Duchamp’s Fountain: The practical joke that launched an artistic revolution

Three men met for lunch in New York early in April 1917. They were the American painter Joseph Stella, Walter Arensberg, a wealthy collector later obsessed by the notion that Bacon wrote Shakespeare, and Marcel Duchamp. After a convivial and talkative meal, they made their way to the JL Mott Ironworks, a plumbing suppliers situated at 118 Fifth Avenue.

Duchamp’s Fountain: The practical joke that launched an artistic revolution

Martin Gayford

Martin Gayford tells the fascinating story behind Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, a key exhibit at a new Tate Modern show

Three men met for lunch in New York early in April 1917. They were the American painter Joseph Stella, Walter Arensberg, a wealthy collector later obsessed by the notion that Bacon wrote Shakespeare, and Marcel Duchamp. After a convivial and talkative meal, they made their way to the JL Mott Ironworks, a plumbing suppliers situated at 118 Fifth Avenue.

Once there, Duchamp selected a “Bedfordshire” model porcelain urinal. On returning to his studio he turned it through 90 degrees, so that it rested on its back, signed it, “R. MUTT 1917”, and entitled this new work Fountain.

Thus was begun the existence of one of the most influential art works of the 20th century. Fountain will be a crucial item in the forthcoming exhibition, Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia, at Tate Modern. Or at least a replica of it will, because one of the most piquant aspects of the history of this celebrated object is that the original was seen by only a handful of people, never publicly exhibited, and vanished shortly after that selection, signing and christening in 1917.

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