Salvador Dalí and Marcel Duchamp are apparently on the very opposite sides of the artistic panorama of the XXth century. The first one, embracing painting as its primary way of expression, the second one refusing the concept of visual art itself.
And of course, the characters of these two artists couldn’t be more different. Dalí embodied the idea of the star, an eccentric personality that deliberately searched for the lights of fame, with several incursion into the film industry. Duchamp worked mostly in solitude, abandoning his artistic career early in 1923 to become a chess player. The two artists kept a feeling of mutual respect and admiration until Duchamp’s death, in 1968. They met for the first time at the beginning of the 1930s, at a time when Duchamp was collaborating from an external point of view with the Surrealists group whose Dalí was one of the leading exponents. In 1933 Duchamp visited Dalí’s hometown, Cadaqués. He kept spending every summer in this small fishing village, strengthening a friendship that will last for several years.
The exhibition explores the relationship between these two artists with four thematic sections, presented as a conversation taking place through art.
The first hall at the entrance of the exhibition displays the opening theme, Identities. The focus is understanding similarities and differences during the growth of the two artists. The father has been the most important figure for both young artists, and two portraits are displayed one next to each other. “Portrait of my father” was painted by the Catalan artist in 1925. In the very same year, Dalí was suspended from the Fine Art Academy in Madrid for indiscipline (he would be expelled the next year). His father was a lawyer, with a strict disciplinary approach, but yet he was among the first supporters of this child’s artistic career. He even organized an exhibition of his charcoal drawings in their family home and set up his first public show at the Municipal Theatre in Figueres in 1919. Dalí’s father is shown as an assertive, dominant authority, maintaining the control of the room (exemplified by the absence of any background) even at a time of relaxing.
“Portrait of the Artist’s Father” is one of the rare figurative artworks Marcel Duchamp realized over his career. The contrast of this painting with Dalí’s one is evident. Duchamp’s father is portrayed as a sage, old man, more an adviser than a ruler. The style is Post-Impressionism, with some Fauve influences in the way colors become an expression of the attitude of the protagonist rather than a mere description of reality.
The body and the object is the theme of the second hall. Even better, there are two separate vital concepts. On the one hand, the body, the fascination with the erotic and their investigation into voyeuristic and carnal pleasure. On the other hand, the exploration of the concept of art itself, the definition of artwork and the utility of an object. Both artists shared a deep fascination with the erotic. Dali never kept secret his sexual tendencies, often playing with them in his relationship with the public and his celebrity status. Duchamp, reserved by nature, had deep sexual doubts and was fascinated by the concept of masculine and feminine, trying to break the barrier between these two groups. Interlaced with the concept of sexuality is the attempt from both artists to use a common object to create artworks.
In a revolutionary act, Duchamp takes a porcelain urinal, writes the telephone number of Louise Norton on one side, the name T. Mutt on the other side, and sends it to the first exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York in 1917. The artwork will be suppressed, but Duchamp will take another evolution in the project by letting Alfred Stieglitz take some pictures of it, lit as a Madonna. The urinal becomes a symbol of a new way of art concept, a complete breaking with tradition. The object becomes artwork because the artist chose it. The separation of the utility of the common good from its hidden artistic potential is evident. The choice of the urinal, something that could have been used only by males, is not random, and it’s the final nail in the coffin of the traditional art.
The original “Fountain” was lost shortly after the exhibition, but this room offers some reconstruction of several art pieces produced by Duchamp from daily life object (called “readymades”). Next to it, Dalí’s “symbolically functioning objects”. The way these artworks are produced is similar, separating the function from the shape and “selecting” them to become art. But in this case, Dali creates a dreamlike composition, combining several objects in a way similar to what he did in his paintings. This is the central hall of the exhibition, a place where questions should be raised, and discussions should be created.
The most famous of these works is the Lobster telephone. The juxtaposition of two unrelated objects is solved by deeper, more personal meaning. The lobster is shown as the reverse of the human being, with the shell on the outside and the flesh on the inside, allowing it to be protected against the phone, immaterial way of communication enabling people to be in places they are not physically in, effectively separating the human spirit from its body.
The following hall focuses on the theme of Experimenting with reality. Crossing the limit between visible and invisible, between reality, dream, science and immaterial plays an essential part in both artist’s career. The XXth century is characterized by a constant acceleration in scientific progress. From the discovery of the electron to the explosion of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, physics put his focus on what it creates matter on an invisible level.
Dali was greatly impressed by the explosion of the atomic bomb. The way space could get blasted and objects reduced to its fundamental parts left a deep trace on the artist’s mind. The primary connection with physics was of divine nature. In its “Exploding Raphaelesque Head”, Dali links together science and religion, shaping a godly figure with the exploded parts of the Pantheon dome (where Raphael is buried, in Rome).
Duchamp creates “The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes” in 1912. The artwork will be chosen by Dali to head his article on Duchamp for Art News in 1959. The composition combines the interest from the author for physics, sex, and chess (and chess will be the central theme of the last hall). In this opera, Duchamp loses any connection with real-world structures. The shapes are not an abstraction of any real figure. It’s the curvatures of the planes that let us recognize the forms, in continuous dynamic motion. It’s decomposition of reality and its recomposition through external forces at its best.
At the center of the hall the great glass “The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even” offers another introspection in Duchamp’s analysis of subatomic physics. The title recalls the earlier definition of electrically charged particles. Rutherford used to call electrons “nude particles”. Duchamp takes inspiration from this concept and from their ability to traverse objects to create this great opera, a glass (traversable by light) with elements in the act of becoming “nude”.
The last section is a small hall dedicated to Playing games. It is mostly a focus on Duchamp interest toward chess. Fascinated by this game, the artist almost completely stopped his artistic production 1923 to become a chess player. While not sharing his passion for the game, Dali was fascinated by the atmosphere of silence and solitude a chess game can bring to. A result of this exploration was “Two Pieces of Bread Expressing the Sentiment of Love”, an opera composed in 1940 while Dali, Gala, and Duchamp were waiting in Southern France before going into exile in the USA, escaping from Nazi regime.
The Royal Academy of Art proved over the past years to know how to give the right space to every artist. In this case, the target was difficult to reach. It’s hard to organize an exhibition about modern art, especially in case of Duchamp. But the curator Dawn Ades managed to hit the target. Maybe it could have been worth to use a couple of more explanation on the trail to help novices to these two artists, but with adequate preparation, this is something we are happy to suggest to everybody!
Saturday – Thursday 10am – 6pm
Friday 10am – 10pm