Dalí/Duchampby Elizabeth Fullerton
ROYAL ACADEMY OF ARTS, LONDON | OCTOBER 7, 2017 – JANUARY 3, 2018
There might seem to be little convergence between the flamboyant Surrealist Salvador Dalí (1904–1989), whose name conjures images of melting clocks and Mae West lips sofas, and the sparse readymades of Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), cerebral godfather of conceptualism. However, the exhibition Dalí/Duchamp at London’s Royal Academy of Arts reveals strong affinities and a surprisingly deep friendship between the two 20th century artistic legends.
Comprising photography, sculpture, film, installation, and archival material, this compact, four-room show is not about the artists’ greatest hits, although a few are included. Rather it is a dialogue, demonstrating common ground in terms of their rejection of modern painting conventions, their use of subversive humor, mutual interest in polymorphous identity, and a fascination with the erotic.
In the process, one gains insight into the evolution of each artist, from their early representational paintings in the first room to their outlandish later works. Dalí’s painting The Lane to Portlligat with View of Cap Creus, (1921) for instance, could have been painted by Alfred Sisley, while Duchamp’s 1910 portrait of his father gives a nod to Cézanne. However, Freud, two World Wars, and the birth of Dada were to leave an indelible mark on these two influential artists.
An obvious connection is their love of making mischief. A large central vitrine in the second room appears like a Surrealist Wunderkabinett. Among the trove of absurdist objects one finds Duchamp’s 1914 Bottle Rack, his Bicycle Wheel (1913 original lost, remade 1951) and a 1964 edition of the notorious “original” Fountain of 1917, together with Dalí’s celebrated 1938 Lobster Telephone and his assemblage, Scatalogical Object Functioning Symbolically – Gala’s Shoe (1930).
Dalí and Duchamp are believed to have met around 1930. Grainy black and white photos from 1933 and 1958 testify to the longevity and strength of their bond, as we see them relaxing with Gala, Dalí’s muse and wife, at the beach in Cadaqués, Spain, near where Dalí had a studio.
Both men famously experimented with self-representation. While Dalí’s creation of his exhibitionist persona is well known, the show makes clear that the outwardly reserved Duchamp equally constructed his own image as a-former-artist-turned-chess-player after he abandoned painting in 1914. Both played with gender to suggest a fluid notion of identity. Duchamp’s photos of himself as his female alter ego Rrose Sélavy (the surname being a pun on the French ‘c’est la vie’ or ‘that’s life’), and Dalí in his pointy moustache and exaggeratedly dandified outfits. Dalí also signed his works Gala-Salvador Dalí at times, and assigned male and female genitalia to his subjects. Indeed, Dalí’s signature moustache bears a striking resemblance to that cheekily drawn one by Duchamp on the nearby print of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, which he called L.H.O.O.Q. (1919), a pun this time on the French pronunciation of the letters ‘Elle a chaud au cul’, “She Has A Hot Ass.”
This gender-bending is perhaps one manifestation of both men’s obsession with the erotic. Dalí embraced with gusto the Freudian exploration of the subconscious and repressed desire, as witnessed by the profusion of hardcore sketches and paintings of masturbation and big-breasted women—often portrayed without faces—in his oeuvre, where sex looms large—and tacky. Although Duchamp was more restrained in his treatment of the erotic, his mechanical depiction of seduction in The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass, 1915–23) and his voyeuristic peep-hole installation Étant Donnés (1946–66)—depicting a headless nude sprawled in a landscape—would similarly seem to indicate less than progressive attitudes in their objectification of women. Studies for Étant Donnés and a reconstruction of The Large Glass, made by the British artist Richard Hamilton for a Tate retrospective of Duchamp in 1966, are on display here. [The original, now housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was too fragile to travel after it was accidentally shattered in 1926 and then restored by Duchamp].
Of course, perception and ways of looking became a major issue in the 20th century and both Dalí and Duchamp employed optical illusion in their experiments with scientific ideas. Dalí painted several stereoscopic and anamorphic renderings of scenes. His mastery of optical tricks is evident in the painting Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach (1938) in which elements such as a dog, a face, a bowl of fruit variously loom out of the landscape depending on the viewer’s perspective. Duchamp also investigated optics, as in his film Anemic Cinema, produced in 1926 in collaboration with Man Ray and Marc Allégret, featuring rotating discs that appeared to pulsate.
Despite their different aesthetic styles, the older Duchamp clearly admired Dalí’s penchant for spectacle. When co-organizing the 1960–61 “International Surrealist Exhibition” in New York, Duchamp insisted on including (against the Surrealists’ wishes) Dalí’s 1958 painting The Sistine Madonna, depicting Raphael’s Sistine Chapel portrait of the virgin within an enlarged photo of Pope John XXIII’s ear rendered in half-tone dots (anticipating Lichtenstein's Ben-Day Dot paintings). And in 1961, Duchamp helped his friend stage a Surrealist Bullfight in Spain in Dalí’s honor complete with an exploding golden artificial bull for the grand finale—a clip of which is on view here.
Overall, the show conveys the verve and iconoclasm of both men’s approach to art and, more generally, to social convention. And while it is illuminating to learn of their friendship and artistic parallels on so many levels, Dalí’s work pales beside the intellectual rigor of Duchamp.
Elizabeth Fullerton is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.