Dali's funhouse at 1939 fair recalled

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  July 15, 2003 at 3:20 PM
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NEW YORK, July 15 (UPI) -- One of the sensations of the 1939 World's Fair in New York was Salvador Dali's "Dream of Venus," a funhouse exhibit where for 25 cents you could see nearly naked women frolicking in a surreal undersea setting.

Billy Rose's Aquacade, with its swim-suited mermaids forming splashy Busby Berkeley patterns in a giant pool, is probably better remembered than Dali's contribution to the fair in Queensborough's Flushing Meadow Park, but "Dream of Venus" was more controversial.

It aroused protests from various religious and civic groups who expected more demure exhibits at a fair where all attractions, especially those in the "Amusement Zone" where "Dream of Venus" was located, were open to children. And it brought no joy to Dali because a board of censors forced him to delete several of his designs, including giving Venus the head of a fish.

The famous Spanish artist, known for his bristling moustache and other eccentricities, was so irate that he refused to attend the June 15, 1939 opening of "Dream of Venus" and hired an airplane to distribute leaflets on Manhattan on which were printed a manifesto proclaiming a "Declaration of Independence of the Imagination and the Rights of Man to His Own Madness." The public loved it.

This amusing footnote to the history of world's fairs, which began in London in 1851 and petered out in Lisbon 150 years later, is recalled in an exhibition at the Queens Museum of Art, housed in the only surviving structure of the 1939 fair. Although it is essentially a display of documentary photographs, it succeeds brilliantly in bringing the most ambitious project of Dali's career to life.

The photographers who immortalized "Dream of Venus" included such top names in the field as George Platt Lynes, Horst P.Horst, and Eric Schaal. Their black and white pictures of the exhibit were put together by the Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation in Figueres, Spain, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, Fla., in the form of a traveling show.

Dali provided fair visitors with a visit to never-never land at a time when the United States was just beginning to emerge from the Great Depression and Europe was poised on the brink of World War II. Surrealist art had caught the imagination of the general public despite its naughty Freudian content, and Dali - the grand master of the movement - had even had his picture on the cover of Time Magazine.

The exterior of the "Dream of Venus" pavilion was made of pink stucco with extruding coral-like branches. The walls were covered with writhing female sculptures, and round windows framed huge replicas of Sandro Botticelli's Venus and Leonardo da Vinci's John the Baptist. Giant female legs surrounded the entrance, and the ticket booth took the form of a grotesque fish.

The interior display centered on a topless, or what appeared to be topless, model posing as Venus, wreathed in flowers and sleeping on a Rococo-style upholstered bed under red satin sheets. Venus's dream was conjured up by means of a glassed-in tank filled with water and swimming women in filmy garments among such floating detritus as a mummified cow and a cast-rubber nude, her body painted like a piano keyboard.

Visitors also could admire a mural signed by Dali and including many of his signature images - wilting watches, amputees with crutches for legs, and incandescent giraffes. From the ceiling, unfurled umbrellas hung upside down, and in another part of the magic forest a female mannequin drove a Cadillac with Christopher Columbus as the passenger.

The idea of a salute to Surrealism at the fair in the form a pavilion was that of Julien Levy, a Manhattan art dealer who represented avant-garde artists and nurtured their careers. Levi wanted a large exhibition gallery that includes works by all the best practitioners of Surrealism, but he and his associates were unable to raise enough funding for such an ambitious project.

They then decided to take a chance on Dali, who was widely popular in the United States and then living at the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan, as the sole artist to be exhibited and secured the interest of a millionaire rubber manufacturer from Pittsburgh, W.M. Gardner. He financed the project and in return the exhibit featured some of his products, including the keyboard lady and mermaid tails made of rubber.

Dali at first objected, then acceded to the commercialization of his pavilion, realizing that he was getting the kind of free publicity few celebrities could afford to buy from World's Fair exposure. Despite the press frenzy that surrounded the opening of the pavilion, he always considered it a failure because he was not completely free to realize his own dream for the project.

The exhibition at the Queens Museum in Flushing Meadow-Corona Park will run through Sept. 7.

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