Dreaming the Dreams of All Mankind

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Ingrid Schaffner

The Vogue and Harper's Bazaar set may not be what immediately comes to mind when building a Surrealist funhouse. But this was exactly the audience Maurice Mermey sought to target, saying the Surrealist House "is one of the very few amusement projects which will interest the Vogue and Harper's Bazaar set and it is essential that the Fair in New York should have some of this appeal."
As Director of Exhibits and Concessions, Mermey was in charge of developing attractions for the entire 1939 World's Fair. That included both the Fair proper (as presided over by the monumental Trylon and Perisphere) and the Fair improper (a vast Amusement Area of carnival pleasures).
Fun as it sounds, the Amusement Area proved most challenging to construct. The Fair's official motto was "Building the World of Tomorrow with the Tools of Today." Admiral Byrd's Penguin Island and Morris Geist's Midget Town were easy shoe-ins for "streamlined festivity for the World of Today." But what exactly would give folks a sense of fun in the future?
Concessions applicants completed three-page "Information Returns," which were reviewed in detail for approval, or rejection. George Daymor’s proposal for his Palace Depression received this tart summary: "The building, which is put together out of bits of rock, mud, wood, and discarded automobile parts, may be attributed to the ingenuity of its creator but [is] hardly architecturally attractive.... I recommend we reject this proposal." America was just beginning to pull itself out of the Depression, after all, and the Fair was meant to lift spirits and boost the economy. As for the future, what about the woman who wanted to "tell cards, hands, palms, and astrologie”? Sorry: "Palmistry is illegal in New York, we will be unable to consider this type of vaticination for the Fair." ("Vaticination": a ten-dollar word for fortune-telling.)

A sketch by Salvador Dalí for his Dream of Venus exhibit.

A sketch by Salvador Dalí for his Dream of Venus exhibit.

Not easy, this Amusement job. So one might imagine a certain joy at the landing of this proposal on Mermey's side of the transom: "It is proposed to construct a surrealist 'walk-through' ... in the manner of the old type 'funny-house' but with each attraction translated into terms of surrealism, based accurately upon surrealist theory and principles — thus the 'funny house' of tomorrow."
The proposal described a building shaped like a giant eyeball with a labyrinth of corridors, special effects, tableaux, and attractions, including: a human kaleidoscope; a waxwork woman combing her hair; a glass woman built to spec on the "Song of Solomon" (a flock of goats for hair); a photo booth with Surrealist backgrounds; and a gallery of "serious works of art by leading surrealist painters and sculptors, European and American."
The proposal was submitted by Julien Levy, an art dealer, and Ian Woodner, an architect. As a pioneering venue for Surrealism in America, Levy’s New York gallery trafficked in the art of dreams, desires, and the reality of the unconscious mind. The Surrealists saw themselves as revolutionaries set to change modern life along irrational lines.
Soft-pedaling the revolution, Levy advanced Surrealism's public potential: "It need not only be applied to Art, but may also apply to other activities (architecture, interior decoration, fashion, advertising, etc.) of which humor would not be the least significant. It is therefore possible to build a 'Surrealist House' that is hilarious entertainment and at the same time an authentic surrealist experiment."

Levy proposed to construct a "Surrealist House" that would be "the 'funny house' of tomorrow."

Levy proposed to construct a "Surrealist House" that would be "the 'funny house' of tomorrow."

Levy proposed to construct a "Surrealist House" that would be "the 'funny house' of tomorrow."

