Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Dalí/Duchamp

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Dalí/Duchamp

Article excerpt

During a panel discussion in 1949, Frank Lloyd Wright made an undiplomatic comment about Marcel Duchamp's celebrated picture of 1912, 'Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2', in the presence of the artist. 'I am sure he doesn't himself regard it as a great picture now.' At this Duchamp bridled, exclaiming in his excellent English, 'I beg your pardon, sir!' However, the architect had a point, as the exhibition Dalí/Duchamp at the Royal Academy bears out. I came away from it reflecting that Duchamp wasn't a very good painter.

This is not the point, obviously, that the RA intended to make. The idea was to reveal how much this improbable pair -- the progenitor of conceptual art and the flamboyant showman of surrealism -- actually had in common. It's true they were good friends. On show there are letters and photographs of Duchamp, clad less elegantly than usual in shorts, visiting Dalí in his Catalan coastal lair at Cadaqués. In artistic terms, though, the connection isn't quiteso clear.

One difference is that Dalí remained pre-eminently a maker of pictures --although he did come up with one memorable surrealist object, his 'Lobster Telephone' (1938). Duchamp, in contrast, gave up painting quite early on and even his celebrated found objects -- the porcelain urinal turned upside-down, signed and entitled 'Fountain' (1917), the 'Bottle Rack' (1914), the snow shovel wittily dubbed 'In Advance of the Broken Arm' (1915) -- belong to his youth. Or rather the items originally 'found' did, but those were slung out as worthless clutter, shortly after Duchamp discovered them, by various people (including his sister). The ones we see -- ironically, in the circumstances -- are all meticulously hand-crafted facsimiles.

These, of course, have been enormously influential, effectively launching the notion that an artist's thoughts and decisions are more crucial than the marks of the painter's brush or the sculptor's chisel. Duchamp himself, however, did not go on to create a great oeuvre of conceptual art.

Nor did he quite -- as he claimed -- give up art in favour of chess. But his output was small. Much of his most important work fits into one room at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Duchamp also recycled his old ideas, in the 'Boîte-en-valise' (or box in a suitcase) of 1935-1941, which contains miniature versions of his early paintings and 'ready-mades'.

Many years were spent on 'Étant donnés' (1946-66), a creepy peepshow in which one peers through a hole in a door to see the naked body of a woman, perhaps dead or murdered. …

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