Marcel Duchamp. The Fountain

What contributed to the creation of “The Fountain”?

Why did the appearance of the urinal as an art object cause a real scandal?

What impact did the creation by Marcel Duchamp have on art?

Disclaimer: These quotes were translated from the Russian sources.


In 1916 an avant-garde trend emerged in literature, theater, cinema and the visual arts — Dadaism, or Dada. The poet Tristan Tzara, the founder of this direction, found the word “dada” in the dictionary, so this name has got accustomed.

Dadaism is primarily a state of mind, a mood as a reaction to events. The Dadaists expressed their protest in anarchistic, irrational, contradictory and senseless actions, declamations and works. The Dadaists consciously resorted to surprise, shock and scandal, and the reaction of the public and authorities was appropriate: the reports of the Dadaists aroused in the public the desired objections, and the events often ended in unrest and unrest.

In the language of the Negro tribe Crewe [dada] means the tail of a sacred cow, in some regions of Italy the mother is called so, this can be the designation of a child’s wooden horse, wet nurse, affirmation both in Russian and Romanian. This could also be the reproduction of an incoherent infant babble. In any case — something completely meaningless, which from now on has become the most successful title for the entire current

From Zurich, Switzerland, the birthplace of Dada, the direction also wanders to New York, USA. American groups differed from European ones in that the American Dadaists did not demand for themselves a dominant role. The main contribution to Dadaism on the other side of the Atlantic was done by the masters of fine arts, in particular Francis Picabia, Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, who arrived in the USA in 1915.

marcel duchamp

It is worth noting that Marcel Duchamp fanatically played chess, that for a long time took all his attention and gave him constant food for the search for meanings. He “carefully thought out” his projects, kept them secret. Painting itself could always be “only one of the other means of expression,” as he once put it.

He was recognized at New York “Armory show” in 1913, which collected more than a thousand samples of the most modern art, mostly European. It featured four works by Duchamp, including “Nude, descending a staircase” (1912), which before this was blown to the nines by European critics. Duchamp came to America as a living legend.

creation of “The fountain”

Society of Independent Artists in 1917 announced the organization of the next annual exhibition: anyone who makes a $60 contribution has the right to exhibit their work.

A few days before the exhibition, Duchamp, along with friends Walter Arensberg and Joseph Stella went to the store J.L.Mott Iron Works, where he bought the urinal model Bedfordshire. Friends were puzzled: why did Duchamp need a urinal? Arriving home, Marcel performed three operations with it:

  1. Placed it on the pedestal.
  2. Put on it the signature “R. Mutt” and the date — 1917.
  3. Presented it on an exhibition of contemporary art.

So, he created a sculpture not customary for that time —  found object, or ready-made. This is a new, original genre in art. It is about consumer goods of industrial production, which only through their choice and representation become art. Duchamp only defines the found objects essentially as works of art.

It is very difficult to select an object because after 15 days you begin to love it or hate it. You should also treat it with indifference as if not experiencing aesthetic experiences. The choice of found objects is always based on visual indifference and at the same time in the total absence of good or bad taste


Фото Альфреда Стиглица, 1917 // Photo by Alfred Stieglitz, 1917

Members of the board of Society of Independent Artists did not know who would be the author of “The Fountain”, so heated arguments about it arose. It was decided not to allow the work before the exhibition on the grounds that “in its place this subject is very suitable, but this place is not an art exhibition at all!”. In protest, Duchamp left the Council.

“The Fountain” was taken away from the exhibition, but on April 9, 1917 Alfred Stieglitz photographed it on a pedestal in front of the painting “Warriors” (1913) by Marsden Hartley. He seemed to argue that the urinal is an art no less than his “background”. This photo appeared on the pages of The Blind Man, a Dadaist magazine, and since then this image has become a symbol of modern protest. And this same photograph confirms the very fact of the urinal’s representation as an object of art, for it soon disappeared. The first reproduction of the original will be made by Duchamp himself in just over 30 years — in 1950.

Even the most loyal fans of Duchamp — Katherine Dreier and Walter Arensberg —- did not take “The Fountain” seriously, either believing that this was a usual Dushamp joke, or accepting it with the same cold detachment that was at the heart of his plan.

Duchamp wrote in a letter to his sister Suzanne in Paris:

Tell the family this detail: “Independent” [exhibition] opened with great success. One of my girlfriends, under a man’s pseudonym, Richard Mutt introduced the urinal as a sculpture. There was nothing indecent about it. No reason to deny it. The committee decided not to take this thing to the exhibition. I resigned and this gossip will now be scattered all over New York City


By his trick Duchamp was going to check the democratic principles of Society of Independent Artists. However, this was more than just a provocation of academic art. Duchamp’s found objects were primarily for a radically new definition of what could be a work of art, how we perceive it and how we use it. They first drew the attention of the public to the importance of the context for the designation and evaluation of a work of art.

Duchamp thus gives a sarcastic rebuff to the myth that passed from generation to generation that the artist is a genius creator. He was more interested in the gap with the traditional expectations of the public from art, the boundaries of creativity and their radical expansion.

At the same time, Duchamp’s found objects including “The Fountain” raise questions about authorship and first of all argue that the choice of the artist means more than the objects created by the artist.

Turning all the established categories used to assess the nature and meaning of the work of art, Duchamp questioned circulation, the market, the reception and distribution of art.

Entire generations of young artists, especially the 1960-1980s, referred to Duchamp and built their own creativity on his fundamental concept: any object can be declared art if it is provided with the characteristic attributes of a work of art (in this case the pedestal, the signature , public display at an art exhibition).

“The Fountain” is recognized as the greatest work of art in 2004, according to a survey of British art professionals, ahead of “The Young Ladies of Avignon” by Pablo Picasso.

In 2008 representatives of The independent magazine noted that “The Fontain” became the first work of conceptual art.

sources used in the russian language:
  1. Will Gompertz “What Are You Looking At?: 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye”, 2016. — 464 с.
  2. Ditmar Elger “Dadaism”, 2006. — 96 с.
  3. Caroline Cros “Critical biographies. Marcel Duchamp”, 2016. — 208 с.
  4. “Surrealism. Illustrated Encyclopedia”, 2005. — 320 с.
Sources used the English language:
  1. BBC News: “Duchamp’s urinal tops art survey”, 2004
  2. Independent: “The loo that shook the world: Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabi”, 2008

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