Thursday, November 20, 2014

Pilfered Pissoire? A Response to the Allegation that Duchamp Stole his Famous Fountain


On November 1, I posted a short animated film paying tribute to Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, the urinal that he allegedly purchased as a readymade in 1917.  The film tells the standard story: Duchamp purchased the the urinal at J.L. Mott Iron Works, a plumbing store on New York's 5th Avenue; he then signed it with the pseudonym, R. Mutt, and submitted it to the Society of Independent Artists as a prank to test whether they would honor their policy of exhibiting any submission to the exhibition; the work was rejected on the grounds that it was vulgar and not created by an artist; in protest, Duchamp resigned from the board of the Society; then members of his circle published articles in a short-lived art journal called The Blind Man denouncing the Society's decision to reject the piece (a photo from that issue appears below).  The urinal, which was soon dubbed Fountain, is now regarded as a major work of art.  Indeed, a decade ago, it was selected as the most influential work of the 20th century.


Two days after I posted my little film recounting this story, an art historian, Glyn Thompson, and a  museum-director-turned critic, Julian Spalding, published an article claiming that Duchamp stole credit for Fountain from a female artist.  Several people who saw my film sent me links to the article.  Was I wrong to credit Duchamp?  Had I unwittingly promoted the 20th century's greatest art heist?

The allegation that Duchamp stole credit for Fountain is not new.  It was, spurred by a letter that Duchamp wrote, which was rediscovered in 1982.  The authors of the new article have written about it in the past, and it was most systematically advanced in a superb book by Irene Gammel, which I will come to shortly.  But this time, thanks to electronic media, the article went viral (by artworld standards) and has been picked up by numerous other sources, alleging that Duchamp was a thief and a fraud.  Here I take up that charge.  The allegations are based on evidence that deserves attention, but, in the end, I think there is overwhelming reason to think that Duchamp is largely responsible for Fountain.  We can better serve women artists from the period by celebrating the work that that they are known to have produced.


Let's begin with the letter that sparked the controversy, which was unearthed by Francis Naumann, a gallerist and editor of the authoritative English volume on Duchamp's correspondence.  The letter was written by Marcel Duchamp in New York to his sister Suzanne in France a few days after the urinal was rejected by the Society of Independent Artists (see facsimile, above, from the Archives of American Art).  The crucial passage reads:

One of my female friends under a masculine pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculptureit was not at all indecent--no reason for refusing it. The committee has decided to refuse to show this thing.  I have handed in my resignation and it will be a bit of gossip of some value in New York.

So here, we have Duchamp telling his sister in a private letter that he was not responsible for Fountain.  He gives credit to a "female friend."  This is a striking discovery.  When the Fountain scandal broke in 1917, rumors quickly credited Duchamp with the piece, and within a few years that was the official story.  Duchamp claimed responsibility until the end of his life in 1968.  He made numerous reproductions, conducted interviews about the piece and posed with it in photographs (below).  Did Duchamp lie to the public?  Did he steel authorship from someone else?  And who is the "female friend" he mentions?


After the letter was discovered, many art historians tried to ignore it, or explain it away.  The most detailed study of Fountain is written by William Camfeld, who knew of the letter, but claimed that Duchamp has mislead his sister to cover up his own responsibility in the midst of the controversy.  Francis Neuman, who discovered the letter, gave credit to Louise Norton, a writer and translator who was close to Duchamp, and Gammel gave credit to a remarkable artist named Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.  Glyn Thompson also credits Baroness Elsa, as she is known, in her scholarly work, though she gives Norton a role as well.  Spalding joins the chorus of Elsa supporters in a recent book, and this, of course, is the thesis of his new article with Thompson.

I don't think either Louise Norton or  Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven are responsible for Fountain. I want to take up the case for each in turn.  Then I will suggest that credit belongs largely to Duchamp.

Louise Norton was a friend of Duchamp's in New York.  She went on to be an important translator (I read her version of Rimbaud when I was a teen).   She was in close contact with Duchamp at the time, and a couple of facts connect her directly to Fountain.  First of all, she is the author of one of the articles defending Fountain in The Blind Man, titled Buddha of the Bathroom.  Second, the American modernist painted Charles Demuth explicitly implicated Norton in a letter that he wrote to an art critic and journalist, Henry McBride, announcing the scandal.  He told McBride that a urinal had been submitted to the the Society and rejected, resulting in Duchamp's resignation.  In a postscript he added that, if McBride wanted more information, he should call Duchamp or Richard Mutt.  He gave phone numbers for each: the first was indeed Duchamp's, and the second, attributed to Mutt, belonged to Norton!  Norton may also have filled out the necessary paperwork for the submission.  The urinal is signed "R. Mutt, 1917," which is gender-neutral, but the submission card says "Richard Mutt," hence Duchamp's remark that the piece was delivered under a male pseudonym.

The evidence is circumstantial, however, and I am not convinced.  Five years after the Fountain scandal, she married avant grade composer Edgar Varese, and the two remained in contact with Duchamp long after.  There was no animosity, even though Duchamp spent decades claiming authorship, and Fountain-scholar William Camfeld reports that Norton denied responsibility for the work.  There is also no record of any other works of this kind in Norton's name, and she was not a visual artist.  She had no personal motivation to create a scandal at the Society and had no pattern before or after of stirring up controversy in such ways.

It is also questionable whether Norton's article, Buddha of the Bathroom, best expresses the significance of Fountain (excerpt on left).  She emphasizes the artist's imagination and compares it to Buddha statues, thus drawing attention to traditional aesthetic merits: creativity and beauty.  She tries hard to establish its status as art, rather than affirming it as a piece of anti-art, lacking in aesthetic qualities, which was the interpretation that Duchamp advocated.  If she was the author, then not only has Fountain been misattributed--the concept that it is supposed to exemplify has also been been misdescribed.  Had Nelson been responsible, one might expect her to protest both points.  She did not.  Indeed, just weeks after the scandal, Duchamp wrote an article in the journal RongWrong (see cover and except below) poking fun at the scholarly pretensions of her defense of Fountain in The Blind Mind.  Under Duchamp's urging, Fountain became known as an example of anti-art, and Norton never claimed authorial rights to weigh in on its interpretation.

