When Salvador Dalí Created a Surrealist Funhouse at New York World’s Fair (1939)

Only the vio­lence and dura­tion of your hard­ened dream can resist the hideous mechan­i­cal civ­i­liza­tion that is your ene­my, that is also the ene­my of the ‘..pleasure-..principle’ of all men. It is man’s right to love women with the ecsta­t­ic heads of fish. — Sal­vador Dalí, “Dec­la­ra­tion of the Inde­pen­dence of the Imag­i­na­tion and the Rights of Man to His Own Mad­ness” 

What­ev­er orga­niz­ers of the 1939 New York World’s Fair thought they might get when Sal­vador Dalí was cho­sen to design a pavil­ion, they got a Coney Island of the Sur­re­al­ist mind. The vision was so ini­tial­ly upset­ting, the com­mit­tee felt com­pelled to cen­sor Dalí’s plans. They nixed the idea, for exam­ple, of repro­duc­ing a gigan­tic repro­duc­tion of Boticelli’s Venus with a fish head — as well as fish heads for the many par­tial­ly nude mod­els in Dalí’s exhib­it. These and oth­er changes enraged the artist, and he hired a pilot to drop a man­i­festo over the city in which he declared “the Inde­pen­dence of the Imag­i­na­tion and the Rights of Man to His Own Mad­ness.”

It was all part of the the­ater of the “Dream of Venus,” Dalí’s so-called “fun­house” and pub­lic exper­i­ment play­ing with “the old polar­i­ty between the elite and pop­u­lar cul­tures,” says Montse Aguer, Direc­tor of the Dalí Muse­ums.

This con­flict had “changed into a tense con­fronta­tion between true art and mass cul­ture, with all that the sec­ond ambigu­ous con­cept brought with it con­sumed by the mass­es, but not pro­duced by them.” While Dalí rained down a “screw you” let­ter to the estab­lish­ment, he also seduced the pub­lic away from “the stream­line style that dom­i­nat­ed the Expo in 1939” — the “mod­ern archi­tec­ture, which with time had turned against mod­ern life.”

Rather than a sleek “World of Tomor­row,” vis­i­tors to Dalí’s pavil­ion encoun­tered “a kind of shape­less moun­tain from which sprouts out, like the body of a sticky hedge­hog, a series of soft appendages, some in the shape of arms and hand; oth­ers of cac­tus or tips and oth­ers of crutch­es…. The world of machines, cars and robots had been replaced — or should one say chal­lenged — by a uni­verse of dreams.” Inside the weird struc­ture, a god­dess stretched out on bed, dream­ing two dreams, “wet,” and “dry.” As Dan­ger­ous Minds describes it, once vis­i­tors entered the exhib­it, through a giant pair of legs, they encoun­tered:

Two huge swim­ming pools fea­tured par­tial­ly nude mod­els float­ing around in the water. In one of the pools, a woman dressed in a head-to-toe rub­ber suit that had been paint­ed with piano keys cavort­ed around with oth­er “mer­maids” who “played” her imag­i­nary piano. In fact, the place was filled with scant­ly-clad women lying in beds or perched on top of a taxi being dri­ven by a female look­ing S&M bat­woman. There were func­tion­al tele­phones made of rub­ber as well as an off­putting life-size ver­sion of a cow’s udder that you could touch—if you want­ed to, that is. 

The exhi­bi­tion had been coor­di­nat­ed by archi­tect, artist, and col­lec­tor Ian Wood­ner and New York art deal­er Julien Levy. It was so pop­u­lar “it reopened for a sec­ond sea­son,” notes Messy Nessy, “but once torn down it fad­ed from mem­o­ry and its out­landish­ness became the stuff of urban myth.” In 2002, the pho­tographs here by Ger­man-born pho­tog­ra­ph­er Eric Schaal were redis­cov­ered and col­lect­ed in a book titled Sal­vador Dalí’s Dream of Venus: The Sur­re­al­ist Fun­house from the 1939 World’s Fair. See rare footage from the pavil­ion in the short doc­u­men­tary at the top and read Dalí’s man­i­festo here.

via Dan­ger­ous Minds

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Most Com­plete Col­lec­tion of Sal­vador Dalí’s Paint­ings Pub­lished in a Beau­ti­ful New Book by Taschen: Includes Nev­er-Seen-Before Works

When Sal­vador Dalí Met Alice Coop­er & Turned Him into a Holo­gram: The Meet­ing of Two Kings of Camp (1973)

Sal­vador Dalí Explains Why He Was a “Bad Painter” and Con­tributed “Noth­ing” to Art (1986)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.