Friday 28 December 2018


Royal Academy, London
(The last, at least for a while, of fashionably late posts on Surrealist exhibitions)

“I am creating with an absolute naturalness, without the slightest aesthetic concern. I am making things that inspire me with a profound emotion and I am trying to paint them honestly."
- Dali
”Is it possible to make works which are not works of art?”

The Uneven Couple

Salvador Dali and Marcel Duchamp first met in 1930 and, as show tells it, “despite their differences maintained a lasting bond of mutual admiration.” This might feel a little like hearing matter and anti-matter met up for coffee and the odd game of chess. It’s not just that one’s the most archetypal Dadaist and the other the most infamous Surrealist. There’s also their contemporary reputations being so far apart.

Duchamp is held in high regard by art critics and much-cited by contemporary artists. Whereas Dali played himself up as the face of Surrealism, often in quite a literal sense. And so he became a popular figure disdained by critics, the name so right to cite it must be wrong. He’s seen as the most important Surrealist in the way ’Sergeant Pepper’ is the best Beatles album.

And this unpopularity may have exacerbating factors. George Orwell was right to call him “a disgusting human being”. He was a fascist sympathiser, and used and abused others remorselessly to further his career.But if the basis there is firm the reason still isn’t good. Orwell himself goes on to say “against this has to be set the fact that Dali is a draughtsman of very exceptional gifts... He is an exhibitionist and a careerist, but he is not a fraud. He has fifty times more talent than most of the people who would denounce his morals and jeer at his paintings.”

Fromthe late Twenties and right through the Thirties, his work could beas fantastic as it was fantastical. (Even if none of his best works are on show here.) Orwell’s very pointwasto make Dali an example of a syndrome, where people baulk at holding both those thoughts in their heads and go on to deny one or the other of them.His point was that we need to overcome that syndrome.

Anti-Painting Against Anti-Art

The show starts years before that fateful meeting. The earliest Duchamp, ’Portrait of the Artists’ Father’ (1910) is accomplished but relatively conventional, a decent aping of Cezanne. But his progress from there is remarkably fast. ’The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes’ (above), only two years later, has already taken up Cubo-Futurism. (Though it should be said Cezanne had been an influence on Cubism.) It has themulti-facetedfigures and muted, restricted palette of Cubism, but combined with the animate dynamism of Futurism. (Particularly in that swooshing left-right diagonal.)

Though significantly the title suggests we should see the figures as symbols rather than representationally. Reading the King, for example, back to Duchamp’s Father seems the wrong approach here. This is quite unlike Cubism, which while it might make a puzzle of the object always offereda solution. The root of Duchamp’s metaphysical approach, his uninterest in “retinal art”, is here.

We perhaps shouldn’t read too much into Dali’s ’Cubist Self-Portrait’ (1923, above) dating from later, he was nearly two decades Duchamp’s junior. But while if anything it has more of the trappings of Cubism (such as the collaged elements), it’s clear Dali is pastiching the style. We see his figure clearly beneath 
the prismatic shards, an intact image semi-concealed behind a Cubist curtain, as if about to stride on stage. 

It may simply be that he was too much a narcissistto fracture himself. But then that itselfis telling. Duchamp found in Cubism not a way to rework representation but a hammer to smash it, if a style to pass through then a vital one. For Dali it’s just a style to pass through.

Let’s move on to more mature works. If you could use such a word for Duchamp’s infamously provocative ’LHOOQ’ (1919, above), where he graffiti’d a moustache onto a postcard ofthe iconic ’Mona Lisa’. The significance was enhanced by the original having being stolen, which threw a greater significanceupon reproductions. And indeed he reproduced his own gesture many times. At one point, keen to show a version in New York, rather than send one over he got an associate already over the ocean to just defacea copy himself.

This iconic work, we discover, had a big influence on Dali. And surprisingly, it didn’t involve moustaches. He pronounced it “the epitaph of modern painting” and promptly abandoned the brush. However, the show over-estimates the significance of this, even if we ignore the fact he soon returned to it. Like many he instead took up film and photography, more modern (and hence more Modernist) media, quite a different thing to Duchamp’s anti-art.

In Dali’s case let’s look at the fully fledged Surrealist ’The First Days of Spring’ (1929, above). Clearly, he’s influenced by de Chirico, covered here. Both litter figures and objects over stretched floors via elevated perspectives, emphasised by extended shadows. But de Chirico’s contemplative mood was perhaps best summed up by the title ’Melancholy of an Autumn Afternoon’ (1915).

Dali swaps Autumn for Spring, de Chirico’s moonlit classical plazas for plains and deserts, his inscrutable eerie calm for the frenzied and feverish. Dali’s figuresare much closer to apparitions than de Chirico’s.In this work some seem to be sporting apparitions of their own, above their heads, almost like thought balloons.

