Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain is one of his most iconic readymades and a masterpiece of twentieth century art. In this article, Singulart explores the concept of the readymade and the history of Fountain in the context of Duchamp’s life.
Who was Marcel Duchamp?
Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) was born in Blainville, Normandy in a family where all his siblings also became artists. From 1904-1905 he studied at the Académie Julian and his early paintings were influenced by Matisse, Fauvism and Post-Impressionism. In 1911, he developed his own style of Cubism, which was equally Futurist in its inspirations and which is characterised by his 1912 work, Nude Descending a Staircase. From 1913, Duchamp rejected what he described as “retinal” art and began to make “readymades”. The readymades were appropriated everyday objects, which Duchamp used to question the notion of art and to remove the notions of adoration and attraction surrounding art which he found unnecessary. His first readymade was the 1913 version of Bicycle Wheel, in which he mounted a wheel on a wooden stool. Another of his most famous readymades was Fountain, which was made up of a urinal signed R. Mutt. Duchamp’s readymades had a huge influence on the conventional understanding of art and paved the way for many other revolutionary artists to follow.
After the outbreak of World War I, most of Duchamp’s friends left Paris to serve at the Front, however Duchamp, who was exempt from service due to a heart murmur, decided to emigrate to America. After the success of Nude Descending a Staircase, Duchamp was able to finance the move himself and was met with relative celebrity upon his arrival in New York. During this time, along with the artist Francis Picabia, he was part of the New York Dada group and he developed his ideas around “anti-art” and kinetic art that he had already begun with the readymades.
Duchamp also worked under pseudonyms, such as Rrose Sélavy, which he used in addition to his readymades to question the romanticisation of the artist figure. He was also interested in music and made several compositions based on chance which influenced the work of John Cage in the 1950’s. From 1918, Duchamp largely stopped producing art and began to play chess. He traveled to Buenos Aires to play and then continued to live between Paris and New York, living more permanently in Greenwich Village from 1942, where he was more of a consultant to artists, dealers and collectors. He died in 1968 at his home in Neuilly-sur-Seine in France.
What is Fountain?
Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain is one of his most famous readymades and is renowned as an iconic piece of twentieth century art. Fountain consists of a urinal displayed on its back and signed “R.Mutt 1917” in black paint. Duchamp explained the choice of R.Mutt, stating: “Mutt comes from Mott Works, the name of a large sanitary equipment manufacturer. But Mott was too close so I altered it to Mutt, after the daily cartoon strip “Mutt and Jeff” which appeared at the time, and with which everyone was familiar. Thus, from the start, there was an interplay of Mutt: a fat little funny man, and Jeff: a tall thin man… I wanted any old name. And I added Richard [French slang for money-bags]. That’s not a bad name for a pissotière. Get it? The opposite of poverty. But not even that much, just R. MUTT”.
Duchamp claimed that the idea for Fountain was inspired by a conversation with the art collector Walter Arensberg and the artist Joseph Stella, which led him to purchase and sign a urinal and submit it to the Society of Independent Artists in New York. Despite the fact that the Society was supposed to accept all works by all artists who were part of the society and Duchamp himself was on the board of Directors, the board rejected Fountain and refused to include it in the exhibition for numerous reasons. This caused a scandal and in the Dada magazine produced by Duchamp and his friends, they defended the work, writing: “Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.”
Despite all the controversy surrounding its exhibition, Fountain went on to become one of Duchamp’s most iconic readymades and one of the most influential works of art of the twentieth century, questioning what constitutes a work of art.