The surreally wild show
Modern masters Dalí and Duchamp together? In one room? With their reputation?
This is a surprising and unexpected idea for an exhibition. Salvador Dalí and Marcel Duchamp were contemporaries and friends but their art could hardly be more different. Their present-day reputation, too – Duchamp’s art of readymades, found objects and cryptic assemblages fundamentally rethought what art could do and remains at the centre of innovation. Dalí, by contrast, is about as unfashionable nowadays as an artist can be: his surrealist paintings look merely quaint, as do most things that were designed to shock our grandparents.
Nevertheless, they had a healthy respect for each other, and their work touches in unexpected ways. Their painting styles can be surprisingly similar, particularly in their early periods, before Dalí went hyper-realist. Dalí seems to have been one of very few people who knew about Duchamp’s last major project, the installation
Étant Donnés, during its long creation – it’s an extraordinary tableau that you have to go to Philadelphia to witness, bending down and peering through a keyhole in a wooden door.
The exhibition tries to make the case that there are more similarities here than we usually think. Sometimes this seems plausible. Among Duchamp’s ‘readymades’ – a urinal, a bicycle wheel attached to a stool and a bottle-rack exhibited as works of art – Dalí’s combination of a lobster and a telephone seems different in tone but not in technique.
At other points, however, the attempted link is less convincing. Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even is a huge glass, containing two sets of translucent images – it looks like nothing ever created before. It’s very odd to compare this to a floating crucifixion painting by Dalí, on the grounds that the composition is, like the Duchamp, in two separate fields.
Dalí is probably a better artist than fashion now suggests, but to put the high sheen of Christ Of St
John Of The Cross up against the Bride’s fierce and terrible clarity is to bring out the element of kitsch in his paintings.
This exhibition is probably best approached as the depiction of an amiable disagreement between two powerful masters. Though they shared many of the same interests in sexuality and a culture of curios and miniature museums, among other things, the art each produced was very different on the most profound level – what it looked like.
Perhaps the subject here is one for a book, or a joint biography, rather than an exhibition. It’s an interesting show nonetheless, and, of course, it’s quite within surrealist practice to yoke two very different elements together and see what comes out of it.
Above: The King And Queen Surrounded By Swift Nudes, 1912, by Duchamp Far left: Christ Of St John Of The Cross, 1951; Lobster Telephone, 1938. Left: The First Days Of Spring, 1929, all by Dalí