Also, de Chirico is less concerned withthe objects themselves than the spaces and relationships between them. Imagine looking onNativity dioramas if you hadno knowledge of Christianity. They’rearrangements sodeliberatetheymust surely have somemeaning.While Dali simplyaccumulates discrete elements, often (as here) incorporating frames within frames. There’s no reason to assume those figures are even aware of each others’ existence, any more than they would be in a Hannah Hoch collage. (The man in the chair doesn’t even share the otherwise aligned shadows.) De Chirico paints scenes as though they make sense to him. Dali paints as if in a state of delirium.

Automatic writing, creating without conscious intent, was a central weapon in the Surrealist armoury, described in their first manifesto as “pure psychic automatism… thought transcribed in the absence of any control exerted by reason, and outside any moral or aesthetic preoccupations”.

To this Dali added automatic painting.Those big empty desert planes becomes his sketchpad, a blank canvas with a horizon line added. The artist’s freed from having to consider an overall composition, and can just channel his unconscious onto the canvas, intervening as little as he can. He’d ‘dream up’ each image (in one sense or another), and place it inthe scene.Images could recur from one work to another, sometimes so similar they could have been cut and pasted, just as they might pop back up in the mind.The work’s aligned quite arbitrarily, mostly crowded but with an expanse of blank space to the left. And there are Dalis so cluttered, so without a centre of attention, the eye initially rebounds off them.

‘Peopled plain’ works such as this are numerous, even if they’re sidelined by both art critics and print sellers.Yet Dali was not just the most influential of Surrealists, it’s these works which spread the widest. Check out for example the cover to Van Vogt’s ’Empire of the Atom’ below. (Sorry, don’t know the artist.)

And Dali’s much-criticised style comes in here. It's knocked for its regressively faithful representation, conservative art from a political reactionary. Norbert Lynton comments that ”in purely pictorial terms” Dali is “firmly reactionary. We observe his painted scenes as a theatrical illusion, prepared for us beyond the proscenium arch of the stage.” Buton top of that it’smaligned for it’s advertising-artslickness.Yet, at least at this time, impressing the viewer with skilful flourishes couldn’t be further from his intent. In fact he’s trying to make his style as inconspicuous as he can.

One of the best quotes about Dali comes from Man Ray: “He would have preferred to photograph his ideas and considered his workaform of anti-painting”.Hisown maxim was “paint realistically, according to irrational thought” and his aim “a total discrediting of the world of reality”. So he used a mock deadpan fidelity to realism to creep up on his target in disguise, and thereby undermine it.In short he painted impossible things as though they were possible. (For this reason the nearest Surrealist to Dali is Magritte.)

So,to circle back to the show’s theme,is this surrendering to the unconscious similar to Duchamp’s metaphysics? No. No it’s not. Dali’s anti-painting is not Duchamp’s anti-art, his automatism not Duchamp’s chance processes.Dali sought to tune down his conscious to tune up his unconscious – but both are part of him. Everything he did, he explained, as to “express the total personality of Dali”. Duchamp came more and more to produce art with no signature style, which could not be traced back to the artist, which had an author only in the formal sense, to in his own words “annihilate the ego of the artist”.

The Charged Object

A room is given over to their art objects. Let’s compare ‘Fountain’(1917) Duchamp’s ‘readymade’ urinal, with Dali’s ‘Lobster Telephone’(1938), the exhibition poster (up top) having already done that for us. Dali’s work is juxtapositional, combining a manufacturedobject with a living creature. Whereas all Duchamp has done to the urinal is sign it. Yet, as said over his earlier show at the Tate, there’s still a juxtaposition of sorts – for the work is contrasted against its gallery setting. But difference between thosekinds of juxtaposition is still significant.

’Lobster Telephone’ is an object to muse over, the mind trying to reconcile the components in a kind of meditative exercise. (It’s perhaps a little too easily reduced,the phone representing the surfaceconscious mind and the marine lobster the depths of the unconscious,now in combination.But never mind.)As the show says “these Surrealist objects operate in the no-man’s-land between art and life, playing on our intuitive associations… [they]make the familiar uncanny.”

Whereas the Duchamp is not charged with associations. We stand there like suckers, waiting for an artistic impact which does not come. It remains obstinately aloof to any effect it might have on us. Your responses are disarmed by the simplest of objects.

Another example would be Dali’s’Scatological Object Functioning Symbolically – Gala’s Shoe’ (1930, above). The central red high heel might seem already a fetish object to the modern mind. But he specifies it’s Gala’sshoe, and so for him at least it acts as a synecdoche for his wife.Whereas in a Duchamp readymade a shoe would come straight from a shop. And on the subject of sex…

”Concrete Irrationality”

Another feature noted of the earlier Duchamp show was “the reduction of sex to the mechanical.” This is at it’s clearest with ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even’, (1915/23, above, sometimes known as the Large Glass) which depicts the sex drive literally through mechanisms. (Among them pistons, grinders, and sieves.) While the Surrealists endowed the libido with an almost mystical power.

