And so the Salvador Dalí revival continues. After Jeff Koons’s humongous floral puppies and Matthew Barney’s ongoing cremasteria, who to invoke but the original mad modernist, the pioneer of ballyhoo surrealism and advertisements for himself?
Dalí too was once fabulously hot. By the time this maestro of the melted pocket watch and the waxed mustache paid his third visit to America in 1939, he was the world’s most notorious living artist. Dalí had conquered New York even as surrealism swept the fashion world two years before in the wake of the epochal Museum of Modern Art exhibition “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism.” Then, Dalí had been on the cover of Time; now crowds lined up at Julien Levy’s 57th Street gallery to gawk at his portrait of Hollywood surrealist Harpo Marx or his painting of the Egyptian sphinx with Shirley Temple’s face. Dalí made headlines by accepting a commission to make a display for Bonwit Teller and then kicking in the store’s Fifth Avenue window when he discovered that his conception had been altered.
The culmination of Dalí’s American period, however, was not the artist’s arrest for disorderly conduct but his contribution to the 1939 New York World’s Fair: the pavilion known as the “Dream of Venus.” Much noted upon in its day and thereafter forgotten, the Dream of Venus was the subject of an extremely successful exhibit last year at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, Florida, and has now been suitably commemorated in a tastefully lurid coffee-table book with text by Ingrid Schaffner and a treasure trove of newly discovered photographs—many in color—by Eric Schaal.
Salvador Dalí’s Dream of Venus is a bit self-congratulatory (when it comes to retrieving choice masterpieces of applied surrealism at the ’39 Fair, I’d like to see a tome devoted to the Stalinist horror of the Soviet Pavilion), but like the exhibit it celebrates, it’s a prize object: posh, tacky, richly ridiculous. As Schaffner points out, the beached coral reef of the Dream of Venus was the total antithesis of the 1939 Fair’s futuristic streamlined deco. The building’s spiny white and pink stucco exterior, embellished with red velvet roofing and a giant cutout of Botticelli’s Venus, suggested a half-demolished Italian restaurant of a sort that today might be found not far from the fairgrounds.
The grotto motif continued within. Visitors paid 25 cents at a fish-head box office and passed between a pair of parted, gartered, disembodied female legs to find three room-sized dioramas. The first, a tank filled with water and topless swimmers known as “Living Liquid Ladies,” was the Dream—the chance meeting of a mummified cow, some rubber telephones, and a piano keyboard painted on a woman’s torso. The second display introduced the dreamer, a live, naked Venus sleeping between rose satin sheets. The third room featured a version of Dalí’s installation Rainy Taxi, the hit of the 1938 International Surrealist Exhibition. The branding continued in the corridor murals, where Dalí recycled his trademark watches and burning giraffes (as well as a few generic Surrealist motifs cribbed from de Chirico and Magritte).
The project, inspired perhaps by Duchamp’s hyper-designed ’38 Surrealist Expo, originated with Julien Levy, who thought it might be amusing to give the World’s Fair a surrealist funhouse. Levy devotes a bitter chapter to the enterprise in his memoirs. He lost control of his idea, first to the irrepressible Dalí and then to its corporate underwriter, a Pittsburgh rubber magnate planning to promote the use of flexible mermaid tails and other rubbery props. This did not sit well with Dalí (who refers to the Dream as a “frightful nightmare” in his autobiography The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí). The artist quit the project in a rage and left for Europe—although not before publishing and distributing a grandiloquent manifesto, “The Declaration of the Imagination and the Rights of Man to His Own Madness.” The diluted exhibit lost money, although it did return in further diminished form for the fair’s second season as “20,000 Legs Under the Sea.”
Although lacking the world-historic drama that characterizes muralist Diego Rivera’s battle with Nelson Rockefeller over the walls of Rockefeller Center, this dank tale of art and commerce would be a great subject for underground cartoonist Kim Deitch, particularly as Dream of Venus was part and parcel of the Fair’s raunchy Amusement Area—a carnival midway featuring such classy peep shows as Norman Bel Geddes’s Crystal Lassies (near naked dancers gyrating within a mirrored octagon) and the Living Magazine Covers, wherein topless models posed in a giant mock-up of the future journal Romantic Life. (Indeed, a downscaled version of the Dream of Venus does appears as a tawdry aquatic display involving “Oscar the Amorous Octopus” in E.L. Doctorow’s novel World’s Fair.)
Schaffner’s present-tense narration doesn’t quite achieve the immediacy she seemingly desires but, thanks to Schaal’s photographs, Salvador Dalí’s Dream of Venus has a distinctive melancholy prurience. In addition to images of the artist in the throes or posing with his muse Gala are pink and greenish Kodachrome shots of the Dream’s semi-nude performers modeling their fishnet outfits, applying makeup, lounging atop the Rainy Taxi, and taking cigarette breaks. These anonymous Liquid Ladies project the same sense of exhausted pulchritude as the tired strippers in Weegee’s backstage portraits—the book is wonderfully perfumed with sweat, body lotion, and chlorine.