The RA’s decision to create a show on the often-overlooked friendship of these two twentieth century greats, examining their common interests and shared outlook, has proved to be a good one for this is a cracking show that’s unexpected and challenging but also heartwarming too for it sheds light on both their personal and professional bonds.
At first glance, Dali and Duchamp seem to make for an unlikely bromance – Dali was the flamboyant extrovert who craved attention; Duchamp a quieter character. But the pair were, in fact, united by a combination of humour and scepticism that led both to challenge conventional views of both art and life. This show explores those themes that interested both of them: eroticism and identity, as well as the role of science, religion and myth and the use of optics.
Though this show only takes up five galleries, space has been made for the big guns: Duchamp’s notorious Fountain, 1917, sits alongside Dali’s iconic Lobster Telephone, 1938. Plus, the RA has managed to secure the extraordinary vision that is Dali’s Christ of St. John on the Cross, 1951, on loan for this show, and it remains an awesome sight. But there is also room for some revelations too.
One of the exhibition’s highlights is the preparatory drawings and studies for Duchamp’s Etant Donnes, his last major art work, and one he worked on secretly throughout the last twenty years of his life. (So secretly, in fact, that the art world had long thought Duchamp had quit art altogether). The final work – a tableau of a naked woman that can only be seen by glimpsing through peep holes in a wooden door – remains in Philadelphia. However, it seems Dali actually created the landscape backdrop to the piece, and that is explored here.
In total, there are over eighty paintings, sculptures, readymades and drawings brought together to comprise this show and the variety is impressive, from Dali’s instantly recognisable surrealist paintings, such as The First Days of Spring, 1929 (the painting that laid the groundwork for his later Surrealist career), to a replica of Duchamp’s Bottle Rack (the original was accidentally thrown away back in 1914 after his sister mistook it for rubbish).
Seeing works from these two artists alongside each other’s does initially make for curious viewing. How do we reconcile a Freudian-esque examination of the human subconscious with a bicycle wheel fixed to the top of a stool? But it is the challenge to the obvious that connects these two men. Both artists were so willing to challenge the apparent and it’s that common thread of challenging perception and reality that unites them – something which is only emphasised by the RA’s tendency to sneak in a few convex and concave mirrors here and there around the vitrines and partitions.
As much as their ideas, there was Dali and Duchamp’s friendship too. They didn’t meet until the 1930s, after Dali moved to Paris, when both were fairly established artists already. Nevertheless, they hit it off straight away and this bond stayed strong over the following decades with them and their partners often spending time together in Paris, New York and Catalonia. Indeed, so much did they enjoy each other’s company that Duchamp purchased a summer house in Cadaques, close to Dali’s home in Portlligat and this private side to their friendship is captured in some wonderfully intimate photos from Man Ray as well as some personal letters.
But there’s also room for their collaborations too, in particular, a reconstruction of Twelve Hundred Coal Sacks Suspended from the Ceiling over a Stove, which fills the last gallery in this show. This ‘total environment’ artwork was shown at the 1938 International Surrealist exhibition in Paris. The full piece is only partially reconstructed here but it makes for a fitting finale, demonstrating how these two great minds loved to investigate and play in their common ground.
Royal Academy of Arts, London, to January 3, 2018
Admission £15 (without Gift Aid donation). Concessions available.
Salvador Dalí and Edward James, Lobster Telephone (red), 1938. Telephone, steel, plaster, rubber, resin and paper, 18 x 30.5 x 12.5 cm. Photo: West Dean College, part of Edward James Foundation / © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, DACS 2017
Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1913, 6th version 1964. Bicycle fork with wheel mounted on painted wooden stool, 126 x 64 x 31.5 cm. Photo © Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada /© Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017
Salvador Dalí, The First Days of Spring, 1929. Oil and collage (paper, photograph, postcard, linoleum, transfer decal) on wood panel, 50.2 x 65.1 cm. Collection of the Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida. © Salvador Dali, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, DACS 2017