But would the Surrealist House be good business? Every concession had to prove it had the resources to turn a profit. Levy and Woodner stumbled forward, first negotiating a sliding scale on profits with the Fair, then consulting with Aquacade impresario Billy Rose. Rose introduced them to the son of agent William Morris, who got behind their concept but not their plan. If this Surrealist funhouse was going to be a hit, it needed star power! And time was running short. Since Levy and Woodner's original proposal (submitted in January 1938), almost a year had elapsed with only months to go before the Fair opened in April.
Enter Salvador Dalí, the celebrity artist of Surrealism. A creative dynamo in any and all circumstances, Dalí changed the entire plan. Suddenly backers were found, including a window display manufacturer with the capacity to cast anything in rubber (an alluring enticement when your artist sees the world in a patently lugubrious light).
When the Fair’s Department of Feature Publicity finally announced the "first surrealist pavilion in exposition history," it was still a funhouse walkthrough, but with everything "Dalíneated": "Living mermaids in crustacean fins — and little else — move through water compartments among such things as exploding giraffes, limp pianos.... The exhibit is entitled 'Dalí's Dream of Venus.' Venus, in the form of a beautiful showgirl, lies on a bed 36 feet long dreaming the dreams of all mankind.... Twisted-looking arms and legs which protrude from the exterior of the building attract the visitors' attention to this strange exhibit."
The Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar set took the bait. Sophisticated and spectacular, Dalí’s Dream of Venus garnered all kinds of press: as art, design, fashion, architecture, cultural enigma, and celebrity coup.

"Incidents in the Life of Salvador Dalí" describes elements of the proposed exhibit, including "an exploding giraffe."

"Incidents in the Life of Salvador Dalí" describes elements of the proposed exhibit, including "an exploding giraffe."

The biggest sensation were the "Living Liquid Ladies," or "Swimming Women," as the performers who animated an underwater living room like domestic Nereids, were known. At the height of the age of burlesque, the Amusement Area was in fact teeming with female performers, more or less clad. Countless memos relate the battle to keep things generally decent, particularly on Children’s Days. On September 24, 1939, the Surrealist funhouse received a special reprimand for "Improper Bally" — ballyhoo being the often racy barker's spiel that sold tickets.
Still, by the end of the season, the Dream of Venus was financially bust. The Corporation decided to extend the Fair overall another year to give investors a chance to recoup their losses. In 1940, the Surrealist funhouse reopened under new management as "20,000 Legs Under the Sea," signaling changes in tone for the Fair at large: from swaggering and worldly to generic and pandering. Stripped of its surrealism, the concession played for lewd laughs. Oscar the Amorous, a man inside a rubber octopus costume, was introduced to interact with the swimmers.
Sex and censorship were apparently more rampant than ever, judging from this memo: "We realize that we are running a World's Fair where we must cater to all kinds of tastes of amusement, but it is not necessary for us to cater to morons, nor to sex addicts." With the subheading "70 Days Left to See the Fair / Closes Forever October 27, 1940," this ignominious dispatch is among the final memos filed under "Dream of Venus" in the Library's archives.

A press release from the artist's representatives about Dream of Venus poses the "inevitable" question: "Is Dali Insane?"

In 2001, I practically lived inside the 1939–40 New York World's Fair archive at The New York Public Library while researching my book Salvador Dalí’s Dream of Venus, published by Princeton Architectural Press. I can’t imagine writing this story without Boxes 178 and 383. On file is every letter, proposal, and memo circulated, all organized chronologically by concession. Reading through was a cross between listening in on a vintage telephone and opening Pandora's (cardboard) box. Stand back! There goes the lion that rides in the sidecar of the Wall of Death, which escaped on May 22, 1940. The sense of incident, urgency, and excitement was so irrepressible I had to respond by writing my book in the present tense. "Time Tears On!" reads the official Fair stationery. Likewise, history: it never stops. So will dreams continue to unfold from this amazing archive?
p.s. And it's all there to explore for free. Just make an appointment with the Manuscripts and Archives Division. Tell them Maurice Mermey sent you.

The reception for the opening of Dream of Venus was postponed due to "complexity of subconscious."

Ingrid Schaffner is the author of Salvador Dali's Dream of Venus: the Surrealist Funhouse from the 1939 World's Fair, (Princeton Architectural Press 2002) and Julien Levy: Portrait of an Art Gallery (MIT 1998). She is Senior Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania.

 

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