You probably know the clichés: Marcel Duchamp (French, born 1887) was a painter who fell foul of cubism, stopped painting, put a urinal in a gallery, stopped making art, and was heralded as the genius inventor of conceptualism. His stock has never fallen since: his work is what a lot of contemporary art has looked like for decades. Salvador Dalí (Spanish, born 1904) was a painter who fell foul of the surrealists for having a silly moustache and mucking about, who then went on to help invent the artist as rock showman and paper a million teenage bedrooms. He’s been out of critical (if not popular) favour for a while. The biggest cliché of all, though, is that Dalí and Duchamp represent two opposing strands of art, and that conceptualism won.
What’s news to me is that Dudu and Dada were mates. Not till the 1930s, mind you, when Duchamp had already created his ‘readymades’ – everyday objects (shovels, bottle-dryers, typewriter covers) that he invested with the status of artworks – before giving it all up to play chess. Dalí, meanwhile, was well on the way to stardom, with his neurotically detailed, super-slick paintings of cocks and clocks. Seen side-by-side, these works change. For all Dalí’s skill and overweening ambition, his paintings struggle against an off-the-shelf snow-shovel, once you’re prepared to accept the idea that the latter belongs in a gallery. But this makes you return to them: ‘Still Life – Fast Moving’ (1956) is one of Dalí’s most amazing, accomplished paintings. You can almost feel him willing his skill to transcend the physical canvas and blast into the realm of pure ideas. His iconic freefalling crucifixion of 1951 remains a startling take on Western art’s dominant motif. Equally, I’ve seen Duchamp’s major works so many times, but never in this light: against Dalí’s pyrotechnics, even his most cursory throwdown idea seems brimming with unrealised possibilities, and his shrine-like ‘Large Glass’ (1915-23) is the altar at which the twentieth century worshipped.
Predictably, this show rehabilitates Dalí. Beside his clever older brother, the foppish upstart seems needier and deeper, his work less about shocking and awing than his own grinding obsessions (okay, Dalí’s major obsession was himself, but you know what I mean). But while Dalí fetishised the artist, Duchamp let art fetishise itself. And until I saw this show, I don’t think I properly understood what that meant.