Salvador Dali’s Dream of Venus

by Ingrid Schaffner  (Princeton Architectural Press)

World’s Fairs – those celebrations of global innovation that took off after the Great Exhibition and declined, along with optimism about the future, after the late Sixties – have given rise to many marvels. The Paris Exhibition of 1889 brought us the Eiffel Tower. The German Pavilion at 1928’s International Exposition in Barcelona introduced the clean Modernist lines of Mies van der Rohe to a global audience. 1893 in Chicago saw the advent of the ferris wheel. And Seattle in 1962 was responsible for both the monorail and that cinematic masterpiece It Happened at the World’s Fair, starring Elvis Presley and Joan O’Brien.

In common with most of the other fairs, the theme of the 1939 World’s Fair in New York was, ironically, “Building a World of Tomorrow”. In the heart of Flushing Meadows, a city of the future was created, featuring such neologistic attractions as the Trylon, the Perisphere, and the General Motors-sponsored “Futurama” ride – depicting an idealised hi-tech US which neglected to contain a single church, much to the chagrin of the Moral Majority. The fair’s zoned attractions and wholesome “infotainment” inspired Walt Disney to create his eponymous theme park, not least because of the inclusion of an Amusement Zone. Here could be found less educational, more carnivalesque divertissements like the Wall of Death, Morris Gest’s Midget Town, and Strange as it Seems – a freakshow incorporating tattooed lady Betty Broadbent and the Man with the Iron Eyelids.

It was in the midst of this funfair for the common man that Salvador Dalí created the Dream of Venus, a Surrealist funhouse that seemed to have little connection with the main exhibition. Its stucco façade, adorned with organic pro-truberances reminiscent of coral or sea anemones, harked back to the Art Nouveau architecture of his fellow-Catalan Gaudí, which was rather out of keeping with the fair’s ostensibly forward-looking theme. Nevertheless, the director of exhibits, Maurice Mermey, was rather taken with the idea. “It is one of the very few amusement projects which will interest the Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar set,” he wrote in a memo, “and it is essential the fair in New York should have some of this appeal.” Dalí was the darling of the Manhattan fashion set, creating shoe-shaped headgear for Schiaparelli and shop-window displays for Bonwit-Teller, and sure enough the pavilion resulted in a cover story for American Vogue on 1 June 1939, with the artist also interpreting the new season’s bathing suits within its pages.

The diving-off point for this fashion story must have been the aquatic motif of the Dream of Venus itself – which can at last be seen, after six decades, thanks to unpublished pictures discovered in a closet by the executors of the photographer Eric Schaal’s will. In his Freud-obsessed way, Dalí conceived of the funhouse as a dream by the Roman goddess of love, who was born when Saturn castrated his father and cast the lopped-off genitalia into the sea. The first room encountered on entering, a submerged drawing room, is thus supposed to be her memory of the ocean’s watery womb. (In his autobiography The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, the artist spuriously claims to have “inter-uterine memories” himself.) Having said that, it is unclear what sort of womb would contain a bandaged cow with Clockwork Orange mascara, countless buoyant telephones, or a piano with a chained nude as its keyboard. Swimming through these surreal depths were topless lovelies attired in fishnet stockings, who spent their time underwater using a rubber typewriter or milking the mummified cow.

The other rooms of the pavilion were no less strange, although considerably drier. In Venus’s boudoir, underneath a ceiling hung with open umbrellas, a 36ft bed contained a sleeping beauty with the auburn tresses of her Botticellian precursor arranged in à la mode pin-curls. In the corridor, in front of a large reproduction of Dalí’s 1931 melting-watches picture The Persistence of Memory, stood a leopard-faced mannequin with a body covered in shot glasses (a sign calls him “The Aphrodisiac Vampire”). The final room – enjoying a connection to Venus’s dream that can best be described as tenuous – held a taxi, overgrown" with ivy; inside, an extremely localised rainstorm fell on a bearded Columbus dummy. This latter installation was a retread of the Rainy Taxi Dalí had created at the Inter-national Surrealist Exposition in Paris the previous year, albeit with a New World element added by the inclusion of Columbus and the change of cab livery from Parisian to New York.

The Dream of Venus was modelled on the “spook house”, that pedestrian ghost train of the American fairground, but with the stuff of nightmares replaced by Freudian dream-symbolism. And, as the fishnets and girdles on the swimmers indicated, that Surrealist territory shared a substantial border with the rather more commercial concerns of burlesque theatre. “You will charge a quarter,” Dalí said. “I paint for the masses, for the common man, for the people. If you charge the people 40 cents they won’t come.”

But art and commerce tend to mix about as well as oil and water, and Dalí had recent experience of this with one of his window displays for Bonwit-Teller. Containing dusty turn-of-the-century mannequins and a claw-footed bath, it was a surreal tour de force, but one which failed to feature any marketable product. The store had promptly changed the display to an emasculated version which retained little of his original design – save his all-important credit. In protest, the artist attempted to save his reputation by sabotaging the display. This led to a broken window, a night in jail, and the mustachioed vandal earning the respect of a heavily bejewelled Puerto Rican hood held in the same cell. 

With the Dream, too, Dalí found his corporate sponsors had different aesthetic plans to his own. Their costumiers persisted in making rubber mermaid tails for the swimming actresses to wear – a move strongly opposed by the artist, who was forced to pay a surreptitious visit to their workshop one night. “My contract granted me the supreme right of supervision,” he wrote, “and I was going to use and abuse this right with the challenging force of my scissors.” The fish tails did not appear in the finished pavilion.

First published in World of Interiors issue 249. Reproduced with permission.

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