Dalí and Duchamp: a curious camaraderie

Published 29 September 2017

The pair may seem like opposites, but our exhibition this autumn shows they shared surprising artistic interests. Here, curator Dawn Ades explores four aspects of their enduring affinity for each other’s work.

  • From the Autumn 2017 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    1. A close friendship

    Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dalí seem to be an unlikely artist pairing. Two of the greatest artists of the century, they are seen as opposites in almost every respect. Duchamp is celebrated – or blamed, depending on your point of view – with the invention of the “readymade” and the rise of conceptual art. Dalí is seen as the defender of painting, champion of an artistic tradition to which Duchamp dealt a death blow. Duchamp famously withdrew from the art world, refused to make a living as an artist and apparently dedicated himself to chess. He was detached, non-judgmental, admired, and did not seek fame. Dalí, on the other hand, did. He made a spectacle of being an artist, courted notoriety, devised publicity stunts and became the first modern artist-celebrity.

    It is surprising therefore to discover that the two were good friends. No doubt there was an element of the attraction of opposites, but they shared attitudes to art and life that infuse their work at every turn. The links between them, aesthetic, philosophical, personal, are explored in an autumn exhibition at the Royal Academy, and give a fresh view of their respective oeuvres.

    They first met in Paris, probably in 1930, in the context of Surrealism, of which Dalí was a new and energetic recruit, and Duchamp a courted but rather remote associate. Duchamp’s detachment and resistance to the pressure of a “career” were legendary. André Breton, the Surrealist leader, remembered seeing Duchamp at the time of Dada do an extraordinary thing: tossing a coin in the air and saying, “Tails I leave for America tonight, heads I stay in Paris.” Not that he was indifferent, Breton added – he might infinitely have preferred to leave, or to stay.

    Dalí and Duchamp had similar family backgrounds but their commitments to place were very different. Although Dalí spent part of the year in Paris and later also in New York, he always returned to the tiny hamlet of Portlligat, a short walk from Cadaqués, the picturesque town on a bay where he had spent childhood summers. Only there, Dalí said, did he feel at home. Elsewhere, he was camping out. Duchamp, by contrast, was relatively a nomad, not so much by choice as because of the dislocations of war. Brought up in Rouen, he moved early to Paris where his two older brothers were artists. In 1915 he went to New York, and in 1918, when the US entered the war, moved to Buenos Aires. Subsequently he shuttled between Paris and New York.

  • The friendship grew and flourished in Dalí’s native Catalonia. In 1933 Duchamp visited Cadaqués with Mary Reynolds. On 21 August he sent a postcard to his great friend, the artist Man Ray, urging him to come to Cadaqués too: “Ideal weather and delightful peseta… Dalí is here with Gala and we see them often”. Man Ray joined them, and one of his photographs shows Dalí and his companion Gala reclining among the rocks at Cap de Creus, near Portlligat. Dalí wrote and illustrated an account of one of their many excursions and picnics, which he called Je mange Gala.

    The gustatory/sexual metaphor was a favourite of Dalí’s. On this occasion he was excited and aroused (having hidden behind a rose-red rock to pee) by the sight of Duchamp’s sunburnt arm beside Gala, just as the smell of the grilled chops for their picnic reached him. The conceit that food could divert or enhance predatory/sexual attentions was a favourite motif for Dalí in the 1930s and his painting The Enigma of William Tell (1933), which scandalised the Surrealists, shows Lenin as a threatening patriarch diverted from his cannibalist intentions on the baby (Gala) by lamb chops. One reason for summoning Man Ray had been to photograph Gaudí’s modernist sculpture/architecture in Barcelona for Dalí’s article in the magazine Minotaure, On the Terrifying and Edible Beauty of Modern Style Architecture. The photographs convey the ambiguous – edible, Dalí called it – allure of Gaudí’s sculpture, so against both modernist and Surrealist taste.

    Duchamp’s friendship with Dalí and Gala continued over the years, in Paris, in the French seaside town of Arcachon where they took refuge in 1940 following the German invasion, and in New York; from 1958 and until his death ten years later, Duchamp and his wife Teeny, who had been married to Henri Matisse’s son Pierre, spent every summer at Cadaqués, where they regularly saw Dalí and Gala. Duchamp was even instrumental in arranging for artists Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint-Phalle to create a firework bull, in 1961, for a bullfight in Dalí’s honour at Figueres, the Catalan city where he was raised.

