A paraphernalia of postcards, vintage pocket-sized gelatine silver prints of a ditzy summer haze in Cadaqúes (1933) and yellowed, scribbly handwritten letters in French presents itself as an inviting greeting to an unlikely friendship (so they say) between two great art masters in the 20th century at the Royal Academy of Arts. We see it to believe it: an uncanny resonance unfolds in this first ever retrospective of the camaraderie and admiration shared between Salvador Dalí and Marcel Duchamp, through the ideation of identity, the nude, scientific discoveries and chess, albeit toward vastly different methodologies.
A conversation between Dali and Duchamp begins in the 1910-30s (they were 17 years of age apart), exploring acutely similar themes and motifs that reflected their lives, education and the art movements that dominated during that period. Portraits of their own fathers sit together as a deliberation, leaving their stylistic differences ever so prominent. Dali’s bold, clear outlines of his father as a stoic man embraces the softness in Duchamp’s post-impressionistic interpretation on the right, where scattered pastels across the canvas convey a reserved familial sentimentality. While this repetitive arrangement of placing a work of Dali’s next to Duchamp’s can seem rather trivial, these visual juxtapositions epitomise their opposing personalities – the Surrealist painter as a dandified figure, charismatic and scandalous, while the artist who pioneered Dadaism maintained a reticent disposition in the art world, even convincing his peers that he had left the art world for chess in the mid 1920s. Yet the idea of a persona was never quite far from Duchamp’s practice either, having created Rrose Sélavy, his female alter ego that translates to Eros, c’est la vie (such is life). Duchamp too plays with a satirical humour comparable to that of Dali’s, where a Dali-version of the Mona Lisa (complete with his iconic extra-curled moustache) eyes Rrose Sélavy close-by in mutual admiration.
Bottle Rack suspends unsuspectingly overhead, casting a long shadow on the wall as a premonition to Duchamp’s disenchantment towards painting, and to a lesser-known fact, Dali’s. Unfazed by disillusionment towards painting (1913 for Duchamp and 1928 for Dali), they each embarked on different trajectories that sought to question and criticise this traditional technique they considered limited in artistic expression. A vitrine full of Duchamp’s ready-mades, including his most notable Urinal is enveloped by Dali’s seminal surrealist paintings, initiating another witty banter altogether. In this dimly lit room, we revisit the Erotic – a refreshing proposition to Duchamp’s indifferent ready-mades. At once grotesque and fantastical, Dali’s Figures of Flames (1923/5) renders a darker, sinister exploration of the body and its mystified presence. When paired with plain objectification of the carnal that Duchamp’s plaster casts Wedge of Chastity, Female Fig Leaf and Dart Object achieve, we are invariably persuaded by the artist-duo, unabashedly poking fun at the most banal of human desires yet acknowledging its deep mysticism. Perhaps what Duchamp said is true, that Eroticism can be considered a sort of “ism” in its own. (Meanwhile in Paris, we see a section of nudes at Irving Penn’s retrospective in the Grand Palais, and Picasso 1932 draws on the artist’s fascination with the female body for an extended survey at his year of reclining fémmes.)
Apart from a glib sense of humour, Dali and Duchamp also shared a fascination in science and optical illusions that informed their practice. Experimenting with the multi-folds of ‘perspective’, the exhibition lays bare the work that emerged out of such interrogations on our perception of time and distance. A series of optical interrogations are scattered all around, or rather, bewitching illusions. Dali’s The Bather blurs the distinctions between the sensual body and the undulating landscape, leaving one gazing with a Surrealist-sort of discomfort yet marvel; and Still Moving – Fast Image sets us up on our toes, capturing a frozen moment in time: the moment preceding the second of absolute disaster. To contest the Surrealist master at his forte might be superfluous, but Duchamp’s The Large Glass might very well sit within the realm of the phantasmal. In the hopes of creating a new form of ‘painting’ that negates perspective completely: “[one that] neither has front nor back nor up nor down”, this masterpiece is an abstract symphony of a bride and her three bachelors, whose narrative is entirely up to us to imagine and view it – at any and every angle.
By the end, one almost feels like the incarnation of Gala, Dali’s wife, having wistfully walked through the space and recalling touchstones of the lives of Dali and Duchamp, and their close ties.
The laughter of other visitors while watching short documentaries of Dali and Duchamp’s comic eccentricities enliven the atmosphere. As I leave the exhibition, I am reeled back in time to 1938, the International Surrealist Exhibition, which Marcel Duchamp co-curated and included works by Salvador Dali. Twelve hundred coal sacks (perhaps less than a tenth in reality) are suspended overhead, providing one last departing sentiment of a wondrous – not nearly quite unlikely – friendship.
Royal Academy of Arts
7 October 2017 – 3 January 2018
By Keoy Wan Hui