What, then, are we to make of Demuth's letter?  One telling detail is that Demuth does not credit Ricahrd Mutt with the piece in his letter.  Rather, he says "A piece of sculpture, called "A Fountain." was entered, by one of our friends, for the Independent Exhibition."  This is constant with the hypothesis that Norton, aka Mutt, submitted Fountain, but it doesn't imply that it was submitted by the artist who came up with it.  Demuth mentions "Richard Mutt" in his letter, but does not connect the dots by saying that Mutt was actually responsible for the work.  Rather, he says, Mutt (or rather, Norton) can provide information about the work.  This makes it clear that he, Norton, and Duchamp were all in on the joke, and he was giving McBride a lead to dig deeper, but McBride never called.

This brings us to the next candidate, who is currently the favorite among scholars and bloggers: Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (right).  Irene Gammel's magisterial biography has done much to establish that Baroness Elsa was among the most extraordinary and creative personalities in the world of dada.  Her story is both colorful and tragic.  She was born in Germany in 1874, but fell in love with an author named Felix Paul Greve, who faked his own death and fled to America to escape debt.  She followed, and when the relationship ended she married a German baron in New York, who died shortly there after.  Baroness Elsa developed a repletion for her outrageous exploits.  She created extraordinary outfits: a birdcage with a live canary as a necklace, spoons as earrings, curtain rings as bracelets, tomato cans as a bra, a dress affixed with dozens of tin toys, coats affixed with kewpie dolls or cancelled postage stamps, and a hat made from a birthday cake with burning candles on top.  She was also a poet, and made art from trash.  Her admirers included literary luminaries, such as Djuna Barnes and William Carlos Williams (whom she later terrorized), as well as local artists.  She developed a fascination with Duchamp, who rebuffed her with polite indifference (her painting of Duchamp with two of his readymades appear below).  She eventually moved back to Europe and died, destitute, in Paris in 1927.  The cause was asphyxiation from a oven, and might have been a suicide.
Gammel argues that Baroness Elsa devised Fountain, and she builds an impressive case.  For one thing, the Baroness was living in Philadelphia at the time the urinal was submitted, and the submission forms at the Society Independent Artists claimed that Richard Mutt resided in Philadelphia.  The Baroness was also given to scatalogical humor as evidenced by here poems.  Here is an except from a poem called Kindly in Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelazos's authoritative compilation Body Sweats (p. 86, I tried to preserve the odd punctuation and spelling):

And God spoke kindly to my heart [...]

He said =:
"I made--
the foreparts
and the hinderparts--
I made the fart's--(f--
I made the hearts-- --
I am grand master of the arts!

The Barronness also collected stray dogs, including, we can presume, some mutts.  The name also suggests a German pun: R. Mutt sounds like the word for poverty in German, and the Baroness was poor.  The urinal was also delivered just after America declared war on Germany, and Glyn Thompson suggests that it might have been a political statement.


The best evidence linking the Baroness to Fountain is sylistic.  She wrote her poems in capital letters that resemble the words "R. Mutt: on the urinal.  I included an example from her poem Kindly above.  Moreover, and the urinal itself is similar to another piece which has been credited to her, and dated from around the same time: a twisted iron plumbing trap that has been mounted on a miter box and dubbed God (below).  The buddha-lke form of urinal, and the connection that both have to plumbing, suggests that both may have originated from the same hand.  Gammel rightly suggests that Fountain is more like this piece in form than it is like some of Duchamp's familiar readymades (e.g., a bicycle wheel and a snow shovel).  Moreover, the urinal model has never been found in extant catalogues from Mott Iron Works, suggesting that it might have been procured elsewhere.  With all this evidence, Gammel concludes that Baroness Elsa deserves credit.  Gammel suggests that Demuth took the piece up from Philadelphia for her, since he was commuting back and forth a the time.  Thomspson suggests that the Baroness sent the urinal to Louise Norton and had he submitted it to the Society.

I must admit, I would love this story to be true.  Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven is one of the most captivating personas in 20th century art.  Perhaps more than any one, she made her own life into an artwork--she became the living spirit of dada.  She also spoke frankly about sex, and openly subverted the demure gender roles that remained from Prussian and Victorian times.  She was a pioneer of performance and provocation (there's a great book on this theme by Amelia Jones). Still, I don't think she can be credited with Fountain.  The evidence is circumstantial, and I don't think it holds up when compared to the evidence implicating Duchamp (which I present below).

Let's begin with the the fact that the Baroness lived in Philadelphia and R. Mutt was listed as a Philadelphia artist on the application.  This could easily be a coincidence.  The anonymity, which was so crucial for the prank, required naming an unknown artist; a Philadelphia address would convey that the artist was not part of the local art scene.  Moreover, the Baroness was hardly the only artist in Philadelphia.  Charles Demuth, who is believed to have in been on the joke, commuted there regularly.

Now consider allegation that Baroness Elsa would be more likely than Duchamp to indulge in scatalogical humor.  This is probably true, but Duchamp was certainly no prude--much of his work from the needs has sexual content, and there is a photograph of him taken around 1916 seated on a toilet (reproduced on p. 186 of Calvin Tomkins's authoritative biography and below) -- not to mention the RongWrong cover image reproduced above.