    Friends visiting Duchamp were baffled. The avant-garde composer John Cage remarked, “He 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.”

  • 2. Paternal influences

    Dalí painted Portrait of My Father (1925) when he was 21, and it was exhibited the same year at his first solo exhibition in Barcelona. This formidable father had nurtured his precocious son’s career, encouraging his ambitions and keeping a meticulous record of his early achievements. He was, like Duchamp’s father, a notary, a position of social as well as legal authority. In 1925 Dalí had been temporarily expelled from the Fine Art Academy in Madrid for indiscipline (he was permanently expelled the next year) and he saw in his father’s expression “the pathetic bitterness which my expulsion had produced on him.”

    In 1930 Dali and his future wife Gala (then married to the surrealist poet Paul Eluard) bought a fisherman’s house at Portlligat, after he was expelled from his family house in Figueres. His father was scandalised by Dalí’s affair with Gala and the conflict doubtless contributed to Dalí’s transformation of the William Tell legend in The Enigma of William Tell (1933); the Swiss patriot Tell, who sacrifices his son, becomes a vengeful figure of paternal aggression and cannibalism, a theme Dalí mined throughout his life, extending it to Lenin and God. The monumental classicism of Dalí’s portrait, with the somewhat flattened and sharpened planes deriving from his experiments with Cubism, conveys his father’s fearsome authority.

    Duchamp’s portrait (Portrait of the Artist’s Father, 1910), by contrast, is tender and respectful, painted in a loosely Post-Impressionist manner with some of the colours heightened and freed, Fauvist-style, from the object. Duchamp admired the way his father, though mildly disappointed that four of his six children chose to become artists rather than solid professionals such as lawyers, adjusted to their needs and supported them financially. Whatever he gave was deducted from their inheritance, everything carefully inscribed in notarial fashion.

  • 3. Visualising the invisible

    Dalí chose Duchamp’s painting The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes (1912) to head his article on Duchamp for Art News in 1959. This large oil brings together Duchamp’s interests in physics, sex and chess in a strange and dramatic composition that sidesteps the habitual division between abstraction and realism. Contrasting static and mobile entities, it followed closely on from his most famous painting, Nude Descending a Staircase (1912), and Duchamp related it to his continuing preoccupation with movement.

    Unlike Nude Descending, however, which despite the machine-like elements still roughly resembles a human figure, the forms in The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes are built up from abstract shapes that have a kinship with Cubism but are not abstracted from any recognisable object in the real world. The stacked planes and curvatures, shading and struts constructing the two large figures – the King and Queen – give the impression of definite presences. They evoke the chess pieces in Duchamp’s portraits of his brothers playing chess (his obsession with the game had developed from a family pastime). These two static figures are “surrounded” by dynamic, interlocked elements, which Duchamp described as a “flight of imagination”.

  • Dalí also recognised in these “swift nudes” a specific reference in the world of physics, which coincided with his own interests. In this painting, Dalí wrote, Duchamp “proclaimed nothing less than the notarial act of the new intra-atomic structure of the universe, that is, the discontinuity of matter. In fact, the king and queen can be traversed by swift nudes because matter is discontinuous. It is easy to understand that swift nudes are invisible bodies, the corpuscles, the charged elementary particles of quantum physics…” Dalí’s own fascination with quantum physics, as in his Exploding Raphaelesque Head (1951), makes his identification of the swift nudes with the discontinuity of matter perfectly comprehensible.

    A precise inspiration for Duchamp’s “swift nudes” has been uncovered by Linda Dalrymple Henderson in her comprehensive study of Duchamp’s scientific sources. In the excited language of the early atomic physicists before the First World War, electrons, charged particles, were described as “not only swift, but nude”. Ernst Rutherford and other scientists, Henderson explains, regularly used the term “traverse” to describe activity within the atom. This wonderfully ambiguous vocabulary enchanted Duchamp in the 1910s, and he was to weave it into his epic glass painting The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (1915-23).

  • Marcel Duchamp (reconstruction By Richard Hamilton), The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même), known as The Large Glass

    Marcel Duchamp (reconstruction By Richard Hamilton), The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même), known as The Large Glass, 1915 (reconstructed in 1965–66 and 1985).

