Salvador Dali, I fear, may be considered a ‘fashionable’ artist. One of the most vacuous things about the art world is how it occasionally and unpredictably picks up an artist, or a movement, and exalts him or her or it to dizzying heights of glory, fame and prestige. Often, of course, the artist and the art is worthy. But just as often it is not.
Dali has been picked up. Made fashionable. Popularised. His 1931 painting The Persistence of Memory has fallen prey to reproduction in the form of memes almost as many times as The Scream by Munch. Pictures of Fueled by Fears and Fascinations with Donald Trump’s mug usurping Dali’s painted mask and the White House looming ominously in the background have been circulating the internet since the president’s inauguration last year.
And yet, the Royal Academy’s current exhibition that pivots around Dali and his contemporary Marcel Duchamp’s friendship has received relatively little airtime. Which is disappointing, because the Dali// Duchamp display is rather brilliant: curious, determined and a veritable feast for the eyes.
The exhibition itself over-intellectualises its purpose (it claims to ‘explore the artistic, philosophical and personal links’ between the ‘two artistic giants’), throwing surrealism, eroticism, retinal versus modern painting and paranoiac-critical theory (if you please) down our throats. Ignoring this flowery jargon, Dali/ Duchamp succeeds in placing two extremely renowned artists side-by-side and therefore offering their wares in a way that they have not been offered up to the public before. It therefore encourages the audience to consider the pictures through a new lens.
On paper, or indeed on canvas, Dali and Duchamp have little in common (curators Dawn Ades and William Jeffett may disagree). What they saw, and how they viewed the world, appears to contrast – but what they do have in common is that they both saw the world from highly unique and lurid viewpoints. It must be this high-definition optic or understanding that drew them together as friends: they met around 1930 and remained friends until Duchamp’s death in 1968.
That isn’t to belittle the links made between the two – they are both searching and observant. But these links, or bonds, don’t carry as much weight as the exhibition assumes. The result is a friendly and interesting exhibition that is punctuated by some truly marvellous works of art. Less popularised Dalis including Still Life – Fast Moving – which is almost stultifying in its vulgarity – adorn the walls, as well as correspondence between the two artists and smaller, subtler works that give the viewer a cheerful insight into their relationship. One such example is Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q, a reproduction of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa on a postcard that the artist has vandalised with a mustache. The name of the piece is a play on words, sounding like “elle a chaud au cul”, (she’s firey down below). Similarly, Duchamp’s transgender alterego (although it can’t have been called that at the time), Rrose Sélavy makes an appearance.
Sign up for the Week in Review Email
Every Sunday: Read the week’s most read articles, watch Iain Martin’s Authors in Conversation series, listen to The Reaction podcast & receive new offers and invites.
This mischievousness gives insight into the unusual characters of the two artists. Of course, there’s the opportunity to over-intellectualise (or indeed to under-intellectualise) Duchamp’s relationship with the role of gender identification in surrealism, or some such drivel, but I’d simply take it for what it is: very good.
£16.50 (without donation £15). Concessions available. Friends of the RA, and under 16s when with a fee-paying adult, go free. Off-peak tickets may be available online for times when the galleries are less busy.