The alleged German pun in the name on the work (R. Mutt as Armutt) is also a bit of a stretch.  What is the link between poverty and the urinal?  How does this theme connect to the prank being played on the Society of Independent Artists?  And why would she direct an opaque anti-war message to the Society of Independent Artists, as Thompson suggests?  And why would she expect them to notice a German pun?  Neither is there much to make of the Baroness's affection for dogs.  Had she identified so strongly with these creatures, one might have expected canine pseudonyms to crop up elsewhere in her work.  Duchamp's own explanation of the name (admittedly years later) is that Mutt was a play on Mott Iron Works, where he claimed to purchase the piece, and also an allusion to the character Mutt from the cartoon Mutt and Jeff, which was immensely popular.  Mutt (below) is a dimwitted character who had first appeared as "A. Mutt" in a California newspaper, which soon went into syndication.  Confirmation of this association comes from a letter by Katherine Dreier to William Glackens, to Society board member who voted to reject Fountain, just after incident (quoted by Camfield and reprinted here):

Richard Mutt caused the greater part of the confusion my signing a name which is known in the newspaper word as a popular joker.  "Mutt and Jeff" are too famous not to make people suspect if their name is used the matter is a joke.

To my mind, this explanation of the name is more plausible than the cryptic pun attributed to Baroness Elsa.  At the very least, nothing about the name can establish her as author.


The strongest evidence linking the Baroness to Fountain is stylistic.  One argument concerns her use of capital letters.  An examination of her handwriting, however, suggests persistent stylistic differences.  The "R" on the urinal, has a curved leg, and the Baroness consistent makes Rs with a straight leg that points outward rather than down.  She also regularly doubled the vertical line of her Rs.  Even more strikingly, her Ms are uniformly curved, as if they were lowercase, in contrast to the angular M on Fountain.  Cutting and painting from the the poem that I mentioned above, I've reconstructed what her R. Mutt would look like, if she didn't alter her handwriting entirely (below)--nothing like the one on urinal:


So we are left with one piece of evidence: the Baroness sculpture, God.  Like Fountain, God is comprised of plumbing parts, and it was made around the same time.  There are, however some difficulties.  We do not know for sure when it was made, and it could have been assembled after Fountain as a kind of homage.  It was also long attributed to the artist Morton Schamberg, who took the first photo of the piece and was famous for making paintings inspired by machines.  The work is admittedly unlike Schamberg's--he was primarily a painter--but it is also aesthetically different from the Baroness's known sculptures, which tend to be made of multiple parts with delicate hanging elements, rather than monolithic forms (see her sculptural portrait of Duchamp below).  Thus, attribution remains a matter of scholarly debate.  The work also differs from Fountain in a crucial respects: it is made from a used and somewhat battered plumbing part, as opposed to Fountain, which is pristine.  Also, it is mounted, rather than free standing, and it seems to be positioned in it's original orientation, rather than capsized like Fountain.  It is neither signed nor dated, much less ostentatiously so.


It is also worth noting that the there were numerous artists at the time who were taking an aesthetic stance towards industrial and manufactured objects.  Scahmberg, who died in 1918 of influenza, made many machine paintings as did Suzanne Duchamp.  Man Ray took photos of kitchen tools as portraits, and Francis Picabia drew a young woman as a spark plug (examples of each, below).


There were also others making art from found objects and trash.  Practitioners included Mina Loy, who was close to Duchamp, and Alfred Stieglitz, who took the famous photo of Fountain for The Blind Man.  In an exhibit that Stieglitz curated in 1915, he included an insect nest along side a Picasso and an African reliquary figure (below).


Without a decisive link or overwhelming stylistic convergence, the evidence for the Baroness is shaky at best.  It's not even clear that Duchamp would refer to her as a friend when writing to his sister, since their relationship was rather one-sided; she was infatuated, and he was indifferent.  He mentions her only twice in his many letters, as far as I know--once conveying a message, by way of Man Ray, to Tristan Tzara, and then again, some years later, misreporting the year of her death by a decade.  Would he really have taken such delight in one of her pranks and resigned from an art Society on her behalf?

There is also another piece of evidence against the Baroness in a letter that Alfred Stieglitz wrote his lover Goergia O'Keeffe at the time.  (A 1917 drawing by O'Keeffe appears on the right.)  Stieglitz reports, "There was a row at the Independent--a young woman  (probably at Duchamp's instigation) sent a large porcelain urinal on a pedestal to the Independent" (reprinted in a book of correspondence between the lovers, p. 135).  By prevailing standards, the Baroness was not young; she was in her mid-40s.  Norton, on the other hand, was 26.  This adds further support to the conjecture that Norton delivered the urinal.  Crucially, there is no mention of Norton conspiring with the Baroness.  They were not even close.  Instead, Stieglitz attributes the prank to Duchamp.

Perhaps the main strike against the attribution to the Baroness is her silence on the matter.  The Baroness was quite vocal and she wrote a memoir, which Djuna Barnes planned to use as the basis of a biography.  In it, she rails against her former lover, Felix Paul Greve, for steeling ideas from her, but she never makes such a charge against Duchamp.  She was also desperate for money and begged friends for donations, trumping up her importance, but never used Fountain's notoriety to advertise her worth.  Neither did she mention it when writing critically about Duchamp, which she was fond of doing.  Indeed, she ridicules him for using plumbing fixtures.  On p. 227 of her book, Gammel quotes a letter that Baroness wrote to a journal editor, in which she complains that Duchamp, "came to this country--protected--carried by fame--to use his plumbing fixtures--mechanical comforts."  Gammel is unmoved by this attribution because in the same letter the Baroness says of Duchamp "I am he." Gammel interprets this as an cryptic effort to take credit for Fountain, but that strikes me as an unwarranted interpretation.  The full passage reads, "He merely amuses himself. But--I am he--not yet having attained his height--I have to fight."  Here the Baroness seems to be expressing artistic kinship and stating rightly that she is worthy of fame.  More to the point, she seems to be dismissing the urinal as a mere amusement, in contrast to the serious work she is doing.  Hardly an effort to reclaim credit.


This brings us to Duchamp.  What reason is there to think he is responsible for Fountain?  First, he took credit for decades, while many of those close to the events were still alive.  Indeed, Fountain is one of just 3 three-dimensional Readymades that he recreated in the various editions of his Boîte-en-Valise (detail above), which is intended as portable museum containing his most important works.  Duchamp had been making readymades since 1913 (when he made the bicycle wheel), and he had a collection of them on display in his studio.  There are two photos of Fountain other than the one made by Stieglitz, and both show it suspended in Duchamp's studio along side other readymades that are known to be his.  The photos are undated but must be from around the time of the exhibition, and probably just before, since the original urinal was lost a short while after.  No signature is visible in the photos, which may reflect the viewing angle, but could also imply that they were taken before the work was signed. (Here I am indebted to the extraordinary scholarship of Rhonda Roland Shearer and her collaborators at the online Duchamp journal, Tout-Fait.)


