The friendship of Dalí and Duchamp is explored in an exhibition at the Dalí Museum in Florida.
Salvador Dalí and Marcel Duchamp would seem to be a study in contrasts. Dalí was flamboyant and publicity-mad, while Duchamp was secretive and reclusive. Dalí constantly and compulsively made work throughout his life, even agreeing to do advertisements and logo designs, while Duchamp retired from art in 1923 to devote himself to chess instead. Dalí polished his illusionistic painting technique to the utmost, while Duchamp is most famous for conceptual works, especially his “readymades” or recontextualized found objects. Nonetheless, the two modern masters had more in common than is apparent at first sight and in fact were good friends and mutual admirers. This kinship is celebrated and documented in a large-scale exhibition now on view at the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., through May 27. “Dalí/Duchamp, ” the first show ever to pair the two artists in this way, was shown last fall at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, which co-organized it with the Dalí Museum.
As the scholars Dawn Ades and William Jeffett, curators of the exhibition and author-editors of the accompanying catalogue, put it, both Dalí and Duchamp were essentially conceptual artists who privileged the idea over the material aspects of the work of art. They also shared a love of subversive humor, a strong focus on the erotic, a fascination with science and mathematics, and an interest in games. Much as their actual work and habits differed, these commonalities ensured a deep friendship, which was surprising or even off-putting to some who knew them. The avant-garde composer John Cage, a friend of Duchamp but emphatically not of Dalí, recalled that during summers they spent in Cadaqués, Spain, Duchamp “was friendly with Dalí. Isn’t that strange? … I was astonished to see that Marcel took a listening attitude in the presence of Dalí. It almost appeared as if a younger man were visiting an old man, whereas the case was the other way round.” (Duchamp was born in 1887, Dalí in 1904.)
Both artists had connections to Dada and Surrealism, with differing levels of commitment. Duchamp participated slightly in the New York branch of the Dada movement, and his submission of Fountain (1917), his inverted-urinal readymade, to the Society of Independent Artists exhibition in 1917, was his main Dada act. Bicycle Wheel (1913), though originally created as an amusing piece of décor for his Paris studio, also became a readymade and fit into the Dada concept. (Both works are on view in the St. Petersburg show.) Later, in the 1930s, the Surrealists admired Duchamp and courted him, but he refused to join their movement. Dalí, on the other hand, was at first an enthusiastic Surrealist, and his “paranoiac-critical method”—a visual system for making connections between disparate things, exemplified by his Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach (1938), on view in the exhibition—was embraced by André Breton and his acolytes as a valid Surrealist technique. And Dalí did make some bona fide Surrealist objects, such as the iconic Lobster Telephone (1938), co-created with his English patron Edward James. Eventually, though, Dalí broke with the Surrealists, ostensibly over his tacit support for the fascist Franco regime in Spain. In any case, neither Dalí nor Duchamp was a joiner by nature.
In an essay on Duchamp published in Art News in 1959, Dalí praised his Mona Lisa-with-a-mustache readymade, L.H.O.O.Q. (1919) by saying that it “can be taken quite adequately as the epitaph of modern painting.” He meant this very much as a compliment; Dalí certainly did not see himself as a modern or modernist painter. Neither did Duchamp. Early in his art practice (one can’t really say “career” when speaking of this remarkable man) he painted in a mode that could be called Cubist or Futurist; his epoch-making Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912) is the best-known example. Another is The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes (1912), a tour de force of oil painting in which two chess pieces are abstracted, broken up, and beset by dehumanized and baffling forms. Dalí took this painting’s title as the title of his Art News piece, which makes sense in light of his admiration not only for this work but for Duchamp’s concept of “an-art.” Duchamp coined this term and preferred it to “anti-art,” because even in his early, technically polished paintings he was trying not to oppose art and the role of artist but to transcend or even nullify them.
And in his very different way, so was Dalí, according to the writers of the catalogue of this exhibition. He shared with Duchamp an aversion to the exclusively “retinal” quality of much modernist art, its insistence on purely visual experience. While Dalí’s art, unlike Duchamp’s, never stopped using the medium of oil paint and its body of traditional techniques, he insisted that his work could not be understood in purely visual terms and that he was really painting ideas. Both men produced elaborate texts to accompany their works, without which they believed the works could not fully be comprehended. As Duchamp became more conceptual in his practice, the texts could almost replace the work itself, or could be construed as instructions for creating and re-creating the work (in fact, many of the Duchamp pieces on view in this exhibition are later re-creations). That is not the case with Dalí. Nonetheless, both artists rejected the visually-driven approach taken by artists from the Impressionists down to the Abstract Expressionists in favor of something more cerebral and essentially conceptual.
These connections and interpretations are thought-provoking and fascinating, but they are not apparent upon viewing the artworks themselves. The selection of works from both artists on view in St. Petersburg is impressive—three of the Dalí paintings, Christ of Saint John of the Cross (circa 1951), Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach (1938) and Two pieces of bread expressing the sentiment of love (1940), have never been seen at the Dalí Museum before, and a 1991–92 version of Duchamp’s nine-foot-tall mind-bending enigma The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) will certainly stop any viewer in his or her tracks. However, to really appreciate the connections between the works, one must read the comprehensive essays published in the catalogue.
By John Dorfman