Yet here we shouldn’t be too hasty in dividing things. Dali’s ’Scatological Object’ is also a mechanism, where a crane holds a sugar lump poised above a glass of milk sat in the shoe. And the road runs both ways. Mechanising sex, making it literally into a drive, inevitably also eroticises the machine. Inanimate objects become libidinous. And for all his cool air of detachment, Duchamp frequently returned to the erotic.

Unfortunately if inevitably, with this came the familiar problems. Asked to design a Surrealist exhibition brochure in 1947, Duchamp came up with ’Please Touch’ in the shape of a woman’s breast. His final work, ‘E’tant Donnes’ (1946/66), was essentially a peepshow.

Against ’First Days of Spring’, Dali’s ’The Spectre of Sex Appeal’ (1932) is one of his more composed compositions, with a monumental canvas-filling figure, plasticated and multiform. (Often, as here, with a smaller foreground figure gazing up at it.) As with ’Lobster Telephone’, there’s a clear reading. In fact there’s a readymade label - Freud’s Oedipus complex, the child’s repressed desire for his mother. Which was not an unusual theme for Dali, this show also includes ’Meditation on the Harp’ (1932/4), which arguably only differs by including both parents in a clinch. With a protuberance from the Child’s elbow which could double as an extension of the Father’s dick, as if he’s not just from but of his Father.)

But it’s not reductive to the reading in the same way. The monstrously multiformed figure is too hallucinogenic to be boxed up with a theory. It’s as if the child is unable to mentally process what he looks upon. He can’t even conceive of it as a single object, and so we see a composite of parts, an assemblage of his attempts. Dali described it as ”concrete irrationality.” Placing it on the beach also recalls the carcasses of strange sea creatures.

And indeed, despite his much-cultivated reputation for unabashed outrage, of proclaiming what the rest of us wouldn’t acknowledge in ourselves, Dali was in fact quite sexually repressed. For him desire and repugnance could never be disentangled. Which is perhaps where these works do actually work. Where the schoolboyish sniggeriness at sex is foregrounded, where they’re made into an infantile attempt to comprehend something beyond their current scope.

Celluloid and Dreams

Both artists were interested in, and associated with, film. Duchamp had appeared in the Dadaist ’Entr’acte’in 1924, and Dali co-created the Surrealist classic ’Un Chien Andalou’ in 1929. The show places two film clips made by them side-by-side. What both have in common, apart from “girls with hardly anything on” (not surprisingly for anyone who read the predecessor to this), is the dream device.

Dali collaborated with Hitchcock for a dream sequence inserted into the thriller ’Spellbound’ (1945). Gregory Peck’s character recounts his dream to two psychiatrists, in a classically Freudian set-up with him facing away from both. Naturally, one has a Germanic accent. The images, many of which are classic Dali motifs familiar from his paintings, become clues to an event the film must unravel.

Which means the dream does not pre-exist its analysis, instead the two take up a kind of symbiotic relationship. This also blurs the line between psychoanalysis and detective story. Which could be argued as cheapening Surrealism, reducing it’s essential mystery to a set of plot tokens. And in fact Hollywood execs ruthlessly cut back the sequence from the one originally intended.

On the other hand, in her book on Dali, co-curator Dawn Ades quotes Aragon on his approach to cinema: ”Children… sometimes fix their attention on an object to the point where the concentration makes it grow larger, grow so much that it completely occupies their visual field, assumes a mysterious aspect and loses all relation to purpose… Likewise on the screen objects that were a few moments ago sticks of furniture or books or cloakroom tickets are transformed to the point where they take on menacing or enigmatic meanings.” There’s an obvious parallel between this and the charged object covered above. Yet there’s also a connection to Hitchcock.

As Francois Truffaut pointed out his films have their own sense of dream logic where, blown up in size to fill the cinema screen, objects are bestowed with numinousness. Despite the majority of his films ostensibly being thrillers he’d cheerfully admit to having only a passing interest in plot mechanics, which could be made up of placeholder MacGuffins for all he cared. In essence, he made films by threading together images.

And this was seen at the time. People today are often surprised to hear that the Surrealists were fascinated by Hollywood, particularly as it moved away from the conventions of the theatre. It was perhaps inevitable the two would met up at some point.

While conversely Duchamp’s sequence from ’Dreams That Money Can Buy’ (1947) offers no analysis. Here the dream motif is just a framing device for a series of short films, each by a different artist, in a barely linear work that’s very far from Hollywood. Duchamp uses spinning discs to mesmerise the viewer, the very opposite of stimulating their critical abilities. (At points seemingly inventing 3D cinema years early.)