There is also a private correspondence between Katherine Dreier and Walter Arensberg, two members of the Society of Independent Artists, at the peak of the controversy.  Arensberg, who was extremely close to Duchamp and bequeathed his collection to the Philadelphia Museum, defended Fountain by directly comparing it to Duchamp's readymades.  Dreier was unconvinced and voted for its rejection.  When Arensberg was outvoted, he, like Duchamp, resigned from the society.  This suggests that he was in on the joke too, and conspiring with Duchamp.  Dreier tried unsuccessfully to convince Duchamp to rejoin the Society, but he refused, suggesting that his resignation was both premeditated and important to him.  Despite that, he had a long-lasting professional relationship with Dreier.  She was an important patron, and ally in the art world.  Here is her abstract portrait of him, painted a year after the incident.


Arnsberg's resignation adds further support to the premeditation hypothesis.  Calvin Tompkins claims that Arensberg purchased the urinal with Duchamp, along with Joseph Stella.  If Arensberg was in on it, he and Duchamp may have had antecedent reason to expect a rejection.  They would have been privy to the attitudes of the other board members, and they might have recognized an enduring allegiance to high modernism, with little tolerance for radical departures from standard (albeit abstract) painting and sculpture.  Duchamp may have been plotting a prank for some time.  Weeks earlier, he had promised to exhibit a piece in the Society's exhibition, but never delivered.  He said it would be called "Tulip Hysteria Coordinating"--an absurd title, suggesting he was devising a way to ridicule the Society.  He may even have planned to submit a readymade, since around this time he was coming up with absurd titles for those works, such as his snow shovel, called "In Advance of the Broken Arm," which he urged his sister not to interpret in a cubist way.  The fact that Duchamp excitedly tried to drum up controversy about the Fountain affair is consistent with his efforts to ridicule cubism; he was still famous for his Nude Descending a Stairway, no. 2, but had shifted dramatically away from that style, and was denouncing painting--both his own and those of others.  He made his own final painting one year after the Fountain, and it was a commission for Dreier.  He used the elliptical title Tu m', which is believed be short for "tu m'embetes" (you bore me), or something nastier.  The most interesting thing about the work in this context is that it shows the shadows of Duchamp's readymades encroaching, as if to announce that these works will be the dearth blow to painting.  An unsubtle message to Dreier, suggesting his personal investment in the Fountain episode.  Here is a reproduction of the work and photo from 1918 of it handing in Dreier's home.



The attribution of Fountain to Duchamp is corroborated by Beatrice Wood, a close confident of Duchamp who was involved in the affair and wrote an editorial about Fountain for The Blind Man.  In her memoir, Wood provides the most detailed eye-witness account on record, and she credits Duchamp without a hint of uncertainly or reservation.  (Below is a work by Wood from some years later, showing three women standing triumphantly on top of a man who vaguely resembles Duchamp; source here).


In addition, there is a curious error that was repeated a couple of times in contemporary discussions of Fountain.  Recall that the signature reads "R. Mutt."  In at least two places, this name is misreported.  An April 11 article for The Sun (presumably penned by Demuth's contact McBride) indicates that the urinal was signed (below) J.C. Mutt.  Another letter, with a remarkably early date of April 5, 1971, from Carl van Vechten to Gertrude Stein describes Fountain scandal and reports the signature as saying "R.J. Mutts." What's curious is that both of these errors transform the single first initial into two, and both add a J.  This may suggest that the name was learned by word of mouth, and that there were errors in verbal reporting, which misrepresented the signature in the direction of "J.L. Mott"--the plumbing supply story that Duchamp would later describe as the source of the name.

(It is also tempting to speculate that Duchamp had a further more subtle pun in mind when he devised the name.  The letters in RICHARD MUTT can be rearranged to spell TTIR DUCHAM, which is a phonetic approximation of the name his friends used for him at the time, Totor Duchamp--with the final p unpronounced in French.)

All this points to Duchamp, but what really convinced me in the end was a piece of physical evidence: the handwriting on Fountain.   Duchamp normally wrote in a flowing cursive, but he had regularly signed his paintings in capital block letters.  I have included here a copy of one of those signatures, from a painting in 1911:


Several features stand out.  Unlike the Baroness, Duchamp always used angular capital Ms and they have distinctive feature: the lines expand outward instead of coming down vertically.  That is also true on Fountain signature.  Duchamp also has distinctive Rs.  Notably, the leg of the R curves slightly before coming down.  That is true on Fountain.  I cut and pasted letters from Duchamp's signature to form the name "R. Mutt."  There are no T's in his signature, so I used the the bases of his E and L in Marcel, along with the vertical lines in the date of the work '11.  The result is uncanny:


Though I made no adjustment for letter scale, the compiled signature is remarkably close to the signature on the urinal, and neither resembles the handwriting of Baroness Elsa.  For direct comparison, I display all three here: the original, the Baroness version, and Duchamp's.  To me this is decisive refutation of the claim that she devised the work, and decisive confirmation of Duchamp's authorship.


Why, then, all the doubt?  Two puzzles were mentioned, and both need to be addressed.  First, there is the fact that Mott Iron Works does not include the urinal in extant catalogues, casting doubt on his claim that it was purchased there.  This can be easily dismissed.  Mott Iron Works (and Trenton Potteries, whose wares they sold) had many different models.  In a catalogue printed a four years before the exhibit, they show some models that are extremely close to the one submitted to the Society of Independent Artists.  One of these may actually be the same (p. 355 and below, lower right).  The pattern of drainage holes is a good match to the one seen hanging in Duchamp's studio (below left and upper right) and the ones he created for the Boîte-en-Valise (see end of this blog).  Even if were not a perfect match (as I think it is), it wouldn't be strange to suppose that, by the year of the Exhibition, the model had evolved slightly.  The similarities plainly refute the long-time allegation that Fountain could have been acquitted at the Mott's.


