Exhibition Review: Dalí Duchamp at the Royal Academy

Dalí Duchamp exhibition poster at the Royal Academy, Piccadilly, London, featuring lobster phone and Fountain

Dalí Duchamp is the perfect injection of humour and zaniness towards the end of an ever-increasingly doom-laden year. Salvador Dalí and Marcel Duchamp are both major names in the art world, but together they’re magnetic.

Some of you may have seen previous blockbuster conceptual art exhibitions in London – I loved the Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia epic at Tate Modern (21st February – 26th May 2008) – and others will be looking at these artists with fresh eyes. Whether you’re an aficionado of Surrealist art and conceptual art, or you’re just looking for a distraction from idiotic political games, you’ll welcome this Royal Academy exhibition.

Dalí Duchamp features the famous Dalí lobster phone, Duchamp’s love-it-or-hate-it Fountain (you know, that urinal thing), and the very witty alter-ego of Marcel Duchamp, the glamorous Rrose Sélavy, as shot by Man Ray. If your kind of entertainment sits anywhere between greetings card puns, Lady Gaga in a meat dress, Marina Abramović’s weird performance art, and Jeremy Deller’s fake blue plaques, it’s practically obligatory to see this show.

Traveller's Folding Item Marcel Duchamp artwork with Underwood typewriter cover in gold lettering
Is it a typewriter cover or an item for a Dutch traveller? You decide. Credit: Duchamp/MuseumsinIsrael.gov.il.

Dalí Duchamp: Key Exhibition Themes

Some of the exhibits are, shall we say, NSFW, so you might want to avoid bringing young children to see them. Both artists were obsessed with the body, and played around with different stylistic representations, from eye-catching paintings (including Duchamp’s rarely seen early efforts) to phallic sculptures. It’s one of the reasons they remain controversial, even today.

Puns are another ongoing theme: playing with words, laughing at critics, and poking fun at what art is supposed to mean. The ‘readymades’ Duchamp exhibited were existing everyday objects given new purposes according to his caption: the Dutch Traveller’s Folding Item (1916/64) is an Underwood typewriter cover. As mentioned earlier, the famous Fountain (1917/64) is a urinal with ‘R Mutt 1917’ scribbled in black paint as a crude signature. Duchamp asks us to see these items in a new light, but not without a sense of humour.

Obviously not everyone got the joke, but this just fuelled the sensationalism; writing in The Blind Man art journal, a Dadaist publication with Duchamp as a contributor, one critic called Fountain ‘absurd’ and said ‘some contended it was immoral, vulgar’ – basically one huge in-joke. These self-referential Dadaists were, of course, enjoying frenzy being created. The world was a very different place 100 years ago, bound by convention and repression, so you can understand where the genuine shock came from. Even today, Fountain divides opinion.

Man Ray Multiple Portraits of Marcel Duchamp, Dada artist, seen from different angles in monochrome
Five Marcel Duchamps for the price of one? I’ll take that. Credit: Man Ray/Royal Academy.

Identity, and the concept of fluid identity, pops up again and again. Much like photographer Cindy Sherman would do decades later, Duchamp turned himself into different characters, often using his friend Man Ray to capture them. In Tonsure (1921), Duchamp has shaved part of his head to reveal a star shape, which wouldn’t look out of place in Shoreditch today. His early Multiple Portraits of Marcel Duchamp (1917) could almost be a scene from a séance.

Because Dalí and Duchamp were friends, their work has even more resonance when it’s placed side by side, along with photos of them hanging out. They both loved chess, so you’ll notice multiple references to chess playing in their work. Both artists also painted portraits of their fathers, and there’s a definite contrast: Dalí Senior looks austere, whereas Duchamp Senior seems more casual and open.

Mona Lisa with moustache and lettering as Dadaist artwork by Marcel Duchamp in Dali Duchamp exhibition, Royal Academy, London
L.H.O.O.Q. by Marcel Duchamp – very divisive at the time, but fairly normal in today’s art world. Credit: Duchamp/Royal Academy.

Stand-Out Pieces from Dalí Duchamp

L.H.O.O.Q (1919) demonstrates just how clever Marcel Duchamp was. This is also a prime example of dada art, putting satire first. You notice the reproduced painting of the Mona Lisa; Duchamp just used a postcard. Next, you see the moustache painted on top, defacing her. Then you read the caption, as described for those who don’t speak French: the letters L.H.O.O.Q, when read aloud, sound like the slang phrase ‘Elle a chaud au cul’, or ‘she has a hot arse’. Dalí, also a fan of appropriating classic paintings, captured Velazquez’s Las Meninas for a stereoscope design (1975-6).

Less controversial, but still interesting, pieces include Duchamp’s Network of Stoppages (1914), which looks like some kind of map, and an example of his ‘portable museum’: painstaking miniature reproductions of his work, made with helping hands and given to friends. The set on display was given to Dalí.

Dalí’s Skull (1972) is an optical illusion in the vein of The Ambassadors, by Hans Holbein the Younger (1533). A shiny metallic cylinder reflects a blob-like shape, creating a skull in the distorted reflection. It’s simple for the viewer, but must have been difficult to make.

Salvador Dali skull artwork using reflection mirror cylinder against paper lithograph
Using a reflection to create a new image and distort an object: right up Dalí’s street. Credit: 1stdibs.com.

If you’ve seen the Hitchcock film Spellbound, you’ll recognise the acclaimed dream sequence by Dalí, which conveys the lead character’s confusion. It’s under two minutes long, and worth watching a couple of times in the gallery.

The Royal Academy always does a mean gift shop tie-in range, so prepare to part with your cash for the postcard pack (£6), covering Dalí and Duchamp’s greatest hits, including the hypnotic – if brutally titled – Exploding Raphaelesque Head, 1951, by Dalí. Alternatively, buy a hand-embroidered velvet lobster patch (£18), a lobster and telephone necklace (£57), or a black suede lobster clutch (£85).

Marcel Duchamp Network of Stoppages painting resembling map and tracker on green yellow landscape
Network of Stoppages is perhaps not the greatest map to use in London. Credit: Duchamp/Royal Academy, via PaintersonPaintings.com.

Where to Go Next

  • Just around the corner from Piccadilly, see Lorenzo Quinn: Actions Not Words, at the Halcyon Gallery (144-146 New Bond Street), until 22nd December 2017. Quinn specialises in emotionally-driven sculptures – you might have seen shots of his 30ft piece, Support, installed at the Venice Biennale: a giant pair of hands rose up from the Grand Canal to rest on the Ca’ Sagredo Hotel.
  • If you enjoyed the exhibition’s body focus, head to the Wellcome Collection, on Euston Road. Entry is free, and the permanent exhibition is full of corporeal exhibits, like a shrunken head, Lord Nelson’s razor, and a metal corset.
  • Over in Vauxhall, Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery shows Dan Colen: Sweet Liberty until 21st January 2018. Like Dalí and Duchamp’s work, Colen’s paintings and mixed media installations will divide opinion.

Visiting Notes: Dalí Duchamp runs until 3rd January 2018 at the Royal Academy, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London. The exhibition is open Saturday-Thursday, 10:00-18:00, and Friday, 10:00-22:00.

Tickets are £15, with discounts for off-peak entry (e.g. late evenings), students and disabled visitors. Under-16s go free.