and was centrally involved in its conception. He wrote that one of his female friends had chosen the pseudonym Richard Mutt and sent him a porcelain urinal as a sculpture. In the letter he also told his sister that he was obliged to resign from the Independents committee as they did not follow their rules and rejected a urinal which was submitted by his female friend under the pseudonym R Mutt. But there are some arguments concerning this piece of art as it seems to be more keeping up with the scatological aesthetics of the friend in the face of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, than Duchamp himself. It is explained by the fact that the Baroness created different pieces of art out of the rubbish collected in the streets. Hence, she is an avid collaborator of the conception of the Duchamp’s readymade Fountain.

Thus, because of evident proofs that the idea of the Fountain did not belong to Marcel Duchamp, the sculpture is often considered to be a kind of plagiarism and sometimes criticized for the stolen idea.

Criticism of the Sculpture

In the 1990’s people were only starting to get used to the idea of modern art. Most of them were not comfortable enough to be introduced to such an art work as the Fountain. A urinal was considered to be immoral and could hardly be accepted. In the Blind Man Duchamp tries to defend his sculpture.

Many of the initial responses to Duchamp's artwork were extremely critical. The object was not discussed in public and could not be displayed. There were a lot of questions as to why something like this should be art. Many considered it as plagiarism because it was only a bathroom fixture. But not all of the reactions to sculpture were negative. There were some individuals who thought that Duchamp’s art work played a vital role in the inspiration of a new generation of modern art. Duchamp was supported by the artist Beatrice Wood who was named the “Mama of Dada” due to her influential work during this period of time. She, along with Roche and Duchamp, wrote a letter to the Society of Independent Artists declaring that the Fountain should be displayed as the artist followed all the admission rules, and tried to convince that the sculpture was not vulgar and immoral.

Duchamp is not considered special - he just went shopping at a plumbing store. There is nothing special in the artwork - it was an object of factory mass-production. Art experience is not honorable and exciting - it is confusing and can leave you with a sense of disgust. But it’s not as easy as it seems, Duchamp did not just decide to select any convenient ready-made object to present. He could step on a door handle or sink. His message was unclear when he selected the urinal, but his other message was clear: there is no problem pissing on art.

The artist triggered the Americans move from realism to abstraction. He pioneered the idea of the changing context concept which presupposed to make art out of everything. Duchamp was not considered a born artist and his career was very brief. Moreover, many of his most famous works seemed to be a joke for his own entertainment. Nevertheless, a lot of critics declare that Marcel Duchamp's urinal is the most important artwork of the 20th century. The artwork was the first readymade piece that was engineered for scandal. It has been claimed that the specific feature of an artwork lies not in the work itself, but in the idea that is behind it. Emphasis is made on the artist whose choice of an object is accepted as creative art. The readymades thus become the focus of a consideration of the relation between external things and their perception.

The disapproval to Fountain began in 1917 and has never gone away. These objections are attempts to shrink the object and its meanings to the functional use. It is surprising how the urinal that is taken from its usual setting, laid on its back and given a signature, immediately multiplies its meaning. For some audience, the object has been unfamiliar and exotic. Some critics deny the Fountain to be an artwork, but they believe it to be significant for the history of art and aesthetics. Others claim that the sculpture is art but do not agree that it is significant. Thus, some are convinced that the Fountain is neither an object of historical consequence nor art, while a few claim opposite (“Unpacking Duchamp” 126).

Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven's Relationship with Felix Paul Greve

Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, a poet and a Dadaist artist, was born on July12, 1874 in a small town in Germany and was verbally and physically abused by her father in the childhood. She used to have some relationships and affairs with people who were involved in art in Italy, Munich and Berlin, also she worked and trained as vaudeville entertainer and actress.

She got married in 1901 to August Endell, an architect from Berlin and became Else Endell. After having a long-lasting relationship with August Endell, in a year she began a romantic relationship with the poet, translator and Endell’s friend, Felix Paul Greve (also known as Frederick Philip Grove), and in January 1903, all of them moved to Palermo (Italy). In 1990, Greve staged his suicide and disappeared from Germany. Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven took part in the fake and followed her husband to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Sparta, Kentucky. Then they moved to different places and reached North America in July 1910, where they established a farm in Kentucky. After all Grove left her and moved to North Dakota, and in 1912 settled in Manitoba. In November 1913, she got married to Leopold von Freytag-Loringhoven who was a German Baron, after she became a model for artists in Kentucky and went way east to Philadelphia and West Virginia. She was considered there to be a bright sentative of Dada movement and even called Dadaist.


Duchamp's pristine beliefs were his own things which lately transformed into "readymades". It is often believed that his objects were planned for entertainment in private, not in public. His art works were created by decision and mind, and not by skill and hand. Duchamp stated later in his life that people could accept everything and they showed it with the Fountain. He defined art as a mental statement, but not the visual one. This approach is believed to rule over the art of the Western world of the 20th century.

Duchamp made an ultimate statement about art’s history and future with his best known work Fountain (1917). No doubt, that he was well aware of the history of art and set some trends. He knew about his achievements, how art demanded technical knowledge, skills and was considered the powerful vehicle, the highest development of people’s creative vision. Also, he was aware of its power to glorify senses, devotion, and minds of everyone who experiences it. Duchamp offered a clear summary statement with his work.

Duchamp may not have made any physical changes about urinal itself, adjusted environment  starting with the bathroom and ending with museum floor - that is what makes the Fountain almost stimulating and unique. The history of the Fountain did not end after its disappearance. It continued with the history of the sculpture reproductions. The sculpture suffered a sort of “death” as the object approximately resembled in several versions which were slightly different from the other. Reproduction attempts are not considered as the Fountain reincarnations of a destroyed or lost object. It is rather an instance of the industrial production process.

Nowadays, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain is thought to be one of the most famous and influential pieces of modern art. Duchamp is considered to be a paradoxical master. He made a complex theoretical contribution and the most forgivable and lovable of charlatans. The artist opened the way for the anti-authoritarian, the slacker, and anonymous poetry moments, while remaining the most disciplined, charismatic, and powerfully individual of artists.

The Fountain was voted the most influential work of modern art in December 2004. With the help of this single ready-made piece, Duchamp invented conceptual art and broke a traditional link between the labor of an artist and the work merit. The Duchamp’s work has become an iconic symbol of what art can be and how far it can go beyond the stated limits. The artist is thought to push the art boundaries of the time. However, it does not matter whether Duchamp’s art is approved or not, it remains evident that its impact on the art community throughout the world has been great. This new and modern style of art has influenced different artists and inspired new art styles. Nowadays, Duchamp's Fountain 1917 has had a huge impact on the world of art.

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