The biggest puzzle concerns Duchamp's letter to his sister (his portrait of her, from Sonata, appears below).  Why would he lie about his own authorship in a private correspondence?  The standard answer strikes me as right, but incomplete.  Duchamp writes his sister at just the time when the American press was publicizing the story.  It was crucial for the narrative that the submission be attributed to an unknown artist.  Critics reply to this by asking why Duchamp would need to conceal his identity is a private letter.  Here, I think, we can find an answer in a detail that is often neglected.  Just before Marcel Duchamp tells Suzanne that a female friend sent in urinal, he writes, "Tell this detail to the family: The Independents have opened here with immense success."  Thus, this is not just a private letter.  It is a letter he wants broadcast to his family of prominent and well connected artists.  Perhaps he was hoping that they would spread the word in Europe.  To Duchamp's disappointment, the brouhaha died down quickly, but at the time he was writing, he might have imagined that it could blossom into a giant scandal.  It was premature to reveal his identity, even to those he knew best--recall that even among friends in New York, like Stieglitz, Duchamp was merely suspected to be the author of the work.  He hadn't come out to anyone except perhaps his co-conspirators: Norton, Demuth, Arensberg, Stella, and Wood.  Suzanne, of course, soon learned that Fountain was being attributed to Duchamp.  She never mentioned the letter to any one, which is mostly simply explained by the assumption that Duchamp disclosed his secret to her soon after.


To summarize, I suspect that Duchamp, in conversation with some close art-world friends, purchased the urinal, brought it to his studio, signed it, and asked Louise Norton to deliver it.  After its rejection from the Exibition, he had Charles Demuth contact the press to drum up publicity, and he sent a letter to his artist family in Europe hoping to do the same.  It was a publicity stunt, but also a dramatic way of driving home a point that his readymades were intended to convey: we should abandon the old idea of artist as mythic creator along with the pretentions of modernism.  In a post-modern spirit, he gives up authorial agency and breaks the barrier between high art and lowly, mass produced crafts.  He also abandons aesthetic aspirations and the Salon system, which for decades had played a powerful role in dictating the next big thing.  Given this post-modern interoperation of the work, debates about who is really responsible are a bit silly (including this contribution).  There is a sense in which Fountain was both a collective effort and the effort of no one.  It was a sign that the art-word's excesses has become a kind of excrescence, ready to be flushed away.

Before closing, I want to return to a serious matter, which underlies much of the present debate.  The effort to re-attribute Fountain stems from something important and real: the systematic erasure of women from the history of art.  In some sense, the Fountain story is part of that, since people closely involved, like Norton and Wood, often go unmentioned in the usual narrative (something I'd taken into account in my short animated film).   Fountain was more an event than an object, and they were both key players, since their Blind Man articles were part of the event.  The issue of The Blind Mind that immortalized the work, had the letter P.B.T on the cover, referring to Pierre Roché (a sculptor who helped create the journal), Beatrice Wood, and Duchamp (whose nickname was Totor in those days).  This serves as a reminder that Ducahmp's exploits were not done in isolation, but depended on the joint efforts of of inventive collaborators.

The debate about Fountain offers a welcome opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women artists in and around the dada movement.  Several books on these artists have appeared in recent years, but we are only at the early stages of a corrective (for example, here).  Some of these woman have gradually obtained overdue attention.  Among Europeans, art enthusiasts are coming to know Sophia Teuber, Emma Hennings, and, especially, Hanna Höch.  In Marcel Duchamp's cohort, a number of important artists have already been mentioned: Elsa von Freytag-Longinghoven, Beatrice Wood, Katherine Dreier, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Mina Loy.  Here is an example of Loy's work (source).  Duchamp was enthusiastic about her work and curated an exhibition of her Bowery-inspired assemblages in the 1950s.


We also mustn't forget the contributions of Suzanne Duchamp.  Among other accomplishments, Suzanne should be credited as a collaborator on several of Marcel's readymades.  In a letter on January 1916, Marcel wrote to her in France, he asked her to sign and inscribe a bottle rack, which he'd left in his studio.  Three years later, he gave her a wedding gift after she married his close friend Jean Crotti that consisted of a geometry book and instructions to suspend it outside her house until it was ravaged by the elements.  She took a photo documenting its destruction, and also painted it.  A modified version of the photo, with added geometrical figures, appears in Marcel's Boîte-en-Valise.  I reproduce all three:


Other female artists active in New York include Juliette Roche, Clara Tice, and Florine Stettheimer, a friend of Duchamp's who now has an enormous polyptych hanging in the Metropolitan Museum.  A detail, depicting MoMA and the Met, appears below.


We should also bear in mind that the dichotomizing search for women artists must proceed with caution.  It's a disservice to forever list "woman artists," as if the term "woman" were a qualifier.  We should also recognize a spectrum of sexualities.  Within the orbit of dada, there were artists who were gay (including Demuth and Gertrude Stein), bisexual (including Djuna Barnes and Höch), and transgender or otherwise resistant to such simple binaries of sexual identity.  Duchamp himself adopted a female persona, Rrose Selavy, in the early 1920s, and, three weeks before the Fountain scandal, he wore women's clothing to an inaugural party for The Blind Man.  It has even been speculated that the "female friend" he mentions to Suzanne was his female altar ego.


