Odd couples: Artists you never knew were friends
By RA Digital team
Published on 31 August 2016
In autumn 2017, we explore the little-known relationship between two of modern art’s greatest masters – Salvador Dalí and Marcel Duchamp. Here, we take a look at their peculiar friendship, and five other artist pairs you would never have guessed.
Salvador Dalí and Marcel Duchamp
At first glance, this pair have about as much in common as a lobster does with a urinal. There is Dalí, Surrealist showman and reactionary painter, and then Duchamp, 17 years his senior, known to us today as the father of conceptual art.
They met in the 1930s through the Surrealists; Dalí then an enthusiastic member and Duchamp a more sporadic presence. Photos of them larking on the beach and playing chess show the personal bond they developed and kept for over 30 years. Regularly crossing paths in the art-worlds of Paris and New York, when apart they exchanged warm letters. From the mid-1950s Duchamp rented a house near Dalí’s home in south-eastern Spain each summer until his death in 1968.
Dalí was, among other things, a commercially successful painter – while Duchamp had rejected painting entirely in favour of conceptual work such as his iconic Fountain ‘readymade’ of 1917. So what did this unlikely pair share? “Humour, the erotic, a sceptical fascination with science and above all a non-conformist spirit,” explains Dawn Ades, co-curator of Dalí / Duchamp, our forthcoming exhibition on the pair. “They shared attitudes to art and life which infuse their work at every turn and bring up unexpected similarities.”
We know they had a mutual artistic admiration and ongoing intellectual exchange, too. Writing in Art News in 1959, for example, Dalí lists 13 reasons why Duchamp’s The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes, 1912 "is worth miles of pseudo-decorative modern painting.” The following year, Duchamp publicly defended his friend by insisting on the inclusion of Dalí’s Madonna, 1958 in an exhibition he was co-curating with André Breton, who – as the official leader of the Surrealists – had expelled Dalí from the movement back in 1939, and was outraged by the painting’s ostensibly religious content. Both works are in the forthcoming exhibition.
This little-known relationship suggests that perhaps we don’t know either of these two mavericks of modern art quite as well as we thought.
Image Rights of Salvador Dalí reserved. Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2016.
Yayoi Kusama and Joseph Cornell
“Romantic and passionate, but platonic” was how the Japanese artist later described her unlikely relationship with Joseph Cornell.
An art dealer introduced them in 1964; Cornell was in his 60s, a self-taught assemblage artist who, although he sat outside of major postwar movements such as Surrealism and Conceptualism, was widely respected and well connected. Kusama was in her 30s and struggling on little income, despite quickly gathering renown for her cultural activism, infinity net paintings and psychedelic installations.
Cornell compassionately gave her a number of his works to sell, and the pair quickly developed a bond, with Kusama often visiting him at home in Queens where he lived with his mother – who did not welcome Kusama's presence. The pair would pose for one another, in his later years Cornell having become fascinated with the female figure – of which he had little experience, as he was never sexually active.
When Kusama left New York they continued their friendship via phone and letters, with Cornell often sending her personalised collages, until he died in 1972. Now in her 80s, Kusama still has many of the drawings and collages Cornell gave her.
Incidentally, both Dali and Duchamp were also among Cornell's long list of artist acquaintances.
Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat
“He’s just one of those kids who drives me crazy”, Andy Warhol recorded in his diary on 4 October 1982 after first meeting Jean-Michel Basquiat, the American painter and graffiti artist, 32 years his junior. Despite such a dismissive first impression, the two artists forged a close personal and professional relationship that would last throughout the 1980s.
Mentions of Basquiat in Warhol’s diary occur with increasing frequency: they catch cabs to each other’s studios, breakfast together, work together, party together. With Basquiat, Warhol returned to painting, and the two collaborated on a series of works: after Warhol first painted the canvas, Basquiat would imprint his sensibility over the top, in his signature scribbles and imagery.
But the paintings were badly reviewed when they were first exhibited, and it seems even Warhol doubted their method, noting in April 1984, “[Jean-Michel] came up and painted over a painting that I did, and I don’t know if it got better or not.” Their paintings may not have been immediately successful, but their friendship epitomises the art scene of 1980s New York, a fusion of creative experimentation and collaboration, extravagant living, and commerce.
