Dali and Duchamp: these mischievous mavericks shaped the 21st century

Published in BBC Culture on November 20, 2017

Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dalí: two titans of modern art who might appear to have little in common. One is the father of conceptual art, who turned his back on the commercialisation of that world in favour of playing chess; the other is famous as a painter – and just as famous for embracing fame, a dandyish personality who knew how to sell himself.

In fact, the pair were pals – and it was their friendship that first sparked the idea for a joint show at London’s Royal Academy, before travelling to the Salvador Dalí Museum in St Petersburg, Florida in February. The curator, Dawn Ades, hit upon the notion after noticing a photograph of the two men, deep in conversation, hanging in a bathroom in Dalí’s house (now a museum) in Portlligat in Spain.

She recognises that the friendship comes as “a total surprise” to many people – and this is the first ever show to pair them up. “Art historians, on the whole, have generally gone for one or the other. And there hasn’t been a lot of attention paid to the friendship.”

The show reveals, through photos postcards, and letters, just how well these two mischievous mavericks got on. But it goes deeper than that too, finding connections between their seemingly very different oeuvres.

It wasn’t an animating rivalry like, say, Picasso and Braque or Freud and Bacon, but rather an easy affection cemented by summers spent holidaying in Catalonia together. They even contributed to each other’s works: in 1954, Duchamp helped Dalí stage a “Surrealist bullfight”, complete with a papier-mâché bull that exploded in a shower of fireworks, while Dalí helped print the backdrop for Duchamp’s installation work, Étant Donnés, in his studio.  Given Duchamp worked on this piece in almost complete secrecy over the last 20 years of his life, Dalí’s involvement is surely a sign of the trust between them.

“It was a genuine friendship and a genuine respect for each other,” suggests Ades. “I think they just enjoyed each other’s company: two highly intelligent people, both deeply sceptical of the art world… I think they just had quite a lot of fun!”

The exhibition is certainly fun, revealing their shared impish humour, and urge to upset the applecart of the art world. It places Duchamp’s game-changing readymades alongside Dalí’s Surrealist objects: Fountain, Duchamp’s signed urinal, sits next to Dalí’s Lobster Telephone. Or consider each man’s arch defacing of the Mona Lisa: Duchamp adding a moustache to her in 1919 in LHOOQ, with Dalí going one step further and replacing her whole face with his own (including his famous moustache, of course) in Self-Portrait with Mona Lisa in 1954.

Kindred spirits

The pair probably first met in 1930; it’s known that Duchamp attended a screening of Dalí and Luis Buñuel’s Surrealist film, L’Age d’or, in Paris. But the friendship seems to have blossomed in the summer of 1933, when Duchamp rented a place in Cadaqués in Spain, near where Dalí lived. There are holiday snaps of them and their partners larking about.

A cheery friendship, then, but also as unconventional as you’d hope. That summer, Dalí penned a love poem (of sorts) called I Eat Gala. A dreamlike reverie, complete with obscene doodles, it recounts an excursion to the peninsula Cap de Creus. Dalí writes about sucking at the rocks, which merge into the sunburnt skin of Duchamp which then merges with Dalí’s soon-to-be spouse Gala, who he finally eats. Just your average way of documenting a day out with a new chum then…

Another work by Dalí in the exhibition is thought to depict the three of them: Two Pieces of Bread Expressing the Sentiment of Love was painted in 1940, and the pieces of bread triangulating with a chess pawn. It was painted in Arcachon on the south-west coast of France, where Dalí and Gala were staying with fashion designer Coco Chanel; they had fled the advancing German army during World War Two. Duchamp, also in Arcachon, found a new chess opponent in Gala, while Dalí painted.

It’s thought the bread may represent the couple, and the pawn, Duchamp. And Dalí completed another homage to his friend and his love of chess in 1971: he cast a bronze Duchamp chess set, the pieces made of fingers and thumbs, shown as part of the exhibition.

Beyond such obvious displays of affection, Ades hopes the thematically arranged show will foreground certain preoccupations common to both artists. Primarily, she’s concerned with how both men, in their own ways, were kicking against what Duchamp called the “retinal” tendency in modern art – the idea that visual impact had become the primary concern of art.

“Duchamp thought art had become too retinal, addressed only to the eye,” Ades explains. “Once upon a time, art had other functions: it could be moral, political, philosophical, and [he saw] no reason why art shouldn’t regain that. But he was doing so with a very sceptical spirit.”

This desire for art to be more than pure visual abstraction, for it to say something about the human condition, is mirrored in Dalí’s work, with its interest in the imagination and the subconscious, its grappling with religious iconography, Freudian psychology, and advances in scientific thought.

Of course, this was no retrograde desire for art to become a ‘force for good’ with a moral message; both artists were more interested in troubling and questioning grand narratives, using art to prod and pick at societal scabs. “They have a critical eye: they’re not celebrating the erotic, they are worried about it; they are not celebrating science, they’re questioning it,” Ades points out, adding that the sense of humour running though the works also undermines any “grand claims about science, or religion, or art.”

The persistence of friendship

Then there’s the fact that they’re both filthy. A common interest in eroticism certainly comes through loud and clear: good luck getting round this show without squirming at Dalí’s masturbatory paintings or Duchamp’s unsettling phallic objects and naughty schoolboy puns.

Their queasy voyeurism can be seen in Étant Donnés, considered one of Duchamp’s great works. A peepshow of sorts, the viewer looks through a hole in a door to a 3D tableau: the body of a naked woman spread-eagled against a collaged landscape, replete with a moving waterfall. The work is installed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but the Royal Academy has a study (itself a little unnerving) of the nude, crafted in velvet and leather. But an inscription on one of the prints of the backdrop includes Dalí’s name, revealing that he helped Duchamp with the seminal piece in 1959, at his studio in Portlligat.

For all this suggests a close, even creative, friendship, Dalí and Duchamp have always been divisive figures. This was true during their friendship – Duchamp’s friends John Cage and Richard Hamilton were baffled and deeply disapproving of his affection for Dalí – but also in a wider, art historical sense.

“There are some people who think that Duchamp basically murdered art, and some people that think Dalí was a fake, and too interested in money. You do get prejudices,” says Ades.

Art fashions change, and – speaking broadly – Dalí has been out of favour for awhile, written off as populist, or sleazy or cynical, while Duchamp is revered for changing the course of 20th Century art. The fact that he retreated from commercialisation – that he seems ‘pure’ rather than a huckster – probably helps. Certainly, initial reviews of the show demonstrate a bias towards Duchamp, if also grudging nods towards Dalí.

For Ades, the hope is that showing the two men together might open up new way of seeing both their of work. “People come with a prejudice against one or the other, and we hope people will rethink them.”

The point was certainly never to stage a bullfight between conceptualist and Surrealist. The two men, at least, thought they were fighting on the same side: both waving a mischievous red flag at the rest of the art world.

Where next?