The New York art scene of the 1910s is far more diverse than standard art history books would have us believe, and that diversity expands if we look to those who were on the margins, or entirely outside the inner circles of the art-world.  Rather than battling over Duchamp's legacy, we can spend effort bringing attention to the works that are known to have been created by artists who have been neglected without warrant.  What makes the Baroness Elsa great is not that she was Duchamp, but that she was herself, and resoundingly so.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Prehistoric Galleries: A Visit to Quinkan Country


On a recent trip to Eastern Australia, I was fortunate to see some of the spectacular ancient "art" in Northern Queensland.  "Art" is is quotes because the original meaning and function of these ancient images is unknown.  What we do know derives mostly from contemporary aboriginal interpreters, who have grown up with these paintings and wall markings.  On their telling, many of the depicted figures are "Quinkans," or spirits.  Visiting the Quinkans offers an opportunity to reflect on rock paintings more broadly.  Prehistoric imagery raises deep questions about the origins of art.


The Queenland sites are near a town called Laura on the Cape York Peninsula.  It's about a four hour drive from the closest airport (in Cairns), followed by a harrowing 45 minute drive into sandy bush roads (above).  Rachel did the driving, fearlessly facing dust, ditches, roots, and rocks in a rental 4-wheel drive.  We were guided by Roy (we never learned his last name), a local guide who works for the Quinkan and Regional Cultural Center.


 If we'd called in advance, we could have travelled in a guide's car.  We were offered a small discount on the the costly tour for the effort of taking our own vehicle.  Roy took us to an area called the Quinkan Galleries, one of several sites that allow visitors, which is known for having particular vivid paintings.  After the long winding ride, we came to a clearing (below), and from their Roy escorted us along with a small handful of other visitors to a  group of rocky overhangs, decorated with overlapping images of local animals, people, and spirits.  The term galleries seemed apt, and evidently there are many other sites nearby that are off-limits, and thousands of others elsewhere in Australia.  Most people associate rock painting with the caves of Western Europe, but Australia hosts the most expansive complexes of ancient art galleries in the world.


Roy told us that he learned about these from his grandfather, but also confided that much knowledge has been lost, and that more might be lost in his children's generation.  It's not surprising that knowledge has been lost.  The images on these rocks are thousands of years old.  Dates range considerably, because these cites were used by countless generations.  The oldest extant images are probably around 25,000 year old.  For perspective, recall that the world's most famous prehistoric paintings--the caves of Lascaux--are about 15 thousand years old.  There are some older paintings in Europe and elsewhere in Australia, but the Laura sites certainly correspond in both content and antiquity to some of the world's earliest images.  This art began squarely in the Upper Paleolithic (50-10 thousand years ago), the period in which painting is widely believed to have begun.


The images we saw may include some that are much more recent.  The oldest graphic elements are abstract carvings (I include an example above from a nearby site called Split Rock, which is open to the public for a nominal fee).  The paintings are in several different styles, and often overlap, with older, more faded images in the background.  The newest styles may be as young as 6,000 years old, which is still a millennium older than the old kingdom of Egypt.  Paintings in these newer styles may have been added and embellished up until the last century, but many of the extant images are well over 10,000 years old.

It is unclear whether the Quinkan galleries were in continuous use since Paleolithic times.  Given their remote location, it is possible that they fell out of use for periods of time.  It is possible, however that there is continuity between these ancient artists and more modern residence of the area.  The local Kuku Yalanji people are descended from groups that date back 50 thousand years, when this part of Australia was first inhabited.  Locals have inherited a rich lore corresponding to the images here.  Their interpretations came into the consciousness of white Australians largely through the efforts of Percy Tresize (left), a pilot, painter, and explorer who began to explore and document the caves around Laura in the 1960s.  Tresize consulted local informants and began to reconstruct their stories for a broader audience.  His 1969 book, Quinkan Country, remains the most thorough introduction.


Tresize collaborated with an aboriginal artist named Dick Roughsey (pictured with Trezise, right).  Roughsey was from Mornington Island, not Laura, but he worked with Tresize to collect information.  The two also developed complementary painting styles and collaborated on children's books, including one called The Quinkins, which was adapted into a marvelous animated short.  It can be viewed on YouTube.  I included a still below, showing two spirits -- I will return to them below.  The film is narrated by actor and activist, Brian Syron.  Another Roughsey film is narrated by David Gulpilil, Australia's most famous indinous actor.


Roughsey painted until his death in the 1980s and his work remains popular in Australia.  He signed his work using his tribal name, Goobalathaldin.   I include two examples below.  The first, from 1970, shows Roughsey and Trezise looking at rock art, and the second, from 1981, shows the arrival of the first missionaries.  In celebrating ancient aboriginal art, we mustn't forget that one of the world's oldest cultural groups fell victim to genocidal colonization with the arrival of Europeans.



According to the current interpretations there are two kinds of Quinkans, or spirits, represented along side the people and animals on these stone walls.  The first are the timaras, who are tall and thin and live in the cracks in the mountainsides (see central figure below).  The tamers are playful trickers, but they are benevolent and protect children.


The other spirits, called imjins, are malevolent.  The males bounce around on their oversized penises (called "tails" in the children's story) and the females bounce on their pendulous breasts.  Imjins kidnap children and eat people.  Here are examples from Split Rock.



Roy also told us that one of the figures on a Quinkan Gallery wall represented a female evil spirit who disguised herself as a beautiful young woman to lure men.  She is the dark figure with delicate locks of hair and large breasts in the center, below.


This evil succubus spirit is standing beside two men, a large bird, and some other animals.  A great serpent forms a framing motif over her head.  In stark contrast to this busy array, just around the bend on a stretch of the same wall, there is a solitary image of a person lying horizontally, perhaps one of her victims lying dead (below).


Just after the section with the succubus figure, there were two rock walls that converged forming a triangular passageway, flanked by more paintings (below).  This area, Roy told us, was used for the initiation of young men.  Consistent with that story, one wall is covered by juvenile handprints (also below).  These are not the only juvenile handprints to be found in ancient sites.  It has even been suggested that much rock art was produced by adolescents.  Others have used finger-length ratios to suggest that much rock art was produced by women.  Such questions of authorship will forever allude us.



