September 19, 2018

I teach a writing class to young artists and designers, and for guidance and inspiration we look at the history of Western art and the stories people tell about it. Something we’ve realized together as we learn more and more is that often what historians thought a man did first, in fact, a woman artist had beat him to it.

The first example of this that comes to mind occurred in 2016 when I was in New York City visiting an exhibit called The Keeper at the New Museum. The exhibit introduced me to the mystical and minimalist work of Hilma af Klint, a Swedish spiritualist who by day painted landscapes and botanical illustrations and by night created paintings based on instructions she received from a disembodied French entity who wanted her to record the “immortality of man.”

Hilma af Klint kept these paintings hidden from her family and the public. They were discovered after she died in 1944, along with a stipulation in her will that the paintings be kept secret for at least twenty years after her death. No one in the public saw her private work until the mid 1960s, and it is only now gaining international recognition as being the first examples of non-objective painting in Western art, having preceded Kandinsky’s by at least four years.

Today, I learned of another example. I’d always thought Duchamp supplied us with the first example of the Readymade. Turns out, I was wrong. One year before Duchamp put his signature on a bottle rack, artist Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven named a rusted metal ring Enduring Ornament, thus exalting it from an everyday object to an art object.

My readings of western art history thus far have been ones that centred Duchamp’s Fountain as a turning point in modern art and one of the first examples of Conceptual Art. But even this is contested. It’s possible that Freytag-Loringhoven not only created the first readymade, but that she also created Fountain.

Duchamp denied this later in his life, but in 1917 he wrote his sister a letter stating the following: “One of my female friends under a masculine pseudonym Richard Mutt sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture. It was not at all indecent—no reason for refusing it. The committee has decided to refuse to show this thing.” Further, his claims that he purchased the urinal from  J. L. Mott Pottery Company could not be true; they didn’t make the model in 1917.

Detractors of the theory that Freytag-Loringhoven made Fountain point to the fact that she never publicly disputed Duchamp was the actual creator (whereas 2018 readers of this detail might have a more nuanced understanding of how difficult it is to publicly denounce a powerful man, especially a famous one).

Freytag-Loringhoven was often penniless as she struggled to make a living as an artist in NYC. Eventually she returned to Europe, and died in Paris in 1927 under mysterious circumstances when the gas was left on in her flat. She was fifty-three years old.