Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia

I don’t get Surrealism. I was persuaded by the Marxists at University that Paris in the 1920s and 30s saw the final decadence and collapse of the French avant-garde; the Bauhaus (German) was the real deal. Surrealism was just so much bourgeois wank.

Unfortunately, this thesis is undermined somewhat by Surrealism’s continuing critical and popular success. In recent years one can’t move in London without bumping into a Surrealism exhibition: Surrealism at the V&A, Dali at the Tate last year, and now the current troika at the Tate. And whereas the acknowledged ‘greats’ of the twentieth century, Picasso and Matisse, are still admired today, the artists whose influence is current are all the Surreal – as Andrew Graham-Dixon points out in his review in The Telegraph, “the work of almost every British artist of note to have emerged in the past 20 years – from Damien Hirst to Sarah Lucas, from Gary Hume to Tracey Emin - is visibly anticipated here.” (No link – can’t find it on their site)

Catriona and I went off to the Tate members’ private view last night. My scores are as follows:



Considering his influence, I think he’s massively underrated. He’s an extremely intellectual artist, yet very capable of arresting visuals – all his greatest hits are in the show, which is wonderful. The Philadelphia Museum of Art especially has been a very generous lender. Nude Descending a Staircase is a fabulous early work influenced by stop-frame photography; wildly controversial at the time but rapidly surpassed in notoriety by Fountain (1917), the ceramic urinal which launched the ready-made’s career in art history. It’s actually quite thrilling that two groundbreaking iconoclastic modernist icons are both currently on display in London – Duchamp’s Fountain at the Tate and Malevitch’s Black Square in the Royal Academy’s Russian show.

Man Ray


No matter what the ideological underpinnings, as long as the visuals are great an artist will always have admirers – Man Ray was incapable of producing boring work. Even his solarised photographs of nuts and bolts are formally gorgeous pieces. The entire exhibition kicks off with a ravishingly beautiful profile portrait of Duchamp I’ve not seen before, and also contains his wonderful portraits of lovers and my favourite, the soft-focus porrtait of Marchesa Casatti with four eyes. The Marchesa felt he had captured her soul.



In comparison, Picabia comes off badly. His work reminds me strongly of Pulp’s song “Common People” – he’s the original rich-kid wannabe. He was the son of an extremely wealthy Cuban-born Spanish aristocrat, and liked to collect racing cars (especially Hispano-Suizas) – apparently he had over 100 cars. That says pretty much everything you need to know about him. He was clearly very lucky to link up with serious artists; he’s benefited greatly from their reflected glory. It is quite comic how in every room in this exhibition, with every development of style (and Picabia dabbles in many styles), his work is by far the weakest.

If you have by any chance any random Picabias in your collection, my advice after this show is: Run, don’t walk to Christies or Sotheby’s and Sell! Sell! Sell! Sell! Sell!

After the show Catriona and I repaired for a restorative glass of wine and some nibbles to the Tate café on level 7. The view at night-time is utterly fabulous – London glittering magnificently over a dark river; St Paul’s spotlit sublimely on the skyline. Sad this wonder is busy killing the planet – turn off those lights!!

Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia: The Moment Art Changed Forever
Tate Modern

21 February – 26 May 2008

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