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Artistic anarchy reigns in Dali Museum’s Dali/Duchamp exhibition

By Joanne Milani, Times Correspondent
Hank Hine, executive director of the Salvador Dalí Museum, looks at a display that's part of "Dalí/Duchamp." The exhibition, which runs through May 27, includes Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain," 1917/1964, left, and Salvador Dalí's "Lobster Telephone," 1938. (SCOTT KEELER | Times)

ST. PETERSBURG

In Dalí/Duchamp, the world-class exhibition now at St. Petersburg’s Dalí Museum, you’ll meet Salvador Dalí, the publicity hound who claimed his nutty moustache was for receiving signals from outer space. And you’ll meet Marcel Duchamp, whose sly smile and quiet demeanor belied his fierce determination to jab his fingers into the eyes of established society. These two longtime friends had fun while pursuing their mission of artistic anarchy.

You will have fun, too.

"Humor and laughter … are my pet tools," Duchamp once said. "This may come from my general philosophy of never taking the world too seriously — for fear of dying of boredom."

Just think of it: Duchamp, born in 1887, and Dalí, born in 1904, lived through the carnage and upheavals of World War I and the horrors of World War II. Imagine if you were the only sane person in an insane asylum. What would you do to protest an upside-down world? Viewed from this perspective, Dalí and Duchamp were on to something rather rational.

They weren’t alone. In 1920 in Cologne, Germany, artist Max Ernst organized an exhibition called "Early Spring" in the courtyard of a pub. The public was supposed to enter through the bathrooms. Inside, a girl in a white Communion dress recited lewd poetry attacking art and religion. Visitors were given a hatchet to destroy the artworks.

Everyone had fun until the police closed down the show.

That should give you an idea about the emotional and artistic climate in Europe between the wars. Anarchy was a logical response to the devastation and political insanity of the era.

There are no hatchets at the Dalí Museum, and the police are not likely to show up, but Dalí and Duchamp are in full swing with their anarchistic artworks.

One shockingly simple way to attack the established world of art is to desecrate an icon of Western culture. Why else do you think Duchamp added a moustache and goatee to the image of the Mona Lisa? It’s something a schoolboy would do. However, coming from the hands of a serious artist, that simple act meant that the old ways of making art did not meet the needs of the 20th century.

After all, the art that makes the history books is the art that truly expresses the needs of the society that created it.

In an environment where handcrafted articles were being replaced by mass-produced consumer goods, Duchamp appropriated a urinal. In 1917 he presented it as a work of art and signed it "R. Mutt." It was a deliberate slap at the established art world, and it was at first rejected for inclusion at an exhibition.

The smooth porcelain urinal might be sculptural in a sly way, but Duchamp’s ready-made bottle rack of 1914 is positively poetic. Exhibition co-curators William Jeffett and Dawn Ades placed it near the ceiling and lit it so that its shadow flutters on a wall. The shadow momentarily looks like a flock of birds in flight — that is if you can forget that you are also seeing a bottle rack.

"The idea is that art is in the world," said Jeffett.

Dalí, with his theatrical poses and shocking statements, was just as serious. "I don’t do drugs," he once said. "I AM drugs."

As noted in a catalog essay by Ades, both Dalí and Duchamp were sons of local notaries. In the villages of Dalí’s Spain and Duchamp’s France, a notary was a respected person of standing. But just as the sons of preachers are sometimes the wildest kids on the block, these two artists thrived on being outrageous. Dalí’s portrait of his respectable father and Duchamp’s portrait of his respectable father hang at the beginning of the exhibition, a wry comment on how sons can bedevil their parents.

With explorations into the world of sex and dreams uncovered by Sigmund Freud, Dalí defied polite social norms and uncovered the vivid dreams that inhabit human minds. Not surprisingly, sex and religion are at the center of his work. One room in the exhibition houses adult content.

Dalí’s theatrical antics once prompted Picasso to describe him as "an outboard motor continually running." But with his consummate skill in rendering realistic objects and his uncanny ability to illustrate the deepest recesses of the human mind, Dalí created illusionistic masterpieces.

He also had fun with double images. In Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach, a beach scene with a fruit cup morphs into a face — if you can hold two images in your head at the same time.

Freud might have had something to say about that.

On the other hand, Dalí’s Christ of St. John of the Cross from the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, Scotland, is a splendid example of his exquisite skill as a painter and an example of his faith.

The Dalí/Duchamp exhibition was organized by the Dalí Museum and the Royal Academy of Arts in London, where the exhibition received rave reviews. The Dalí is the only venue in the United States to host the show. Both the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation and the Association Marcel Duchamp cooperated in the assembly of the show. Even better, the curators have presented the material beautifully and with liveliness. They even included a clip from Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, in which Dalí created a disturbing dream sequence.

"We have tried to animate this exhibition," says Ades.

Take advantage of the world-class exhibition that has landed in your backyard.

And remember: These guys had fun making their art. That means you can have fun, too.

Exhibition organized by the Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Fla., and the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in collaboration with the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation and the Association Marcel Duchamp. Exhibition curated by Dawn Ades and William Jeffett, with Sarah Lea and Desiree de Chair.