Dalí and Duchamp in Cadaqués played chess at Bar Melitón in the barren years after World War Two and collaborated on a secret project that only came to light after Duchamp’s death in 1968.

Duchamp making a chess move illustrates Dalí and Duchamp in Cadaqués.

Salvador Dalí and Marcel Duchamp appear at first glance to have been opposites, but both were flag bearers of the avant-garde and dedicated to art as an intellectual pursuit. Dalí produced an endless torrent of paintings, sculptures, lithographs, movie sets, books and ‘divine madness.’ If you saw a baby hippopotamus walking through the square or a life-sized Lanvin chocolate mannequin being broken up to give to the children, you knew Dalí was in the midst of a ‘happening’. Duchamp was developing a new major work that evolved over many years and it was only through his private letters published after his death that it became known that Dalí played an important role in the finished product. 

Born in Normandy, France, in 1887, Marcel Duchamp was a key figure in Dada, the early 20th century movement that questioned conventional assumptions about what art should be and how it should be created. His 1912 Cubist painting ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ captures movement perhaps better than any painting before or since and was originally rejected by the Cubists as being too ‘Futuristic.’

Duchamp making a chess move illustrates Dalí and Duchamp in Cadaqués.Five years later, in 1917, Duchamp submitted for the inaugural exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York a standard white porcelain urinal he had bought at a plumbing store. He titled the object Fountain and signed it R. Mutt. The proposition made by what became known as a ‘readymade’ wasn’t ‘This is Art,’ as some critics expressed at the time, but the question: ‘What is Art?’

What exactly was a readymade? Duchamp explained that it was ‘an everyday object raised to the dignity of a work of art by the artist’s act of choosing it.’

The Fountain was never shown in the main exhibition hall at the Grand Central Palace, only in a side room by appointment. The original was lost, but a photograph appeared in the Dada journal The Blind Man and the urinal was soon recognised as a landmark of 20th century art. The suggestion that the artist-poet Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven had originated the idea for the urinal was rejected by art historians and Duchamp commissioned 16 replicas now scattered in museums across the world.

This solitary object, pure white and inherently graceful like polished marble was the key that opened Pandora’s box and freed artists to create in any form or fashion that pleased them. It inspired new generations from Andy Warhol with his obsession for consumer products, to Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapping landmarks in fabric, to Tracey Emin with her dystopian Turner Prize entry ‘My Bed.’ Unfailingly courteous with an air of mystery, the Fountain sealed Duchamp’s reputation as a sage and visionary.

Dalí and Duchamp at Work

Duchamp's last artwork illustrates Dalí and Duchamp in CadaquésWhen Dalí and Duchamp in Cadaqués weren’t playing chess, Dalí like a Hindu God with many arms was manically creating while Duchamp sat smoking his cheroot and staring out to sea from the semi-circular terrace jutting out from his apartment in Port Alguer.

He was working on Étant donnés – translated as: considering, given, in view of, seeing that, what with – an enigmatic and haunting diorama that – when finished – would reveal a naked woman prone in a thicket of brambles, legs spread wide and holding an antique lantern. Behind her, the painted backdrop would show a forest coming into autumn and a waterfall that sparkles and appears to be flowing. The scene would be viewed by only one person at a time – preventing discussion or collusion – through a pair of peepholes at eye level in an old Cadaqués door.

Duchamp thought of artists as a ‘family,’ a loosely connected tribe of thinkers, mavericks, outsiders who should take ideas from each other and stretch them into new areas, not in competition, not as a cult of the individual, but to challenge orthodoxy in politics as well as art.

During the six months before Duchamp’s death in 1968, Dalí helped his old chess partner paint the background scenery in Étant donnés, a collaboration that only came to light thanks to the letters Duchamp shared with the Brazilian sculptress Maria Martins. As the wife of the Brazilian ambassador, Marcel had been her lover, his confidante, a regular visitor to Cadaqués and the model for the nude figure.

Duchamp prepared a manual illustrating how to disassemble and reassemble his final work when it was moved in 1969 from his studio to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Crowds flocked to view the installation and came away from the peeping Tom holes in the door chilled, shocked and unsure if what they had seen was prescient and pornographic. Étant donnés resonated uncomfortably in a culture where women through movies and advertising were being turned more than ever into sexual objects and serial killers with grotesque fetishises had entered the life and minds of America. This last masterpiece made Marcel Duchamp in death even more controversial than he had been all his life.

You might enjoy Dalí’s strange tale of Millet’s the Angelus






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