Norman Rockwell and Grandma Moses
When Grandma Moses turned 88 on 7 September 1948, Norman Rockwell delivered an enormous birthday cake to her house, a mark of his affection for his fellow artist. The two certainly were an incongruous pair: Rockwell, a tall, sophisticated New York illustrator next to the diminutive elderly figure, with a lace collar and white hair pulled into a bun.
Rockwell, celebrated for his sentimental depictions of everyday life, had left New York City for Arlington, a quiet town in Vermont, in 1939. It was here that he met Grandma Moses, who lived on a farm nearby. An outsider artist, she had left school as a young girl and spent her life working as a farmhand and housekeeper before starting to draw with wax crayons in her seventies.
“When I knew her,” he wrote in My Life as an Illustrator, “she was 85 years old, a spry, white-haired little woman. Like a lively sparrow. She still painted in her bedroom on the third story of her farmhouse, using the same cheap brushes and house paint, though the paintings were selling rapidly for very good prices.” Though she’d never had any formal training as an artist, Grandma Moses was capturing public imagination with her colourful rural scenes. Like Rockwell, she depicted everyday life with poignant familiarity, evoking nostalgia for a rapidly disappearing America.
In 1948, Rockwell included Grandma Moses in his cover illustration for the Christmas issue of The Saturday Evening Post. As a mother embraces her son, home for the holidays, a cheerful family gathers round – to the left, the distinctive figure of Grandma Moses smiles on.
Diego Rivera and Amedeo Modigliani
Paris at the dawn of the 20th century was the unrivalled capital of the Western art world, its bohemian crowd including the likes of Picasso, Braque, Dufy and Matisse.
Most of these pioneering modernists had not yet tasted success, however, and lived in sometimes squalid conditions in the districts of Montmartre and Montparnasse. The epicentre of their world was an artists’ commune called Le Bateau-Lavoir (the Laundry Boat). This was the ramshackle building where Picasso was living when he painted his great proto-Cubist work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and it was also where a young Italian painter and sculptor called Amedeo Modigliani washed up on his arrival in the city in 1906.
It wasn’t just the European avant-garde who flocked to the French capital. Mexican painter Diego Rivera is best known today for his vast murals in his home country and the US (and for his marriage to Frida Kahlo), but in his early years he too was a member of this coterie of artists and intellectuals. He arrived in the city in 1907, a year after Modigliani, and was soon drawn into his orbit. The two men’s friendship can be traced through a series of sketches and paintings that Modigliani made of Rivera, one of which is pictured here.
Both would go on to become towering figures in 20th-century art history, but tragically for Modigliani, this would happen long after his death. He died of tuberculosis in 1920, aged just 35. It was the same year that Rivera left Paris, to eventually return to Mexico where fame awaited him as one of the “big three” of the muralist movement, alongside David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco – swapping Paris’s revolutionary avant-garde for the art of the Mexican Revolution.
Raphael and Dürer
Although they lived 600 miles apart and never met in person, Albrecht Dürer and Raphael were 16th-century penpals. The two Renaissance titans literally swapped notes, in the form of drawings that they sent to each other at the height of their fame.
Even without the benefit of modern communications, the European art world of the time was close and inter-connected - German artist Dürer travelled to Italy on two occasions. The great artists of the age knew of each other through word of mouth as well as their prints, which circulated throughout Europe.
Renaissance art historian Giorgio Vasari records that Raphael’s fame reached Dürer, prompting him to send the Italian artist a self-portrait in gouache. Raphael responded in kind with “several of his own drawings which Dürer kept and treasured.” Sadly, the Dürer self-portrait has been lost, but one of the drawings by Raphael survives and is now in the collection of the Albertina in Vienna (pictured left).
RA curator Per Rumberg says this drawing is particularly special because Dürer has written on it: “It’s intimate and quite rare”. The inscription is a ‘note to self’ in German that Rumberg translates as follows: “In 1515 Raphael from Urbino, who was so highly praised by the Pope, made this nude study and sent it to Albrecht Dürer in Nuremberg, in order to guide his hand.”
The exchange of drawings allowed them to share something that could a print reproduction couldn’t – a drawn line in the artist’s own hand. “Raphael and Dürer were both particularly gifted draughtsmen,” Rumberg says. “Did they want to show off or did they want to teach other? That’s the question.”
Join us for a discussion on friendship and artistic collaboration
Saturday 25 November 2017
How can friendship and relationships between artists develop as a conversation through their work, and how can it become a fundamental part of their practice?
We encourage guests to bring thoughts and perspectives to share with others and generate a collaborative debate.