    Oil, lead, dust and varnish on glass in metal frame. 277.5 x 175.9 cm. Tate: Presented by William N. Copley through the American Federation of Arts 1975. Photo: © Tate, London 2017 / © Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017.

  • While there is a generational difference between Duchamp’s mining of the scientific language describing electrons and Dalí’s post-atomic-bomb fascination with the discontinuity of matter, both are concerned with visualising what is invisible to the eye. Dalí, in Exploding Raphaelesque Head, fractures the image into particles, which turn out to be fragmenting wheelbarrows and rhino horns, objects Dalí invested with symbolic meaning. In his Anti-Matter Manifesto (1958), Dalí wrote: “If the physicists are producing anti-matter, let it be allowed to the painters, already specialists in angels, to paint it.” The dome of the Pantheon in Rome, where Raphael is buried, merges with the Raphaelesque head, in a version of the double images characteristic of Dalí’s “paranoiac-critical method”.

    Dalí directed his science-attuned antennae towards religion and the metaphysical, asserting in his autobiography The Secret Life (1942) that “nothing, absolutely nothing, in the philosophic, aesthetic, morphological, biological or moral discoveries of our epoch, denies religion. On the contrary, the architecture of the temple of the special sciences has all its windows open to heaven.” Duchamp treated his borrowings from physics with a sceptical humour and declined to speculate about God. But both artists responded to the new discoveries in the sciences, proving the importance of energies no longer visible or accessible to our immediate senses, with greater invention, imagination and wit than most of their peers.

    4. Obsessions with objects

    The readymade, Duchamp mused, might have been the single most important idea to have come out of his work. Its influence on contemporary art continues to be boundless, but it was also a key source for the Surrealist object, whose basic condition was the unexpected conjunction of already existing, more or less everyday, things.

    Duchamp limited his readymade works to about twelve. They had no common denominator other than that all were manufactured goods and the originals were never sold. Asked whether there was any way they could be considered works of art – which many, including André Breton, uncritically assumed – Duchamp gave a reply in which he shifted the weight onto the problem of defining art: art means hand-made, and here is something he took ready-made, concluding that the readymade is a form of denying the possibility of defining art. Even now, when Fountain (1917) has been voted the most important work of art of the 20th century, there is still a glimmer of the dilemma.

  • His first object combining everyday items, Bicycle Wheel (1913), came about not just because he wanted to finish with the idea of creating “works of art” but because he asked himself, why should they be static? Later, he would speak of the pleasure it gave him in the studio, seeing it spinning, like watching flames in a fireplace. He had no intention of exhibiting it. His sister Suzanne had cleared this and another readymade, Bottlerack (1914), out of his Paris studio after he sailed to New York in 1915, just before she received his letter “gifting” her Bottlerack, his first pure, unaltered “readymade”, a name he had realised perfectly fitted this (by then unfortunately discarded) object.

    Fountain was the only readymade to make a public splash (two others had been exhibited in New York in 1916 but nobody noticed). Duchamp and a small group of friends orchestrated a campaign to test the much trumpeted claim at the first exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York in 1917 that anyone could exhibit a work on payment of a small fee – no jury and no prizes. A white porcelain urinal was submitted signed by “R. Mutt”. After a heated argument in the committee on the eve of the exhibition, it was rejected, and then “suppressed”. Duchamp (who had resigned from the committee in protest, but without admitting he was the culprit) and friends found it behind a curtain and took it to the studio of the American photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who duly photographed it, lit so that it resembled a Madonna, or perhaps a Buddha.

    This photograph, which had the caption “Fountain by R. Mutt – the Exhibit refused by the Independents”, appeared in the little magazine The Blind Man, edited by Duchamp, his friend the writer Henri-Pierre Roché (later author of Jules et Jim) and their friend Beatrice Wood, together with the first and only published justification of a readymade – at least of this readymade, because each one is different and has a different raison d’être. An unsigned text (by Wood) outlined the objections to Fountain; some claimed it was immoral, vulgar, others that it was plagiarism – a plain piece of plumbing. Fountain, the text stated, is neither; it didn’t matter that Mr Mutt hadn’t made it with his own hands. “He CHOSE it… created a new thought for that object.”

