Marcel Duchamp's Fountain

Chloe Tredez
Publié le 28 April 2023
Marcel Duchamp's Fountain

You should never say: "Fountain, I will not drink your water". Well, let us say that we will never drink the water from Marcel Duchamp's fountain. The reason is simple, this fountain is a urinal and so... it doesn't need any explaining !

M. Duchamp, Fountain, 1917/1964 (Centre Pompidou)

We meet again to rediscover the history of the most famous urinal in history.

Who is Marcel Duchamp ?

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) was a French artist, often considered one of the pioneers of the Dadaist movement (an intellectual and artistic movement), who gained recognition during the First World War.

He is also the creator of what is considered to be "the most influential work of the 20th century". Born to a notary father and a musician mother, his grandfather and siblings were also artists. Duchamp learned to paint from them and soon began to exhibit and sell his work.

Between 1910 and 1915, when he was in his thirties, he became interested in various artistic styles, including impressionism, fauvism and cubism. These styles allowed him to open up to new horizons.

He then began working as a librarian, which enabled him to document various subjects. Around 1915, he moved away from painting to devote himself to ready-mades, "ready-made" everyday objects that he transformed into works of art.

Throughout his career, he never pigeonholed himself into one artistic movement. He was a "jack of all trades" and was interested in many fields, from Dadaism to cinema to chess.

A urinal in the middle of a scandal

In 1917, Duchamp joined the New York Society of Independent Artists, which consisted of accepting all artists without refusing any work. It seemed ideal. Except that he sent the urinal under a pseudonym (R. Mutt) to the society's Salon. Since no one knew it was Duchamp's work, it was considered a "sanitary appliance" and was not exhibited on the grounds that it did not belong in an art exhibition and was simply not a work of art but rather a vulgar and immoral object.

Then the Society of Artists is asked to vote on whether the work should be exhibited. The very idea of a vote challenged the very foundations of the Society of Independent Artists.

Marcel Duchamp in front of his ready-made

Duchamp resigned after the announcement of the decision, without revealing that he was the author of the ready-made. The case was reported in the newspapers and created a great debate on the value of the work of art.

What does R.MUTT. mean?

The urinal, made of white earthenware, covered with ceramic glaze, has black paint. Duchamp turned the urinal upside down and wrote the note "R.MUTT. 1917". These two inscriptions are the only indications that the object can be considered a work of art. Otherwise, the object would simply remain a piece in the toilet.

Why did the artist choose to sign it R. MUTT? It is not an anagram, nor a spelling mistake. There is much speculation about the meaning of this signature. Some see it as a reference to the dealer from whom Duchamp bought the urinal, J.L MOTT.

Also, the consonances have led to the creation of new theories. R.Mutt can be understood as "Art Mute". In English, "mutt" means "mongrel dog", so Duchamp could have called his work "mongrel art". The initials R.M can also simply stand for "Ready-made".

In 1964

While the urinal is marked with black paint indicating "1917", the year Marcel Duchamp created "Fontaine", it is often accompanied by the date 1964. In reality, the original work was destroyed and several reproductions certified by Marcel Duchamp, during his lifetime, were made in 1964. They were made according to the photograph of the original work by Alfred Stieglitz.

Photograph of the original "Fountain" by Alfred Stieglitz

A link with Pinoncelli?

First of all, Pierre Pinoncelli is a French artist who specialises in happenings. You may wonder what this has to do with Marcel. We're coming to that!

Pinoncelli, is known for his happenings which have landed him in jail more than once, with large fines. He sprayed André Malraux with a red paint gun, attacked a bank in Nice with a blank gun to protest against the twinning with Cape Town during apartheid etc.

Then, on August 25, 1993, he went to the Carré d'Art in Nîmes, for the inauguration of the exhibition "The Object in 20th Century Art". Duchamp's ready-made was on display. Pinoncelli approaches the work, unbuttons his trousers and urinates in the urinal before damaging it with a hammer. Through this action, he wanted to restore the work to its original function. He was ordered to pay for the restoration and damages amounting to around 300,000 francs at the time.

Duchamp and Pinoncelli, Fountain 1917-1993. M.O.M.A.C. Nice, France

Far from having finished, Pinoncelli did it again in 2006. This time he went to the Centre Pompidou during the "Dada" exhibition and, still armed with a hammer, chipped the work. This time, he was given a three-month suspended prison sentence and a fine of 14,352 euros.

He justified his actions with a tribute to the "Dada spirit", which was intended to be provocative.

The character of Rrose Selavy

Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Selavy

Our dear Marcel had more than one trick up his sleeve! In addition to being a pioneering artist of the 20th century, he had an innovative personality. Then, in 1920, he created a character called Rrose Sélavy. He disguised himself as a woman and produced works under the pseudonym "Rrose Selavy". Some people even saw this character as a work in its own right.

You can also find a lot of information about Marcel Duchamp's Fountain on our French programme : My Little Museum on our streaming platform.