Dali and Duchamp’s unlikely friendship on display at The Dali

By : Samuel Johnson
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ABOVE: (L) Salvador Dalí and Edward James, Lobster Telephone, 1938, telephone, steel, plaster, rubber, resin and paper. Edward James Foundation, West Dean / © 2018 Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Artists Rights Society. (R) Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917/1964 Photography: © Schiavinotto Giuseppe © Association Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2018

Two powerhouses of surrealism converge in a dual exhibition at The Dali Museum in St. Petersburg. Marcel Duchamp, widely recognized as the father of conceptual art, and Salvador Dali, one of the most enigmatic and influential surrealist painters, are showcased together.

While these artists are often considered to be on opposite ends of the surrealism spectrum, the exhibit upholds that they are actually cut from the same cloth esthetically. In fact, Duchamp and Dali were devoted friends, sharing their delight for games, especially chess, as well as their iconoclastic principles of making and viewing art.

They both pushed the envelope on the entrenched conventions of what normal means. In the case of Marcel Duchamp, he attempted to tease out ideas about identity and self-representation through androgyny. Duchamp’s alter ego, the female Rrose Sélavy, was his modus operandi.

Dali/Duchamp is a collaboration between The Dali Museum and the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Both organizations agreed to host the exhibit at their respective museums. London got the first shot last year; now the second leg of this exclusive show, the only opportunity to see it in the U.S., has come to St. Petersburg.

The entrance of the exhibit is marked by subdued lighting and a series of jute sacks hanging from the rafters. This is an intentional homage to the anti-esthetics of displaying art that was conceived by Dali and Duchamp. William Jeffett, chief curator of exhibits at the Dali Museum and co-curator of this exhibit, explains that “it was like a very oppressive space, like going inside a coalmine or some other kind of grotto. It was the opposite of sort of bright and shiny modern architecture… a predecessor of installation art.”

Once inside the space, the first room of the exhibit is, in contrast, well lit. This room highlights some early work by both Dali and Duchamp. It’s almost like a compare and contrast exercise in the differing, though traditional, styles of both artists. In a smaller room there are some photographs and print work.

Next is a narrow and shallow room where various chess pieces, designed by Dali in honor of Duchamp, are housed. Both Dali and Duchamp enjoyed games, but Duchamp was more fanatical. He was a competing chess master in America and in France.

Opening up past the chess room is a space where the work of both artists can be seen while they were at the pinnacle of their careers. “You get a very different approach than when they were young. We don’t find cubism and we don’t find the slightly more traditional element,” Jeffett says. Contained in this space are two notably important works: Dali’s “Christ of St. John of the Cross” and Duchamp’s “Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même),” colloquially known as “The Large Glass.”

“Christ of St. John of the Cross” is arguably one of Dali’s most celebrated paintings. It has never previously been displayed in The Dali Museum, much less this part of the world. Equally impressive, says the museum’s director Hank Hine, is Duchamp’s “The Large Glass.” Just getting the piece from London was logistically complex. “‘The Large Glass’ had to stay upright on a military transport plane to get here. It was so expensive, but so import to bring, so that artists could see this original source of inspiration,” Hine adds.

Eroticism is the theme of the back and final room, with a large vitrine occupying the middle space. Within the glass case are various ready-made objects, which were re-appropriated by the artists. These are replicas of the original objects, nonetheless, well-known exemplars of Dada, Surrealism, and Conceptualism. There are pieces like the “Lobster Telephone,” the “Venus de Milo with Drawers,” and the inverted urinal called “The Fountain.”

Dawn Ades, professor of art history at the University of Essex and the Royal Academy and co-curator of this exhibit, was skeptical as to whether a focus on eroticism could be accomplished amid the current sexual climate. But she says “to the eroticism there is a strong element of voyeurism, of a kind of looking rather than actually doing anything. And they were, after all artists.”

It’s in this last room that the gender bending and reexamination of self-identity by Duchamp is evident. Ades attributes a fluidity of gender to Duchamp’s “The Fountain.”

“It’s a very good example of it because there is something that you would think is the epitome of the male, masculinity,” he says. Ades also opines that “what [Duchamp’s] done is put it on its back so that it actually takes on the outline of a Madonna… allowing one object to somehow be facing both ways. [It] is actually very much part of his esthetic.”

Where does Duchamp’s motivation for this esthetic come from? Hine thinks it’s baked into the pie. “That’s part of the doctrine of surrealism,” he says. “Human nature is a complete spectrum. They said that… the only way to get out of what this civilized world created, the kind of mayhem and chaos of the early 20th century, is by finding our basic qualities… and being true to who we are.”

ABOVE: Salvador Dalí, Venus de Milo with Drawers (and PomPoms), conceived in 1936; cast in 1964, bronze painted white with ermine pompoms. Worldwide rights ©Salvador Dalí Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí (Artists Rights Society), 2018 / In the USA © Salvador Dalí Museum, Inc. St. Petersburg, FL 2018.

Duchamp had his own way of being true to who he was: he donned women’s clothing as the female artist Rrose Sélavy. He decided he wanted an alter-ego, almost adopting a Jewish pseudonym. He eventually settled on Rrose Sélavy, which itself is a pun on the French pronunciation of “eros, c’est la vie,” meaning “sex, that’s life.” One out of the two known famous photographic portraiture of Duchamp as Sélavy is in the photograph gallery near the entrance of the exhibit. An equally famous photographer associated with surrealism, Man Ray, took the snapshots.

What are we to make of Sélavy? Art professor Ades maintains that Duchamp was constantly “challenging fixed notions of identity.” A photograph of Sélavy was published in the New York issue of “Dada” magazine, even as a label on a bottle of perfume. “He was prepared, as it were, to pursue this changed identity, this changed gender, as far as you like,” Ades continues.

During the 1938 Surrealistic exposition in Paris, Sélavy was dressed up as a mannequin wearing Duchamp’s jacket, thereby he, as she, disguised herself as a male. Interestingly, Ades says, Duchamp and Man Ray would have fun with this alter-ego. “Man Ray also used to dress up as a woman and photographed himself as a woman. It was quite startling at the time.”

ABOVE: Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q., 1958, Moustache and goatee added to reproduction of Mona Lisa printed in the Enciclopedia Universal Private collection, Barcelona ©Association Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2018

Duchamp was a gender iconoclast, utilizing his art and his platform to expose the threadbare notions, as he saw them, of societal self-identification norms. According to co-curators Ades and Jeffett, a prevailing negative attitude in the ‘20s and ‘30s was that surrealism was run by a sort of homosexual cabal. Ades points out that this was anathema to what Duchamp believed, noting “he was not prepared to accept this as a criticism. He thought that both women and homosexuals had contributed a great deal to modern art in the 20th century.”

The impact of Marcel Duchamp as an artist is undeniable. But it just may be Rrose Sélavy, as the artiste, who has had an unsung influence on LGBTQ artists like David Hockney, Robert Rauschenberg, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Francis Bacon, Paul Cadmus, or Gilbert & George. Jeffett definitely sees a link with Gilbert & George, noting “they are very visible as sort of Dandyish figures… very carefully constructed and costumed.”

“Dali/Duchamp” can be seen at the Dali Museum in downtown Saint Petersburg from now until May 27, 2018.This exhibition contains challenging images, including adult content.To purchase tickets or for more information, visit TheDali.org.

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