Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Dali & Duchamp:A chess game at the edge of reality.

"Systematise confusion and thereby contribute to a total discreditation of the world of reality" - Salvador Dali, The Petrified Donkey, 1930.

These words, spoken by the then young (mid-twenties) Salvador Dali, could be seen as a mantra for the style of leadership that Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump have brought to the world. If Dali's words were intended both as playful and a little bit teasing then those that chose to run with that particular ball have been anything but. But you can't blame The Beatles for Ocean Colour Scene, you can't blame Elvis Presley for Cliff Richard, and you shouldn't blame Salvador Dali or Marcel Duchamp for all that has been done in their names either. Be it some truly dreadful surrealist art or piles of utterly self-absorbed conceptual art.

Both these artists were way ahead of their time and if, initially, it seems they're unlikely bedfellows to share a show, the Royal Academy's Dali and Duchamp, then further investigation, and some gentle prodding on behalf of the curators, prove this to be anything but the case.

Both Dali and Duchamp began as fairly traditional artists (see Dali's Lane to Portlligat and Duchamp's St Sebastian below), became involved with movements that rocked the 20c art world (Dali - surrealism, Duchamp - Dadaism/conceptualism), before eventually rejecting the strictures of those movements to break out in their own, extraordinary, ways.

Duchamp - The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes (1912)
Both were inspired by the seemingly endless possibilities of the game of chess, how it solves old problems yet creates new ones at the same time, and if there's a tendency in the exhibition visitor's mind to try to reduce this to a chess game between Dali and Duchamp then that's very possibly a mistake - and one that can only result in a stalemate.
Unsurprisingly this is the first UK exhibition to bring Dali (born 1904 in Figueres, Catalonia) and Duchamp (seventeen years Dali's senior, born in Normandy, 1887) together and it follows their careers from before they met in 1930 (possibly at a film screening) through to Duchamp's death in the outskirts of Paris in 1968. Duchamp, Dali, and Dali's partner Gala holidayed together in Spain in 1933 and we'll see a rather fetching portrait of the three of them on the beach together later in this article.
Despite their surface differences (Dali painted, Duchamp rejected painting. Dali was a consummate show off, Duchamp a private and reserved individual) they shared a sense of humour and an interest in optics, language, and finding new ways of challenging the always starchy art world. They both enjoyed the creation of myths (in Dali's case, mostly his own) and, inspired by Andre Breton (who was later responsible for ostracising Dali from the surrealist group), they both rallied against 'the primacy of the hand' in art. The mind, they both agreed, was where true beauty and genuine creation lived.
Their art was 'rooted in instinct' and intentionally free of logic and morality. They weren't interested in surface but wanted to look, almost microscopically, at what lied beneath. Inspired by the writings of Sigmund Freud, they sought to be bold in their expression of sexuality, they felt that eroticism was a 'profoundly individual' experience, and it's noteworthy that often a shoe or a piece of fruit, in Dali's work particularly, can carry just as much erotic charge as his naked bodies, erect cocks, and scenes of bondage.

Dali - Cubist Self-Portrait (1923)

Dali - The Lane to Portlligat with View of Cap de Cress (1922-23)

Duchamp - St Sebastian (1909)

Dali - Portrait of my Father (1925)
In Duchamp's 1912 The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes, an almost futurist work, his interest in chess, science and sex are all bought together in one astonishing whirlwind of a painting. Seven years later he had the audacity to mock Leonardo's Mona Lisa by adding a moustache and goatee and titling it with a play on words that translates, roughly, to 'she's got a hot ass'.
At this time Dali was still painting more traditional, though intense and highly technically proficient, portraits of his father but it wasn't long until he too started to find a route towards what would become his signature style. 1929's The First Days of Spring has a lot going on - but it has a lot of space in it too. Birds in boxes, fish appearing from torsos, a man seemingly riding a skeleton as another man rides him, some bizarre sexual shenanigans, and a man in a chair who's turned away from the action and sadly stares out to the abyss. What it all means is anyone guess, my friend Valia and I spent some time ruminating on it without any satisfactory answers, but it's absolutely intriguing.

Duchamp - L.H.O.O.Q. (1919)

Dali - The First Days of Spring (1929)

Duchamp - Tonsure (1921)
It was certainly a step away from the Picasso inspired cubism of six years earlier (see Cubist Self-Portrait, above, for proof) and once Dali was on that road he wasn't returning. Elsewhere in the art world Edgard Varese was pioneering electronic composition, Man Ray was revolutionising photography, and Francis Picabia was mixing the surrealism beloved of Dali with the Dadaism from which Marcel Duchamp sprang. Duchamp had a photo taken of himself with a star shaved in to his head to celebrate before developing a female alter ego, Rrose Selavy, who he'd dress up as to create both controversy and art and to confuse people's feelings. Having been rejected by the cubists in the past he'd grown reluctant of 'movements' of any kind and any attempt to try to put him in a box only resulted in Duchamp moving as fast as he could in the other direction.

By the thirties Salvador Dali was really beginning to hone his style. Large canvasses with distorted bodies, optical illusions, discomfiting imagery, twisted sexual fantasies, and all painted with an exquisite precision. Meditation of the Harp is as dreamy as The Enigma of William Tell is nightmarish. The Spectre of Sex Appeal depicts a young boy staring up at a female 'body' that clearly both arouses and upsets him at the same time. Catalan Bread leaves very little to the imagination as a melting watch and some fine thread spectacularly fail to prevent the erection of a proud, and presumably doughy and yeasty, penis.