    Another of Duchamp’s women friends – Louise Norton, whose telephone number was on Fountain’s label, just visible in the magazine’s photograph – contributed an equally brilliant text, Buddha of the Bathroom, pointing out that an innocent imagination could perceive the beautiful simplicity of its outline, while for others its curves could recall the “long, round nudity” of Cézanne’s ladies – and that Mr Mutt might have been joking, and serious. (Duchamp undoubtedly had female accomplices, but the recent claim that Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, an eccentric poet, was responsible for Fountain is wholly inaccurate.)

    The Fountain incident points to Duchamp’s interest in and sympathy with the highly feminine and feminist character of the avant-garde in New York at the time. In subsequent accounts of this icon, the aspect of gender is often overshadowed by its relationship to a machine aesthetic. In an opaque note that Duchamp published in a tiny edition in The Box of 1914, he wrote “– one only has: for female the public urinal and one lives by it.”

    Fountain’s eroticism is highlighted when brought into connection with the Surrealist object, whose links with the readymade were vital but multi-layered. The first formulation for an object in the context of Surrealism was André Breton’s proposal to fabricate objects encountered in dreams, and to put them into circulation to grate against and undermine the utilitarian things that surround us. Objects with no obvious purpose but which had a psychological or sexual charge or irrational meaning could surreptitiously enter the “real” world. This idea fired Dalí’s imagination and in 1931 he presented the idea of “objects that function symbolically” – to be made from readymade materials, trailing their everyday use but diverted by unlikely conjunctions to become erotically provocative. They were also to move, or at least to suggest movement. He cited Giacometti’s Suspended Ball (1930-31) as inspiration, which differed, he wrote, from the Surrealist object only in that it was still a sculpture, made by hand. Had he known of it, it is likely he would have mentioned Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel, the original long lost, and no replica exhibited until 1951. However, he would have known of Duchamp’s Why not Sneeze Rose Sélavy? (1921), a birdcage filled with what appear to be sugar cubes and a thermometer.

  • The first of Dalí’s “symbolically functioning objects” (Scatalogical Object Functioning Symbolically – Gala’s Shoe, 1930) combined a red shoe containing a glass of milk, and a mini crane-like mechanism which lowered a sugar lump decorated with an erotic photo into the shoe. After a first flurry of such elaborate objects, which had erotic scenarios describing their movements, the Surrealist objects became simpler and more effective, such as Méret Oppenheim’s fur-covered cup and saucer, titled Object (1936). The first version of Dalí’s Lobster Telephone appeared at the 1938 International Surrealist Exhibition in Paris, whose disorienting installation – including coal sack ceiling, pools and greenery – was overseen by Duchamp. Listed in the catalogue as “Aphrodisiac Telephone etc.”, a photograph shows a slightly old-fashioned model with an upright stand and a complete lobster in place of a handset, surrounded by glasses filled with liqueur, a bottle, and a soft object in the background. Spines protrude from the lobster’s shell, reminiscent of the pointed tacks Man Ray fixed to the bottom of a flat iron for his 1920 Dada Gift, and would definitely inhibit any move to grip the handset.

    This must have been a thoroughly disturbing object, the lobster’s claws looking simultaneously phallic and castrative, in line with Dalí’s self-confessed sexual anxieties. It also relates to his long-standing obsession with the relationship between hard and soft, with its multiple implications. Not least for him was the contrast between crustaceans who wear their bones, their armour, on the outside, protecting the soft flesh, and we humans who are constructed in reverse, with our flesh on the outside. On the whole he found the hard, cold and crystalline preferable to the soft, as is clear from this passage in his autobiography The Secret Life: “I do not understand why champagne is always chilled and why, on the other hand, telephones, which are habitually so frightfully warm and disagreeably sticky to the touch, are not also put in silver buckets with crushed ice around them.” In the surviving versions of Lobster Telephone, which Dalí devised together with his patron Edward James, the handset is covered by a painted plaster model of a lobster shell, a clashing conjunction still striking as a Surrealist image.

    The artists’ iconic objects, it turns out, have far from simple origins, and in fact rarely do originals still exist. Nonetheless, their role in the long dialogue between the competing demands of art and life, and their recognition of both conceptual and physical powers of art, remain acute.


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