Dalí/Duchamp: What is Art?

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Robert Descharnes, Duchamp and Dalí playing chess during filming for A Soft Self-Portrait, directed by Jean-Christophe Averty (detail), 1966.

The first major exhibition of its kind, the Royal Academy is exploring the artistic and personal relationship between two of the world’s greatest 20th-century artists. Although their artwork may appear to be total opposites – one rejecting painting whilst the other excels at it – Salvador Dalí and Marcel Duchamp bonded over their mutual interests, humour and scepticism, which provided the basis for a lifelong friendship. Most importantly, however, were their unconventional views of art; and this is the reason why the RA is honouring the two artists with a joint display of their work.

Although a lot smaller than other exhibitions the RA has curated, the Dalí/Duchamp attraction is structured thematically into four components: Identities; The Body and the Object; Experimenting with Reality; and Playing Games. Despite their obvious contrariety in terms of artistic style, the RA aims to show Dalí and Duchamp in a new perspective and provoke the question: what is art?

Salvador Dalí (1904-89) was a Spanish painter, designer and filmmaker who was initially influenced by various art styles such as Cubism, Futurism and Metaphysical Painting. By 1929, however, Dalí had joined the newly created Surrealism group.

Dalí liked to be in the limelight and his resulting celebrity status rapidly earned him the recognition as the face of Surrealism. Surrealism, however, was a revolution led by the French poet André Breton (1896-1966) who wanted to challenge the conventions of society. Largely influenced by the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the group of writers, poets and (later) artists were interested in expressing the subconscious mind rather than the reality of everyday life.

Adopting many Surrealist ideas in his artwork, Dalí developed them further in an attempt to make them more positive. One method he titled “Critical Paranoia” which involved the combination of imagery based on his dreams and fantasies with the natural appearance of the world. It is this notion that most of Dalí’s iconic paintings stemmed, full of optical illusions that appear dream-like or hallucinatory – what Dalí termed “hand-painted dream photographs”.

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) was a French-born artist and art theorist who spent the majority of his life in the United States. In contrast to Dalí, Duchamp was a more private character, sometimes disappearing from the art scene for lengthy periods at a time. As a result, his artistic output was small in comparison to other creators of the era.

In 1915, along with Man Ray (1890-1976), who also features in this exhibition, Duchamp formed the movement known as Dada. This movement was established shortly after the First World War and was initially politically oriented.

“The beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of art, but of disgust.” – Tristan Tzara, poet, 1896-1963

Dadaists were often referred to as creators of “anti-art”, combining collage, poetry and other visual methods full of satirical nonsense. This was their attack on the beliefs and values imposed upon society, which they emphasised through their use of non-traditional materials.

Duchamp’s main contribution to Dadaism was his collection of “readymades” – objects consisting of mass-produced articles isolated from their intentional function and displayed as a work of art.

Later, although he never created any art for the movement, Duchamp became an advocate for Surrealism. Members welcomed him into the fold in appreciation of his controversial readymades, which resonated with their ideologies. It is from this connection that Duchamp and Dalí met and formed a long-lasting friendship.

“Is it possible to make works, which are not works of art?” – Duchamp, 1913

The first two sections of the exhibition (Identities and The Body and the Object) contain some of the lesser known works of the two artists. It took a while for Dalí to establish his iconic style of dreamlike, surreal scenes, beginning his career by copying old master paintings. He proved himself to be a talented draughtsman but felt that by appropriating styles from other artists, he was not producing original art. Dalí went through an experimental period before settling on the technique for which he became famous.

Duchamp, on the other hand, experimented with identity in a more literal sense. Although Marcel Duchamp (born Henri-Robert-Marcel Duchamp) is the name he is remembered by, he operated under a selection of pseudonyms. The most significant of these is the alter ego he began assuming in the 1920s, Rrose Sélavy [misspelling intentional]. Going as far as cross-dressing, Duchamp switched between his two identities throughout his career, frequently altering his persona to fit with a particular piece of work. “I wanted to change identity … suddenly I had an idea: why not change sex? It’s much simpler!” (Duchamp, 1967)

Although it was Duchamp who become famous for his readymades, both went through periods of creating assemblages rather than paintings. Many of these are displayed in glass cases at the Royal Academy, including Dalí’s Lobster Telephone (1936). Some, if not all, of these examples are contentious, provoking the viewer to question what art is. But, more significantly, these objects create a sense of unease within the gallery.

Both Dalí and Duchamp openly expressed erotic themes in their creations. Whilst these may not be explicit, created by combining everyday objects, they are suggestive enough to make the audience feel uncomfortable. And for those who do not discern the references, the RA has provided captions and information to enlighten you.

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Fountain, 1917 (replica 1964) Duchamp

Amongst the collection of readymades is Duchamp’s most controversial work – perhaps the most controversial artwork of the 20th-century. Apart from the addition of a signature, what people initially see is a basic porcelain urinal positioned horizontally (on its side), however, this is actually the influential Fountain (1917) that sparked the debate about what can be considered art.

