Despite the synchronicity of both artists being friends and having names beginning with D (forget exhibitions being commissioned, wars have been started over less) this is the first major shared exhibition of the early 20th century’s arch-art pranksters. Whilst both of them started off fooling around on the verges of cubism (Duchamp’s rejection by the cubists cut deep and fuelled his aversion to movements and collectives in general) both artists soon established themselves at the centre of their own milieu, though posterity has bestowed the crown to Duchamp over the more technically gifted Dali. The good feeling between the two men is clear throughout the exhibition: from chummy holiday snaps to an overwhelming interest in the carnal (there is sex in this exhibition like there is water in the ocean) and the revolutionary potential that unapologetic depravity can deliver. One of the exhibits comprises of a scrawled note from Duchamp explaining that his 1920s female alter-ego Rrose Sélavy was named because of the “easy pun” where ‘Rrose Sélavy’ sounds like ‘Eros c’est la vie’ (‘Eros that’s life’. Perhaps Duchamp meant to say ‘tortured’ rather than ‘easy’) which might as well serve as the exhibitions epigram.
Despite this the two men had surprisingly little in common when it came to character (or at the very least, their public personas): Dali was the fevered narcissist, straightjacketed by his titanic ego like the diver’s suit he used to wear at parties (which, fittingly, nearly fatally suffocated him) whose position as the modern art world’s first global celebrity was as important to him as his own art (perhaps more so in fact). Duchamp, by contrast, was practically monk-like. Duchamp’s cerebral nature (the only thing in the exhibition that comes up with the regularity of sex is chess) and the uncompromising nature of his artistic ideals and ideas can make him seem a touch cold to a modern audience. In fact, one of this exhibition’s central successes is how it repudiates this bloodless image and sheds light on Duchamp the man as much of Duchamp the artistic philosopher. Predictably a lot of this humanising is rooted in sex; one of Duchamp’s early pieces involved him doodling a goatee on a postcard of the Mona Lisa (as proof of his intellectual brotherhood with the great artists, this writer once did the same thing in primary school) entitling it L.H.O.O.Q. a phonetic play on words that translates to “she’s got a hot arse” (you scallywag Duchamp).
Throughout the exhibition Dali’s art pings between fatuous provocation and the genuinely inspired (though his brushwork is always a joy) and serves the exhibition as manic stream of consciousness which visitors can use to float around the rocks of Duchamp’s epochal readymades. Whilst Duchamp is going to draw most of the ink (as this article demonstrates), Dali’s puckish work helps pierce through the leaden canonicity that has robbed Duchamp’s most famous work of some of their revolutionary nature. By placing famed works like In Advance Of A Broken Arm or his bicycle wheel and urinal next to Dali’s Lobster Telephone (exactly what it says on the tin), the exhibition helps dispel the dull sense of importance such pieces can attract and allows the audience to revel in the sense of possibility that such work initially inspired. Whilst the exhibition could use some breathing room (it’s crammed into four smallish rooms as the RA is presently in exhibition overload) it’s a worthy look at two of the titanic figures in 20th century art that offers some cheap thrills on the side. Come and go, it’s what they would have wanted.
For further discussion of Dali/Duchamp check out the KCWToday Podcast