Though named after the spirits, the Quinkan Galleries are equally impressive for their many depictions of animals.  Creatures include kangaroos and wallabies (top), dingos (see the first imjin picture above), scrub turkeys, emus, ibises, echidnas, bats (below), baramundi, snakes, turtles, and crocodiles (below).  These animals would have likely been hunted by inhabitants of the region, though there is also a long tradition of individuals adopting a "totem animal," which they cannot eat. The significance of these animals is hard to determine, since the images do not typically show interactions between animals and people.



Indeed, the images are all curiously independent of each other.  The walls often have a kind of compositional coherence, but the individual elements are rarely interacting, suggesting that these are not images of scenes or events.  Some of the images were presumably painted together, such as a group of bats, but many others could have been painted at different times, perhaps years apart.  Trezise observes in his book that the Quinkan Galleries contain at least ten different styles corresponding to multiple stages of development, from simple geometric petroglyphs to naturalistic polychrome representations.  His list includes:  geometric engravings, figurative engravings, stencils, silhouettes, outlined silhouettes, large polychrome figures with light bodies, large polychrome figures with red bodies, small figures in all colors, and large bichromes of men with interior decorations.  He also notes that there are small monochrome figures that are poorly drawn, which he identifies as more recent additions.  Trezise's sequence is surmised based on patterns of fading and overlapping, rather than chemical dating techniques  (For a shorter list, see the image from the Quinkan Cultural Center, right).

This account of artistic development, from simple geometry to naturalistic representation, is a standard refrain in studies of prehistoric art.  It is sometimes said that the history of painting recapitulated ontogeny: we see children progress through stages that are analogous to how painting developed overtime.  The geometric forms in ancient art are often compared to children's early markings, or to absent-minded doodles make by adults.  But various facts complicate this simple story.

One complication is that, in Europe at least, highly naturalistic three-dimensional sculptures appear before there is evidence of naturalistic painting.  The Venus of Hohle Fehls from the Rein valley (right) is 35-40 thousand years old.  At that time, painting in Europe was limited to geometric forms.  This may make sense, on reflection, however, since three-dimensional forms are, in some sense, more like the 3D objects they depict.  Depicting 3D objects on a flat rock wall may have been a greater breakthrough.


Another complication is that some of the oldest paintings in Australia--those of Kimberley in the Northwest--are highly naturalistic (see example below).  They are quite different from the paintings near Laura: elegant, lyrical, and intricate, where as Laura works are more monolithic, weighty and whimsical.  Some have suggested that the Kimberley works were not made by aboriginal artists at all, but rather by immigrants from Africa, who came some 70,000 years ago.  I attended a fascinating and provocative lecture in Brisbane by biologist, J.D. Pettigrew, who has compiled evidence suggesting that Kimberley art dates back to these earlier times, and is African in origin.  Some would scoff at this theory, and complain that it doesn't give adequate credit to the ancestors of aboriginal Australians, who descend from populations in Central and South Asia.  There is also scant evidence of human life in Australia dating back 70,000 years, nor is there any art in Africa that has been dated that far back.  As dating methods improve, we can hope to get issues of chronology and authorship straightened out.


What is clear, however, is that early paintings were created by a number of different cultural groups, not just in different parts of Australia, but in different parts of the world.  Paleolithic rock art has been found in Africa, Asia, Australia, and Europe.   The oldest reliable dates are from El Castillo in Spain.  There is a red dot in those Spanish caves that has been dated as about 40,000 years old.  The paintings at Chauvet begin to appear few thousand years after that.  Kimberley painting in Australia could as old, and the rock art of Laura makes its debut around 25,000 years ago.  In Africa, representational paintings date back at least 23,000 years (the date of the Namibian image below), and abstract designs are over three times that age.


This chronology shows that  representational paintings first appear at different times in different places, but mostly within the Upper Paleolithic.  It seems unlikely that works that spread across the globe have a common cultural ancestry, so we must ask why different groups came up with the idea to paint, and why this happened during the same period of human prehistory.  The puzzle is compounded by a further fact: the first paintings appear many thousands of years after the initial appearance of our species.  Modern humans have been around for about 200,000 years (see the 195,00 year old homo sapiens femur below).  But representational painting is only about 50,000 years old.  If that's right, we didn't paint depictions for three quarters of our history as a species.  Why did we start?  And why did different groups start independent of each other?


One answer is that there was a biological mutation that changed the way humans think (e.g., here).  On this view, the brain continued to evolve after the body and some change in our ancestors' brains gave rise to art. I don't buy this story.  First, as just noted, representational painting seems to appear in different places in a population that is already widely distributed geographically.  This makes it unlikely that there was a single mutation before this spread.  Second, there are some authors who think neanderthals were making representational paintings.  If so, the practice has less to do with our biology than some conditions of life that were affecting biologically distinct groups.  Third, there are many examples of major changes in human behavior that take place without biological mutations.  The most obvious and important are the changes that took place during the neolithic revolution.  These two (including the development of farming) were found across geographically isolated groups.


It seems more likely that the rise of representational painting relates to changes in how our ancestors lived.  The most obvious factor is demography (see this, this, this, and this).  Representational painting may reflect increased population sizes.  Population increases are known to have occurred in the Paleolithic due to changes in climate and resultant patterns of migration.  Around 70 thousand years ago, the world temperature plummeted, causing population bottlenecks, and then, when things began to warm up, expansion began to warm up, 60 thousand years ago, new patterns of expansion and migration were possible (see temperature chart above, from here).  Migration would have also increased the probability of different groups coming into contact with each other.  Such factors would have had two important effects: group sizes would have grown and intergroup conflicts would have increased.  Both effects require new practices of cultural cohesion.  Large groups can be unified by sharing a common culture, and they they can differentiate themselves from competitors this way.  These pressures may have lead to a proliferation of new behaviors, including systems of religion, characteristic dress, music, and visual symbolism.  Population growth may have also made life more sedentary.  It is hard for large groups to move around, and risky because they are likely to encounter other groups.  Setting up permanent dwellings, meeting places, and sacred sites would naturally follow.  These are good conditions for the emergence of rock art.  The transition from portable arts, like small sculptures and instruments, to petroglyphs and painting may reflect this change in group mobility.


