This fascinating exhibition takes a look at the life and works of conceptual pioneer Marcel Duchamp and his surrealist friend Salvador Dalí – with a smattering of ‘third’ Man Ray.
While the lobster phone and ‘fountain’ urinal might be the poster boys for this exhibition, highlighting both artists’ more provocative work, what it really underlines is how these more absurd creations formed the endpoint of a genuine creative thought process.
Taking us on a journey from their art school origins as they mastered more conventional forms of painting, the exhibition examines how both artists repelled the establishment of their day.
Dalí was largely eschewed by the surrealists, in a bizarre piece of history which feels a bit like someone being kicked out of an anarchist society, and went on to develop his own, radically different style of painting. Similarly Duchamp was formally denied membership of the cubist movement leading him to think outside the box and abandon painting for conceptual art.
To demonstrate this journey, and their influence on each other, their work is shown in parallel. In one striking example we are shown early portraits by both men of their fathers, which show impressive levels of technical skill and expression, in paintings highly different in style but remarkable in quality. Dalí in particular demonstrates the understanding of light and perspective that would later grant his other-worldly paintings a striking air of realism, due to their almost photographic quality.
It effectively explains their work through their contrasting personalities: Dalí the outlandish self-promoter and Duchamp the chess-playing recluse, whose game of choice found its way into both of their work. Duchamp embodied his art through his alter egos, particularly Rrose Sélavy (Eros, c’est la vie), a female character he created to challenge gender norms, much as he did with his mustachioed Mona Lisa. While Dalí’s wacky facial hair and public persona helped contribute to his legendary status.
The best examples of classic Dalí on display are his Apparition of Face and Fruit and Still Life Moving, the latter particular demonstrating the artist’s admirable propensity to include humour in his work. But in addition to their paintings and conceptual sculpture it shows how both were keen to embrace new mediums, which they saw as the future of art.
There’s footage of Dalí’s Dizzying Dinner, featuring horse costumes, frogs on the table and live lions, as well as his dream sequence from Hitchcock’s Spellbound which feels like he painted The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. There’s no mention of the time he once rode in a cab driven by Philip Glass (featured in the latter’s memoirs) – although that was probably a bigger story of the starstruck Glass, who was relatively unknown at the time.
It will come as no surprise that Dalí’s works are the most memorable and striking for me. Other highlights include his remarkable Christ of St John on the Cross, and Stereoscopic Immorality of Monarchy which shows his ability to apply his keen visual instincts across mediums. But this exhibition would not be the same without the inclusion of Duchamp, and the two are linked in such a way that fans of either will understand their mutual importance.
Dalí/Duchamp is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London until 3 January.