Queens Museum of Art
Here I’m designing a Surrealist pavilion for the World’s Fair with genuine explosive giraffes.
—1939 letter from Dalí to Luis Bunuel.
The giraffes were not to explode, nor would Dalí be allowed to replace the head of Botticelli’s "Venus" with the head of a fish. Dalí’s main sponsor, a manufacturer of, among other items, rubber mermaid tails, complained that too much Surrealism outside the pink cement grotto would keep the paying public from coming up with the two-bits to get in on the action inside: models cavorting in a glass swimming pool wearing only the aforementioned rubber product. Dalí called it censorship, the rubber tycoon called it business. With only eight weeks to produce his pavilion, Dalí pressed on with his ideas for a sensational sex-saturated scenario that in the main survived the censors, the Fair organizers, and outraged religious and civic minded protesters. Given Dalí’s fame, it is strange that nothing was saved when the pavilion was demolished.
This past summer the Queens Museum mounted a real treat of an exhibition: Eric Schaal’s photographs documenting the construction of Dalí’s installation, augmented by a selection of additional photographs by Horst, George Platt Lynes, and others from Julien Levy’s estate archives. Along with this wonderful mix were Dalí’s fabrication drawings and notes, the inevitable sketches on hotel stationery.
The pavilion was the idea of architect/ artist Ian Woodner who pitched it to the surrealist impresario Julien Levy. At first they thought they would present all the artists in Andre Breton’s art movement to the public, but quickly realized that Dalí was the big crowd pleaser. His exhibition of paintings at Levy’s gallery had been a bases-loaded hit, in no small part because of the front page publicity surrounding the artist’s pushing a bathtub through the plate glass of his Bonwit Teller window installation. The raunchy, voyeuristic popular appeal of Surrealism in New York was the equivalent of turning the Marx Brothers loose in a Marquis de Sade scenario. Dalí’s tactic was to shock by recombining elements of Renaissance imagery familiar to the cultured elite, adding to it the popular vulgarity of the circus, the zoo, the cinema, and of course plenty of voyeuristic sex. Levy’s coup was to hand Dalí a blank check to create a walk-in dream for the Amusement Zone of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. He brought in the eccentric London millionaire poet and art collected Edward James (who had introduced the artist to Freud,) and rubber baron W.M. Gardner as financial backers.
A visitor to the pavilion would be beckoned into the pink grotto by the recorded murmuring of Sirens to find an uninhibited and unclad Venus reclining sleepily on a thirty-six foot long red satin bed under a canopy of rubber telephones and umbrellas. This Venus was not just a naked Roman goddess but Botticelli’s Venus, as in "The Birth of…" in particular. Dalí created a living reincarnation of the Renaissance icon, a pop shocker in her own right in 1482. At first called "Bottoms of the Sea," visitors experienced four "Dreams": two installations combining painting, mannequins, and objects and two scenes taking place in glass swimming tanks, one wet, one dry. In the water-filled tank a life-size rubber woman painted like a piano keyboard was chained to the bottom and "played" by Gardner’s mermaids. They also chatted on rubber telephones and stroked a life-size rubber cow’s udder. Christopher Columbus makes an appearance along with a fellow made of colored rubber rings and another made of rubber ping-pong paddles. Other dreams feature Dalí’s signature soft watches, keys that transform into ants, and giant typewriter keys. It seemed quite natural for Venus as an under-sea Eve to wear a bright red lobster instead of a fig leaf. A few of the photos feature the artist fitting the model with the crustacean bikini while flashbulbs and champagne corks popped away.
That the entire extravaganza could be created in eight weeks was remarkable, as was the amount of public nudity ultimately permitted. Although his name is often associated with the crass commercial exploitation of the art public and his later embrace of Francisco Franco’s fascist ideology, it is well to remember that early on Dalí was a genius of subversion and a flamboyant proclaimer of conscious and sub-conscious freedom, especially of sex and desire. Even when borrowing imagery from Ernst and Tanguy, he created a new and radical visual language that included staples of currently fashionable technique: layering, transparent dissolves, and "installation."
Dalí missed the opening of the Fair. He was on the way to Paris to work with Ballet Russes. But before leaving he purportedly hired a plane to drop printed leaflets over New York: "The Declaration of the Independence of the Imagination and the Rights of Man to his Own Madness," a protest against efforts to interfere with his vision.
In collaboration with the Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dalí, the Queens Museum exhibition beautifully captured the public impact of Dalí’s Surrealist activity in America, and gives us a marker from which we can measure present and future parameters of the freedom artists are willing to explore.