Dalí/Duchamp at the Royal Academy
Exhibition Review

Dalí/Duchamp at the Royal Academy
Exhibition Review

Dalí/Duchamp at the Royal Academy
Exhibition Review

Dalí/Duchamp at the Royal Academy
Exhibition Review

Dalí/Duchamp at the Royal Academy
Exhibition Review

Dalí/Duchamp at the Royal Academy
Exhibition Review

Still Life, 1956 (oil on canvas), Dali, Salvador (1904-89) Salvador Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida, USA Bridgeman Images

Open until 3 January 2018, the Royal Academy Dalí/Duchamp exhibition marks the first major show in the UK to explore the friendship and artistic relationship between two of the twentieth century's best known names. A daring and experimental exhibition, this densely packed show seeks to illustrate parallels between the celebrity-seeking Surrealist and the cerebral conceptualist. Their unlikely friendship began in the early 1930s after the two were introduced by mutual acquaintances in the Surrealist group and their bond grew as they shared annual holidays in Cadaqués. The artists remained close until Duchamp's death in 1968, a relationship illustrated in the opening rooms of the exhibition by numerous letters between the two.

The first room, 'Identities', displays not only this correspondence and photographs of the artists together, but also shows their shared interest in photography and experimentation with self-portraits and alter-egos. A somewhat forced comparison is made between early portraits of their fathers, but more successful is the pairing of Duchamp's powerful and monumental The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes (1912) alongside Dalí's 1923 Cubist Self-Portrait – a teetering, tessellated composition which thrums with movement.

A surprising work for such an early date is Dalí's Untitled of 1928, a shockingly empty and abstract canvas for an artist who was painting classically just three years earlier. Coming from his brief 'anti-art' period of 1927-28 in which Dalí celebrated the autonomy of the canvas, a parallel can undoubtedly be drawn with Duchamp, who notionally ceased from artistic activity in 1922 in favour of playing chess competitively.
Stepping into the darkened second room, 'The Body and the Object', the visitor is presented with key works by both artists – suspended above the door is Duchamp's first 'pure' readymade, Bottle Rack of 1914, whilst In Advance of the Broken Arm hangs within the central glass case. Pivotal to the display is the striking pairing of Dalí's Lobster Telephone and Duchamp's equally infamous Fountain. The two sit well together but whilst the controversial urinal was selected by the artist and unaltered save for the signature, Dalí's purposeful placing of two incongruous objects together denotes a different artistic process.

The theme of the erotic plays out through the collected readymades and nude sketches on the walls by both artists, continued by a selection of preparatory works for Duchamp's Etant Donnés of 1946-66. This fascinating project was kept secret until its unveiling, coming years after the artist was thought to have retired. Comprising of a wooden door with two peepholes, the viewer looks through to see a sprawled female nude, her legs open towards us, lying in a mountainous landscape – it is this landscape background that Dalí apparently assisted Duchamp in printing. The finished installation remains at Philadelphia Museum, being too fragile to travel, and its absence is felt. The objectifying of the anonymous female nude is mirrored in Dalí's neighbouring The Spectre of the Sex-Appeal, circa 1934, an eye-catching painting within a black and gold cassetta frame, jewel-like in its painstaking execution and presentation.

The third room, 'Experimenting with Reality', illustrates the artists' shared fascination with advances in science and technology and their questioning of the reality we live in. Dalí questions traditional perspective in his masterpiece Christ of Saint John of the Cross, circa 1951, and defies gravity in his 1956 Still Life – Fast Moving, in which shards of the background appear to fall to the foreground whilst water flows upwards and objects hover. Dalí's creation of another world continues in footage showing the unsettling dream sequence he created for Hitchcock's 1945 film Spellbound.

In contrast, a film running alongside shows Duchamp's Rotoreliefs in motion, colour lithographs designed to be 'played' on a gramophone, creating 3D movement from flat designs. A large case displays his 3 Standard Stoppages, wooden templates created by drawing around the shape that a 1 metre piece of string formed when dropped from a height. In capturing chance forms he nonetheless appears to be exploring the real world in comparison to the dream-like realm of Dalí.

The centre of the room is given to Richard Hamilton's reconstruction of Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass). This enigmatic masterpiece proves a striking contrast to Dalí's more accessible and readable canvases, and demands contemplation - Duchamp even designed a 'green box' of notes and diagrams to accompany the piece.
The last small room is dedicated to the artists' shared love of games, both literal and intellectual. Film footage shows Duchamp discussing his love of chess, and Dalí hosting his 'Dizzy Dinner' in which the artist, dressed as a unicorn, hosted a masquerade banquet complete with live frogs, drinks served from shoes and lion cubs.

A fabulous exit from the exhibition leads the visitor out under a grotto-like ceiling of coal bags – Twelve Hundred Coal Sacks Suspended from the Ceiling over a Stove – in a partial recreation of the artists' work together on a 'total environment' in the 1938 International Exhibition of Surrealism in Paris.

Although the show ends on a neat collaborative note, and certainly shows a true friendship between the artists, there is a feeling that Dalí perhaps comes off slightly better than Duchamp, who sought to create art to please the mind rather than the eye. United by common themes of eroticism and experimentation, the exhibition nonetheless also highlights the differences between the painterly craftsmanship of the flamboyant Dalí and the intellectual, bold experiments of Duchamp who renounced art itself.

Author
  1. Ruth Woodbridge
    Author
    Bonhams
    Work
    101 New Bond Street
    London, United Kingdom W1S 1SR
    Work +44 20 7468 5816
    FaxFax: +44 20 7447 7434

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