Wednesday, 11 October 2017

'Dali/Duchamp' at the Royal Academy

The new exhibition at the Royal Academy is about Salvador Dali and Marcel Duchamp, possibly best known for melting clocks and urinals. I've seen quite a few Dali paintings over the years (most recently at Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid) but, despite knowing his name and knowing of his art, I don't recall seeing any works by Duchamp at all. I must have seen some of his work, of course, since it's in many museums I've visited, but it hasn't registered with me. So it's time to put that right and start learning.

Dali and Duchamp were friends throughout their careers and this exhibition pulls together a variety of their works including some correspondence and gifts, photographs by themselves and of them by Man Ray, reconstructed sculptures and some really interesting paintings by Duchamp. It's not a big exhibition but it kept me intrigued.

The painting that greets you as you walk into the exhibition is a large one by Duchamp, 'The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes'. There's not a nude in sight and the royalty refers to chess pieces. The 'nudes' are referred to in the notes as electrons. If you say so. I wasn't particularly bothered, I just liked the shapes and the interactions between them. To the right of this painting is another one of two chess players in a similar style by Duchamp and, to the left, are portraits of Dali and Duchamp's dads by the respective artists, painted about ten years apart. I thought Duchamp's was the better of the two and it's such a shame that he effectively gave up on painting shortly afterwards.

One thing I wasn't expecting to see were photographs by Man Ray of Duchamp's alter ego as Rrose Selavy. There's nothing to explain why Duchamp felt he had a female alter ego but why should there be? If he wanted to explore another side of his personality then that's okay. There are a few photos of Rrose and, apparently, he sometimes signed work documents using that name.

One of my favourites of his 'readymades' was a small white birdcage filled with what looked like sugar cubes with a mirror underneath reflecting the words 'Why not sneeze Rose Selavy?'. It was so unexpected and such fun, something you wouldn't see if you stand too close to it since the mirror is underneath the cage and hidden form view. It takes some real thinking to come up with that.

What I liked was the large glass case that included a lot of 'readymades' and other creations by both artists, including the white cage. Pride of place is, of course, given over to 'Fountain', the urinal Duchamp submitted to an exhibition and which was hidden behind a screen. Beside it was Dali's lobster telephone. There's also a bicycle wheel on a stool and a garden shovel hanging downwards. I have to admit that some of these items were more curiosities than artworks but I'm not sure that that matters in context really. I enjoyed seeing them and puzzling over them.

Another photograph by Man Ray that I liked was of Duchamp and Bronia Perlmutter as Adam and Eve. It's such an odd photo to come across - I don't know why I found it odd but I did. It's hung beside Duchamp's drawing of Lucas Cranach's 'Adam & Eve' and the pose in the photo tries to replicate this. It sort of succeeds in replicating the painting but what isn't clear is why? Was it just a bit of fun, a poke at the artistic audience to say 'anybody can do this if they want' or is it meant as another statement. Who knows, but I like that and its irreverence.

I'm more of a paintings man really so it was the Dali works that I spent most time looking at. Leaving aside the subject matter and his love of self-promotion (of which he was very good), he's actually a very good painter. Most of the works on show were small and I hadn't seen any of them before.

Dali has to have his joke with us and that comes out with his 'Couple With Their Heads Full Of Clouds' in which the frames are of two heads and shoulders with the painting contained within those shapes. Although these could be front or back views I see them from the back so we're seeing what they're looking at. That's a dessert scene with a giraffe on fire (for some reason). It's great fun and a very delicate painting.

I was also really taken by 'Exploding Raphaelesque Head' in the same room. It does have a hint of a Raphael Madonna about it but what really grabbed me were the panels in the crown of the head and the circular hole at the top that refers to the ceiling of the Pantheon in Rome in which Raphael was buried. Other than the imagery there's no hint of that in the painting but, once you know that, it shouts out to you. I suspect there's more in that painting than I've seen so far, but it kept my attention.

The exit from the exhibition is through/under a reproduction of Duchamp's piece 'Twelve Hundred Coal Sacks Suspended from the Ceiling Over a Stove'' from 1938. I loved it. Wondering what on earth was this thing and was anything going to fall on me? It's the experience that matters.

It's a relatively small exhibition for the Royal Academy but I found it to be really fascinating with so much to see and wonder about. These artists are so much more than urinals and meting clocks, they continue the grand tradition of the evolution of art who simply took us up a slightly different path of their own inventing. Where would we be - not just in art but more widely - without them?

I think I need to go back to see this exhibition again. I've got no doubt I'll see something very differently.

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