Salvador Dalí, “Les premiers jours du printemps (The First Days of Spring)” (1929) (all images courtesy the Royal Academy of Arts)

LONDON — The two behemoths of 20th century art, Marcel Duchamp, credited with introducing the concept of readymades and radically altering attitudes towards the plastic arts, and Salvador Dalí, perhaps the most famous of the Surrealist painters, will be to many the unlikeliest of bedfellows. Little known, however, is that they enjoyed an intimate and lasting friendship, and the Royal Academy of Arts takes this never-before explored angle as the basis for the exhibition Dalí / Duchamp, aiming to demonstrate “the aesthetic, philosophical and personal links” between them.

Given that the two artists ploughed careers fiercely independently of one another, and evidence of collaboration is fundamentally scant, the exhibition instead draws visual parallels within their work. It is a risky method which presents the art as in ‘dialogue’ — a lateral way of suggesting links and shared themes which, at least on paper, may never have been anything more than coincidental. After all, many of the themes highlighted — identity, sexuality, the body, and object — were commonly explored by their contemporaries throughout the first half of the century.

Salvador Dalí, “Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach” (1938)

Marcel Duchamp, “Fountain” (1917, 1964 edition)

Inevitably then, the show is a mixed bag from the start, though this is by no means a bad thing; the show refers to a “rich and rewarding exchange,” rather than try to prove a direct collaboration, allowing a refreshingly off-piste ride. Dalí travelled to Paris, encountering Duchamp there in 1930; their friendship however blossomed after Duchamp’s trip to Spain in 1933, as photographs show Duchamp, Dalí, and Gala, his lover then wife, at Dalí’s house in the Spanish fishing village of Portlligat. Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, Duchamp rented a summer apartment down the road in Cadaqués. Photographs of the pair naturally indicate holidaying chums rather than artistic geniuses locking horns. A rare non-Cubist, non-Surrealist painting by Dalí of 1922–23, titled “Lane to Porttligat with View of Cap de Creus,” is a straightforward, even vaguely impressionistic landscape showing the parched dusty roads and brilliant sunlight. Presumably, an early Duchamp painting, “St Sebastian” of 1909, is placed next to it as a similar exercise in capturing searing light on the baked figure of the saint. More directly connected are two portraits of the artists’ fathers: Dalí’s of 1925 and Duchamp’s of 1910. It’s interesting to see these early paintings before the main ‘signature’ style emerges for each artist (in Duchamp, of course, this being abandoning paint altogether).

Notable is Duchamp’s painting from 1912, “Kings and Queens Surrounded by Swift Nudes,” which is a lesser-seen, shorter, squatter brother to “Nude Descending Staircase,” as well as Dalí’s own forays into Cubism with a self-portrait from 1923: an uncomfortable affair of jagged green edges, missing the elusive oxymoronic harmony of the best Cubist works. Indeed, Duchamp’s abandonment of painting following his rejection by the Cubist group is highlighted as a main connecting link with Dalí, though an extremely tenuous one; while Duchamp’s abandonment was life-long, Dalí’s lasted less than a year. The curators’ label for his “Untitled” (ca.1928), a deliberately nihilistic expanse of gray canvas, suggests the painting illustrates Dalí’s own uneasy attitude towards painting that was “nuanced, even ironic and explain[s his] sympathy for Duchamp’s position.” This is a conveniently neat conclusion, and seems to actually assert Dalí’s definitive sympathy when it could be entirely invented. Curatorially it is fine to adopt this left-field suggestive method of display, but it is difficult to be convinced of an artist’s intellectual or emotional opinion when so glibly asserted in the captions here.

Salvador Dalí, “Surrealist Object Functioning Symbolically – Gala’s Shoe” (1931) (1973 edition)

The next two sections titled “The Body and Object” and “Experimenting with Reality” contain more iconic works for which we know Dalí and Duchamp. And it is here that it often feels as if the two artists are exhibited in parallel, with the themes of eroticism, then ideas of time, energy, quantum theory, space, and optics, as mere starting points for a similar free-fall association exercise. Familiar Dalí-surreal paintings and erotic drawings (amongst them, remarkably, is the inclusion of his 1928 “Anthopomorphic Beach,” a disturbing piece of wood with a vulva-like middle and extending finger) are displayed surrounding a central glass box containing some of Duchamp’s greatest hits of readymades, including, of course, “Fountain” (1917/64) and “Bicycle Wheel” (1913/64). Next to them sits Dalí’s “Lobster Phone” of 1938. It is probably fairer to say that the juxtaposition demonstrates a shared visual language — indeed, the ideas of Freud, Darwin, and the uncanny were themes preoccupying many contemporary artists and thinkers — rather than a direct exchange of influence between the two, and, for the most part, the show is not trying to invent one.

Marcel Duchamp (reconstruction by Richard Hamilton), “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même),” known as “The Large Glass” (1915) (reconstructed in 1965–66 and 1985).

Nonetheless, there are some connections made between works which feel optimistic and inventive: Dalí’s “Christ of St. John on the Cross” (ca.1951) is said to share “striking synergy” with Duchamp’s “Large Glass,” his upstanding monolith sculpture containing squished shapes between panes of glass, on the grounds that both are vertically rectangular, have been likened to altars, and utilize sophisticated perspectival techniques. But the show’s freewheeling method seeks only to suggest similarities as visual starting points rather than provide evidence of direct influence. One has to just go with it.

Dalí and Duchamp did, however, actively supported one another in the display of specific artworks; Dalí’s “Madonna” (1958) was included by Duchamp and André Breton in their 1960 exhibition Surrealist Intrusion in the Enchanters Domain in New York. These kind of examples tell us that they supported and respected each other’s work, rather than gained influence from it. Indeed, a whole section on Duchamp’s moustachioed Mona Lisa, “L.H.O.O.Q” (1919) shows Dalí’s admiration (he writes of it in an article in Studium magazine) and even emulation of it in photographs, yet the amount of collaboration this inspired was minimal.

Dalí / Duchamp is billed as a first-ever look at the relationship between the two artists, most likely because they remained staunchly independent of one another. The show displays the works in ‘dichotomy,’ which in theory avoids the temptation to invent a deeper artistic relationship in a formal sense between Dalí and Duchamp, though the curators tease us with this possibility. Still, it’s a stimulating exercise; though they may represent two highly distinct singular voices, when the bodies of work are presented together, one can see the more lateral, less formal factors, such as their mutual admiration and life circumstances, that may have inspired shared visual ideas and themes.

Dalí / Duchamp continues at the Royal Academy of Arts (Burlington House, Piccadilly, Mayfair, London) through January 3, 2018.

London based Olivia McEwan is a trained art historian with BA and MA degrees from the Courtauld Institute, now a freelance writer focusing on the London art world; this academic background contributing...