Dali - Meditation of the Harp (1932-34)

Dali - The Enigma of William Tell with the Apparition of a Celestial Gaia (1933)

Dali - The Spectre of Sex Appeal (1934)

Duchamp - Pledge of Chastity (1954)

Dali - Catalan Bread (1932)
If Dali's developments into what could be painted were groundbreaking, then Duchamp's rejection of the form bordered on the revolutionary. He was very probably the first person to consider that what the object looked like was actually unimportant. What was important, to Duchamp and his followers, was what the artist meant by it. With this in mind it was only a small step before you didn't even have to make any art, you could simply find something and put it in a gallery. A 'readymade'. It's a term we're all familiar with now but when Duchamp first exhibited an umbrella stand in a gallery nobody noticed at all, or at least assumed that it was an umbrella stand. Which it was. It gets confusing. But so does life.

Hat racks, urinals, and bicycle wheels were all famously co-opted into Duchamp's portfolio. As well as cocking a snook at the art world and even art itself was he making a point about increasing industrialisation? Nobody seems sure but it certainly would've tied in with the times.

Assisted readymades came next. A load of stuff shoved together. In Why Not Sneeze Rrose Selavy? Duchamp combined a bird cage, marble blocks, and a cuttlefish bone. This was where Dali came in. His Lobster Telephone (made with the assistance of Sussex surrealist poet Edward James) is now world famous but Gaia's Shoe is perhaps even more powerful, its combination of levers and pulleys and a patent red leather shoe exerting a strange sexual pull on the viewer that, like the young voyeur in The Spectre of Sex Appeal, seems to straddle the delicate and fluid line between lust and repulsion.

Duchamp - Hat Rack (1917/1964)

Dali (with Edward James) - Lobster Telephone (1938)

Duchamp - Fountain (1917/1964)

Duchamp - Bicycle Wheel (1913/1964)

Dali - Surrealist Object Functioning Symbolically - Gaia's Shoe (1930/1973)
It wasn't just sex, and inanimate objects that represent sex, for Dali. Sometimes, as with the man he called his father, Freud (and how Freudian is that?), a cigar is just a cigar - and sometimes love is the dominant emotion. The Two Pieces of Bread Expressing the Sentiment of Love represent Dali and Gala and, making it a must for this show, the solitary chess pawn that looks on is their close friend Marcel Duchamp. Is he a gooseberry? A third wheel? A voyeur? A welcome party to a threesome? Or just a friend?
It's not really important. Lovers have their heads in the clouds and can sometimes be blissfully ignorant of the tragedies of reality. Dali saw this too. He had no qualms with it. His only issue was with repression and, true to this, he was never shy of expressing his desires, no matter how personal or potentially perverted they may've appeared to contemporary mores, in his work. Duchamp was cagier about it but he too developed a private, metaphorical terminology to describe his sexual desires. He felt eroticism was such a powerful dictator of human behaviour that it could, if correctly harnessed, replace other isms like romanticism and symbolism. It's probably safe to say that that, now, has happened in society.

Dali - Two Pieces of Bread Expressing the Sentiment of Love (1940)

Dali - Couple with their Heads Full of Clouds (1937)

Dali - Still Life Fast Moving (Nature Morte Vivante) (1956)

Duchamp - 3 Standard Stoppages (1913-14/1964)
All that said that it's hard for me to make sense of 3 Standard Stoppages. It seems an exercise in mathematical formulae, that, if anything, is completely lacking in erotic appeal. I like a good sum as much as the next person but unless I can write that sum on a nice bum it's not something I'd go so far as to describe as sexy!
Christ, good looking fellow though he is, is another who's never really turned me on. There's no doubting the brilliance of Dali's portrait of Christ of Saint John on the Cross but it seems to be rather a retrogressive step for an artist who only a decade or so earlier had pushed things so far forward.
As Dali became something of a circus act, twirling his moustache and making faux-profound yet banal pronouncements to his increasingly slavish following, Duchamp retreated into a world of chess (or pretended to so he could focus on his art away from prying eyes) and Alfred Jarry's mock scientific school of pataphysics, a highly confusing literary 'trope' that I've not been able to get my head round yet and will, time permitting, one day invest more time in trying to understand.

Dali - Christ of Saint John on the Cross (c.1951)

Duchamp - Network of Stoppages (1914)

Dali - Exploding Raphaelesque Head (1931)

Dali - Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach (1938)
It meant, for me, that I couldn't quite get to grips with some of the Duchamp works in the last room of this small, but packed and very busy, exhibition. In that I stand apart from many other critics and observers who seem to have unanimously come away with the verdict that Duchamp has got Dali's king backed into a corner and is lining up his pieces ready to pounce.
I think that's a trifle unfair. Unlike chess, but as with sex and love, art isn't a competition. We can see this in the way these two artists coaxed and inspired each other to move ever forwards in their art. They didn't do it because one of them was going to be announced the winner at the end of the day, they did it because it was what they wanted to do, they felt it was worthwhile, and they felt compelled towards it. Again, far more like love and sex than chess.
In the final rooms I marvelled at Dali's Exploding Raphaelesque Head, the film of his dream sequence from Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound, and his almost Rauschenbergian Madonna as much as I scratched my head at Duchamp's pataphysical works and his Network of Stoppages. But in 1913's Chess Players we can see the genesis of so many great strands of art that I'm certain any misgivings I have about Duchamp's later work are simply down to me not devoting enough time to them. Because art is not always something you can 'get' instantly. It takes time, devotion, and passion. In that it is, again, like sex and love and even, in this instance, like chess. With that I moved my bishop to square g4 and waited for my opponent to move their pawn so I could get their king in check. Woo-hah! Busta Rhymes would've loved it. I certainly did.
Dali - Madonna (1958)

Duchamp - The Chess Players (1913)
Thanks to Valia for the tickets, her input that inspired my assessment of the show, and, most of all, her company.

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