Today, it’s perhaps too easy to dismiss this. The association of Surrealism with the dream has become so overdone your hackles tend to rise. Man Ray probably spoke for the movement as a whole when he said “It has never been my object to record my dreams, just the determination to realise them.” Worse, we’ve become so used to dream sequences in films we now picture actual dreams through those cliches, and tend to imagine a dream’s merely a film which projects in your head. Yet montage for example, not just one of the most basic tools of cinematic language but one of the main sources of fascination for the Surrealists, has no dream equivalent.

In fact this association skips over what’s so significant about dreams, their power to imprint a mood upon you. What’s seen in them seems secondary to this, numinous objects mere incidences of a pervasive numinous atmosphere. We can awake from dreams remembering no images but remaining very much in the power of that mood. Sometimes we remember details, but our waking minds can make no association between them and that mood. If there is an artform which can match dreams for this, it’s not any visual art but music. Music is the great short-cut to emotional states.

Opposites At Last

Their later years effectively bifurcate. As said before, Duchamp’s retirement from art should be seen as “his greatest work”. Meanwhile Dali in effect abandoned art in order to make money, which seems like a lesser thing. In 1939 Andre Breton gavehim withthe anagrammatic nickname ‘Avida Dollars’, whichsharply stuck.His degeneration through the Forties was remarkably swift. Pretty soon the slick brush, originally adopted as a disguise to bring on board the irrational, is all that’s left. See for example ’Still Life Fast Moving’ (1956, below). The desert-dwelling shaman has become a stage magician. To misquote Obi Wan Kenobe, he’s more technique than man now.

But what of their legacy? The popular conception of Surrealism has long since warped itself around its arch exponent. The movement’s now seen as a means to access your most suppressed impulses and desires, nailing your id to a canvas. While Dadaism, as something distinct from Surrealism, is less misunderstood and more plain not understood. So the popular mind is less likely to think of Duchamp at all.

And yet, while this overwriting of Dali across Surrealism distorts Surrealism, it captures Dali well enough. While contemporary artists who copy Duchamp usually work from a complete misrepresenting of him (it scarcely matters whether this is wilful or gormless), Dali is closer to his popular perception.

It’s true, as said after the Tate’s Duchamp show, that his cool conceptualism led to a lot that’s risible in contemporary art, the vacuous masquerading at the notorious. But that comes from a degradation of his approach, from looking too much at what he did and bypassing why he did it. Whereas Dali’s inheritance in contemporary art is less overt, but greater. As he turned his personality as a brand to gain celebrity status he passed a promissory note to Damien Hirst and all the other hopers. 

Even the ‘defence’ of Dali’s reactionary politics (if that’s the term for such a thing), that he was merely pranking the po-faced Left with his strident Francoism, doesn’t help much. It just makes him a precursor of todays alt.right, with their “dank memes”.

Their personalities were as distinct as hot and cold. True, both made enigma into provocation. But Duchamp’s detached, elusive, playful yet cerebral. While Dali is heated, grandiose, self-aggrandising. In photos Duchamp can look professorial, almost anonymous. He’ll often appear in disguise, for example in drag as Rose Selavy. Whereas with his patented poised moustache, Dali seems an artwork in himself. Man Ray’s 1936 photo of him made the cover of ’Time.’ In fact that popular perception could be seen as his main work, and perhaps intentionally. He was soon saying things such as “a painting is such a minor thing compared to the magic I radiate.”

So that effervescent persona, possibly more than the works, came to be what Dali was. Like a rock star who doesn’t have to play by the workaday rules, only more so, Dali became the id force unchecked. While Duchamp’s two great contributions was to eliminate his own presence from his works as much as he possibly could, and finally give up art altogether.

After speculating over ‘Dreamers Awake’ if the women-and-Surrealism angle had been a last-minute decision, this time I half-wondered if the loans to fill out the forthcoming dedicated Dali show hadn’t been forthcoming the same time as the Duchamp, so the two were stuck together in a shotgun marriage.

The show concedes “at first glance they would seem to be opposites”. A glance which would seem to include the poster images of them, including the one incorporating this photo of them placing chess (taken by Robert Descharnes in 1966, above). They’re even wearing their rival team colours, suggesting there’s more mileage in contrasting than comparing them. While the show’s other poster (up top) portrays them as mirror images of one another.

Perhaps de Chirico would have been a better compare-and-contract for both of them, a clear influence on Dali who worked up a metaphysical style in quite a different way to Duchamp. But Dali and Duchamp, at both first glance and last look, were opposites. And that goes down to how we must see them know. Dali - at least the young Dali - has a reputation that must be salvaged. While with Duchamp you need to knock away his supposed disciples in order to reach him.

No comments:

Post a Comment