This demographic story also helps explain another mystery.  In addition to asking why painting began, we must ask why it remains unchanged for so long.  At many sites (like Chauvet above), we see essentially the same form recurring over thousands, even tens of thousands, of years.  This makes sense if rock art is not an expression of creativity, but rather of group identity.  Expressions of group identity (flags, emblems, religious iconography, beloved characters, and so on) tend to remain constant.  Egyptian art remained relatively constant for three millennia.  Once a population arrives at a stable way of life, there is little pressure to innovate, and much pressure to retain a constant identity.


I noted above that sculpture became representational before painting.  Humans had been making complex hunting tools for millennia, and making these non-functional items may have begun with the emergence of religion, trade, and other social practices associated with large populations.  The revolutionary idea of representational painting may have been a kind of inevitable accident.  As groups became less nomadic and began marking walls with abstractions, they may have eventually noticed that some forms resemble things seen in life.  Representational art reflects features of the human visual system: people and animals are represented in "canonical orientations" that allow for easy object recognition.  Many of the earliest representations are solid, rather than outlined, because the objects we see are do not have contours that differ in color from their surfaces (see the example from the Quinkan galleries above).  Perhaps all groups that make abstract marks on walls eventually see one that accidentally resembles the silhouette of a person or animal, which then gives rise (perhaps over thousands of years) to the eventual experiments with representational forms.  Inevitable accidents could also explain the prevalence of handprints in rock art (the example below is from Borneo, and others can be found around the world).  When working with pigments, it is inevitable that such prints would arise spontaneously when, for example, dry ochre blows over the hand of painter, leaving a hand-shaped impression.


Anyone who has followed recent work on rock art will wonder why I haven't mentioned a topic that has become extremely trendy in that literature: shamanism.  David Lewis-Williams has spearheaded a movement in recent decades, which interprets much rock art as related to shamanistic rites.  He points out, for example, that many rock paintings include geometric forms characteristic of the visual effects that occur when one is entering a hallucinogenic induced trance.  For example, he notes that many rock paintings include dots, which are akin to visual spots that appear in early stages of trance states (the image below comes from Peche-Merle, France).  Lewis-Williams also notes that rock art often occurs in places that are far removed from sites of habitation, and that animals depicted are often ones that would have been revered, but were not regularly hunted.  These, he surmised, has spiritual significance, and representational art was meant to resemble the hallucinations that arise when spiritual leaders enter into states of altered consciousness.


The shamanism hypothesis has been enormously influential and is now well known outside cave-art circles.  But, within cave art scholarship, it remains highly controversial.   Rock art expert Paul Bahn has been a leading critic.  He collaborated with neuroscientitist, Patricia Helvenston, to show that Lewis-Williams exaggerates the parallels between cave imagery and trance states.  He also argues that the painters of these caves did not have hallucinogens, and that contemporary shamans are not known to produce rock art (for another critic, see Alice Kehoe).

More concessive critics admit that some rock art may relate to shamanism but insist that this should not generalize.  Robert Layton, for example, has distinguished shamanism from totemism in depictions of animals, and he distinguishes both of these from secularism.  Then, using the distribution of animals in various regions where rock art has been found, he argues that different rock art serves different functions in different places (Layton's scheme appears above).  He argues that secular uses of imagery are characterized by use of a wide range of creatures, in equal numbers, painted in any place suitable for habitation.  The paintings of Lascaux are deep inside a cave and depict a small range of animals, suggesting a religious function.  But other sites show the secular pattern.


This brings us back to the Quinkan galleries.  The pattern here is secular.  As a visitor, I was expecting the art to be located in places that had overtly special significance.  Places that were usual, hidden when foraging in the area, and perhaps hard to get to by foot.  On the contrary, they appear on any wall that seems suitably flat and sheltered.  The image above shows the setting, with one of the major galleries just visible on the far left.  These walls also include images of many different kinds of animals.  No creature is singled out as sacred.  The Quinkans themselves are believed to be supernatural beings, but for these artists they may have seemed as real as kangaroos: they were believed to be residents of the forest, whose voices could be heard regularly, and whose mischief left regularly signs and introduced daily dangers.  The geometrical patterns appear in more or less random locations.  They do not look like hallucinogenic auras surrounding the creatures.  There is little reason to believe that these images relate to trance experiences.


This leaves us with an important reminder.  Rock art is found all over the world, but each place in different.  Each has its own style and its own function.  One cannot use Lascaux (above) as a model for the world.  Even within Australia, each region has its own character, and within a single site, there may be a history of different groups making work with unique significance.  I mentioned stylistic variation in the Quinkan galleries, and the contrast with the graceful Kimberley figures.   Kimberley also exhibits a second style, called Wandjina, that is quite different from both (below), and there is also the famous x-ray images in Kakadu National Park in Northern Australia (below).



Such variation rock art provides a spectacular demonstration of the fact that human pictorial practices cannot be given a unified analysis.  That is why it is risky to use the term "art" in this context.  The functions that we associate with "art" may be extremely different from the functions of these paleolithic paintings.  Some may have been used for rituals, some for instruction, and some may be ancient doodles.  Were any just made for aesthetic admiration, like contemporary galleries?  We will never know.


Given this diversity, the mystery of why humans began painting becomes both harder and easier.  It is easier, because painting is not a single cultural practice, but many.  There is no single thing to be explained--no human universal.  The puzzle becomes harder, however, because there are some striking similarities in rock art.  If these works lack a common function, why do they arise in so many places and why do they share features in common, such as depictions of animals painted in profile.  I've tried to sketch some answers, having to do with population growth and visual object recognition, but many puzzles remain.  It is crucial that we don't let our search for the origin of painting lead us to ignore variation.  Paleolithic rock art shows that humans faced similar challenges across the globe, and that our visual systems work in the same way.  But we mustn't forget particularity.  The figure from Split Rock (above), with outstretched arms and a gridded cloak, reminds us that each example of ancient art has its own character, its own meaning, its own charm.