In order to remain anonymous (at least at the time), Duchamp signed the urinal with a pseudonym, R. Mutt and submitted it to an exhibition at the Society of Independent Artists in New York. Despite paying the $6 entry fee, the organisers remained unimpressed and were convinced Duchamp was (to pardon the term) “taking the piss”.

In his defence, Duchamp wrote an unsigned letter to The Blind Man magazine titled “The Richard Mutt Case” in which he argued, “Whether or not Mr Mutt made it with his own hands has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an everyday article, placed it so that its usual significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – and created a new thought for that object.”

The Royal Academy provides a copy of the article but says no more on the subject, leaving it up to visitors to form their own opinion. It is possible to argue both sides of the is-it-art-dilemma and, being a subjective topic, there is no right answer.

It is Salvador Dalí who steals the show in the final sections of the exhibition. Perhaps because it is easier to understand and appreciate a painting as art, opposed to a readymade, you are immediately drawn to the large-scale canvases adorning the brightly lit walls of the Weston Galleries. The range of artworks span Dalí’s career and include his first undertaking of the Surrealist style. Les premier jours du printemps or The First Days of Spring (1929) was painted within the first few years of the movement’s inception, however, says more about Dalí’s persona than it does the doctrines set out by André Breton.

The empty landscape is an allusion to the beach-like area in which Dalí grew up in Catalonia, Spain, which he has filled with motifs that would eventually become a key feature of his iconography in future paintings. Amongst these mythical creations are a fish emerging from a tree and a grasshopper attached to a human head.

Centred in the middle of the painting is a photograph of Dalí as a young boy, implying that the painting is about him and not, as the title suggests, the literal beginning of spring. It has been suggested that the figures of man and boy represent the growing distance between Dalí and his father who was displeased with his son’s choice of profession. On the horizon, a man and child can be seen holding hands, but further forward on the left, a man sits with his back to the scene behind him.

Other paintings produced later in Dalí career are more recognisable than his first surrealist endeavour. Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach (1938) conforms to the optical illusion style that Dalí is renowned for, in which the entire composition is made up of components that produce more than one scene. This cleverly constructed painting appears to be both a dish of pears and a phantasmal face floating above a beach (possibly another reference to Dalí’s home country). However, this is not the only illusion; what could be rocks or mountains becomes a dog’s head with a bridge and beach making its collar and nose. There are also a handful of motifs typical in a Dalí painting.

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Christ of Saint John of the Cross by Salvador Dalí, 1951.

One large painting that catches the eyes of visitors as they enter the room is Christ of Saint John of the Cross completed by Dalí in 1951. Still appertaining to the style of Surrealism (despite Dalí having left the group in the 1940s), this artwork is remarkably different from his other works. Although it is not the only Dalí painting to contain religious iconography, it is not a theme usually associated with the artist.

Dalí has based the painting on a drawing by the 16th-century Spanish friar John of the Cross. It depicts the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in a darkened sky, looking over a body of water in which fishermen are working – a reference to his disciples, perhaps.

Many artists have painted the crucifixion but Dalí’s version is quite different. Ignoring the placement of the cross and scenery, which is, of course, unusual, the painting lacks any nails, blood or crown of thorns. Dalí claimed to have a dream in which the importance of the lack of these features was revealed to him, as well as the exaggerated angle of the cross.

“In the first place, in 1950, I had a ‘cosmic dream’ in which I saw this image in colour and which in my dream represented the ‘nucleus of the atom.’ This nucleus later took on a metaphysical sense; I considered it ‘the very unity of the universe,’ the Christ!” – Dalí

Apart from its striking tones and realistic imagery, Christ of Saint John of the Cross attracts attention because it is one of the least expected images to see in an exhibition about Dalí and Duchamp. The movements they are associated with – Dada and Surrealism – both rejected systems of belief including religion, therefore to see an image of Christ on such a grand scale is very surprising. This may reflect back to his childhood, being brought up by his devout Catholic mother, and slowly becoming estranged from his atheist father, but this is only speculation.

Visitors may have preconceived ideas about what they will see at the Royal Academy’s Dalí/Duchamp exhibition. They are the type of artist people either like or do not, and there is the added issue of whether their work can be understood. Those expecting to see disturbing, disquieting or surprising “artworks” will be correct in their prediction, however, there is more to see than expected.

By presenting the artworks by theme, the Royal Academy takes the visitors through the different stages of thought the two artists went through during their careers. The beginning conforms to the preconceived ideas of the artists – satire, eroticism, readymades – but by the time visitors leave, after studying Dalí’s paintings, learning more about Duchamp’s Fountain and watching a couple of videos, chances are opinions would have changed. Perhaps on leaving, Dalí and Duchamp will go up in people’s judgement and appreciation, and possibly – although, maybe not – be better understood.

The Royal Academy of Arts will be continuing to display the Dalí/Duchamp exhibition until 3rd January 2018. The exhibition has been organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and The Dalí Museum, St Petersburg, Florida, in collaboration with the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation and the Association Marcel Duchamp. Tickets are £16.50, although Friends of the RA can go free. Please note, this exhibition contains some adult content.

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One thought on “Dalí/Duchamp: What is Art?

  1. Another masterpiece. So well written and informative. Thank you Hazel for sharing your experience with insight and intelligence.

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