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Salvador Dali, The First Days of Spring, 1929Oil and collage (paper, photograph, postcard, linoleum, transfer decal) on wood panel, 50.2 x 65.1 cmCollection of the Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida(c) Salvador Dali, Fundacia G

Dali/Duchamp: Royal Academy

18 October 2017 Katie Da Cunha Lewin

The Royal Academy has a bumper line up this Autumn. This recent opening, Dalí/Duchamp, seeks to explore the shared friendship and vision of Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dalí through a wide range of their paintings, sculptures, and sketches in this not to be missed show.

Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dalí are undoubtedly two of the best-known artists of the 20th Century, and both continue to be artistic, critical and cultural touchstones to this day. In this exhibition at the Royal Academy, the two artists are shown in dialogue, as a way of shedding light on their shared aesthetic and cultural concerns and their deep personal relationship. Salvador Dalí is well known not only for his paintings containing melting clocks and that moustache, but also because of his unusual and flamboyant public persona. Duchamp, on the other hand, was not nearly as interested in the public, focussing instead on dense theoretical work, moving through different art forms in order to explore the possibilities and limitations of visual art. This exhibition is the first time these titans of art are shown in tandem.

The exhibition is organised broadly, in three categories, Identities, The Body and the Object and Experimenting with Reality.  However, underscoring this are two separate threads, the personal friendship they shared over several years, and their public dialogue through their work. The exhibition demonstrates their personal relationships with postcards and photographs, but also seeks to invite comparison through hanging works on similar subjects, or placing installations side by side.  This occurs in the very first room - containing Dalí’s Portrait of my Father (1925), and Duchamp’s Portrait of the artist’s father (1910) - and is repeated throughout, as a means of considering the ways their works intersect.  

Many people will recognise the works contained in the glass display in the second room: most notably Duchamp’s Fountain from 1917 and Dalí’s Lobster Telephone from 1938.  This telephone, a ridiculous looking object, asks the viewer whether or not it can still be classed as a telephone if it can’t be used in the same way. Duchamp’s work is a urinal that has been turned upside down, emblazoned with ‘R. Mutt 1917’.  Like his other pseudonym Rrose Selavy, the name R. Mutt or Richard Mutt allowed him to display this provocative work whilst also problematizing and undermining the authority of creativity.  The Fountain is also Duchamp’s most famous example of ‘readymade’; an everyday, mass-produced object, chosen with what he terms, ‘aesthetic indifference’.  Though these, along with Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913), may be the most immediately recognisable, there are several smaller works that are also worth giving some time to, such as Duchamp’s Air de Paris. This playful installation, made up of 50ccs of Paris air contained inside a glass ampoule, humorously suggests that air can be a treated as a historical record.  There is something simultaneously very exciting and supremely silly about the idea of air from 1919 trapped forever inside this glass bauble.  Duchamp’s work often treads this line, suggesting that the profound can also be funny.


Salvador Dalí with the collaboration of Edward James Lobster Telephone, 1938 Telephone, steel, plaster, rubber, resin and paper, 18 x 30.5 x 12.5 cm. West Dean College, part of Edward James Foundation © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, DACS 2017

Surrealism, a movement that began with writers and poets in Paris in the 1920s and was later adopted by painters, rejected the order and rationality of society in favour of new associations borne from the subconscious.  In painting this is particularly felt in depictions of human body, often women’s bodies.  The White Cube gallery recently responded to this tendency, exhibiting a huge range of work that took the Surrealist female body as an influence in Dreamers Awake.   The treatment of bodies is at times unpleasant, such as Dalí’s Spectres of Sex Appeal, in which a woman’s body decomposes on a beach in a beautiful cove.   Duchamp’s treatment of woman’s body is shown to be steeped in the history of painting, as shown in his series of sketches Selected details after Courbet, responsive to the paintings of French realist Gustave Courbet or in his designs for his final installation Etant donnes, a voyeuristic peepshow of a mannequin in a waterfall.  The most visually striking is Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) which stands in pride of place in the third room.  This enigmatic work not only does away with figural representation but almost with representation altogether, the vast expanses of clear glass standing in for the body that is hinted at in the title.

The exhibition displays work across a range of media. Dalís paintings showcase his skill in very specific detail in oils, thickly painted in bright colours: the Exploding Raphaelesque Head (1951) is a particular highlight in its textured depiction of a face borrowed from classical painting, slowly disintegrating.   Duchamp’s famous The King and the Queen Traversed by Swift Nudes (1912), notably one of Dalí’s favourites and his subject in a dense essay in ArtNews in 1959, shows Duchamp at the heights of his engagement with abstraction and cubism: the geometric shapes that lie on either side of the canvas contrast to the more fluid flesh-coloured line that segments the painting so that the painting feels equally dynamic and stilted. There are also some excerpts of their film work, such as Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema, and the dream sequence designed by Dalí in Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945). Duchamp’s piece, one of the only visual works he fully completed combines his love of pun and optical illusions. The full work will be displayed at a screening event at the Tate, but for an example of another work 8 x 8: A Chess Sonata in 8 Movements, completed along with Jean Cocteau and Hans Richter, have a look here.

Though the exhibition is attempting to pull together these artists in new and inventive ways, the relationship between the two, though convincingly friendly, does not necessarily come across through showing their work together.  Throughout the exhibition, the artist and photographer Man Ray also features and would seem equally valid as the subject of a shared exhibition as Dalí - in fact the Tate hosted an exhibition on Ray, Duchamp and Picabia in 2010. But, although the exhibition does not necessarily invite the comparative reading the curators clearly want to encourage, it is a wonderful opportunity to look at some of the most interesting and challenging works of art from the 20th century. It also allows the viewer to see drafts, postcards and even Duchamp’s travelling museum, giving viewers a sense of the artists’ lives in their art.

Dalí/Duchamp is at the Royal Academy until the 3rd of January 2018.
 
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