Royal Academy, 29th December 2017
I don’t really get Salvador Dali. Maybe it is the over-familiarity with images of his work. Maybe it is the obviousness of the in-yer-face Freudian, symbolism. Maybe it is the flat, lifeless effect of his paintings. Maybe it is the fact that once he found a formula that worked he didn’t let go. Or maybe it was the fact that he was a bit too full of himself. I admit there is a lot of fun to be had in scouring the canvases, (and, in this fairly concentrated display, you get a fair few for your money), for his wackier conceits. But it is a transitory, and for me, slightly cheap, pleasure. Mining the sub-conscious always seems to require Surrealists to think just that little bit too long and hard about what they want to show and tell. Contrived not automatic.
Now in contrast your man Marcel Duchamp was the real deal. I am glad I have no artistic talent, (actually I am not but I have learnt to live with the disappointment), because if I were a plastic artist then I would be constantly peeved by the discovery that any great idea in modern art had already been realised by M. Duchamp. The rejection of painting and embracing of “non-traditional” media, ready mades, “anti-art” and the challenging of the commodification of art, conceptualism, game-playing and changing identity, Scratch the surface of many a contemporary artist and M. Duchamp will be visible and, without him, public discourse on the question of “what is art” would be far more muted.
The exhibition does an excellent job in portraying the friendship between these ostensibly disparate figures. Both were driven by a need to tear down convention, in art and life, and their understanding clearly went beyond a shared passion for smutty jokes and dodgy puns. IMHO though Dali’s impact, in retrospect, has been superficial, a poster art dead end, whereas, as this exhibition fleetingly shows, Duchamp’s artistic enquiry was profound. Whatever your reaction to a urinal turned upside down and signed R, Mutt you will have had a reaction. And this is 2017, (well 2018 since it has taken this long to get off my lardy arse to write this). Imagine what those lucky few observers must have thought when then first saw this 100 years ago. An artist with a female alter-ego. Commonplace now but revolutionary then. A bloke who convinces everyone he has given up art to become a chess professional. Brilliant. Taking stuff he found and sticking it together to make new things. Most major modern and contemporary artists from the middle of the last century onwards, and students today, will have had a period when they have a go at this. The results are normally awful. But Duchamp got there first. Sticking a tache on the Mona Lisa. A bona fide meme if I am not mistaken, so be grateful to M. Duchamp. Chance, language, gesture, semiotics, maths, provocation, the rejection of “craft”. All fundamental tenets of the today’s artistic conversation, all “invented” by M. Duchamp.
As you might expect carving a way through the work of these two boundary-breakers, given their eclectic output, and constraints on what they could beg, steal or borrow, likely presented a headache for the curators. They have chosen to cram as much as they can into a few of the RA rooms, which highlights the imaginations of both artists even if it does make viewing a jostled affair. It also means there is little escape from the overt misogynism of both. I was most interested in Duchamp’s early paintings (Cezanne’s influence plain to see), the wealth of holiday snaps, Duchamp’s St Sebastian, that moustache in L.H.O.O.Q. , Dali’s experiments with Cubism, then Duchamp’s (so much better). Best of all The Bride Stripped Bare …. , reconstructed by Richard Hamilton, and Duchamp’s messing around with optical discs.
I suspect I was in the minority but I would have been so much happier just with Duchamp alone, with as much contextual material as the curators here, Dawn Ades and William Jeffett, Sarah Lea and Desiree de Chair. would have dared to throw at me. Even so there was much to chew on here and more to go away and learn.