World Expo 1939 New York

Bureau International des Expositions

Opening on 30 April 1939, New York’s World Expo 1939 promoted “Building the World of Tomorrow” in a period marked by the Great Depression and spectre of upcoming war. While many futuristic pavilions and displays enthralled visitors, one of the most outlandish was ‘The Dream of Venus’, a surrealist funhouse created by Salvador Dalí. On the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the Expo and the 30th anniversary of the artist’s death, Montse Aguer, the Director of the Dalí Museums, recounts how the pavilion transgressed the modernism of the Expo and explains the significance of this work to Dali’s personal vision.


How did Salvador Dalí come to create a pavilion at Expo 1939 New York?

Montse Aguer: The idea behind a Surrealist pavilion at the Expo initially came from a young architect, Ian Woodner, a project which was supported and promoted by art dealer and gallery owner Julien Levy. Initially set to feature works from different artists, it was eventually Salvador Dalí – who had already exhibited with Levy - who signed a deal to create his “Dream of Venus pavilion”.

The pavilion offered Dalí the opportunity for his work to reach a greater audience, something that had been a focal point of his all through the 1930s. Dalí added a new aspect to the barriers removed by the surrealists and the capillary actions drawn between contrasting worlds, the separation between high and low culture just like other contemporary artists of his, although from other ideological positions which he tried hard to go beyond.

"Dalí's pavilion for the World Expo in New York...can be considered a good example of the new relationship between artists and public"

This artist, in reality, began to live or —should we say to survive— in a framework in which the old polarity between the elite and popular cultures, with clear predominance of the former over the latter, 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.

In any case, Dalí’s pavilion for the World Expo in New York —in spite of the difficulty in reconstructing the elements— can be considered a good example of the new relationship between artists and public. A new relationship which we should classify not only in the area of social transformations but also in the irruption of a different onlooker —determined, of course, by those changes.

Expo 1939 was about “Building the World of Tomorrow”, expressed through a focus on technological innovations within Streamlined Moderne pavilions. How did the Dream of Venus interact with and react to this predominant trend?

Montse Aguer: Within the streamline style that dominated Expo 1939, the firm options adopted by Salvador Dalí could not have been more crosscurrent. This fact is quite logical. In previous years, the artist had fought a battle against modern architecture, which with time had turned against modern life.

The outside world, consumer goods, industrial activity, are sometimes rejected sometimes assimilated – transformed and destroyed – by antenatal universes, maternal cloisters and other kinds of underlying cavities.

"The world of machines, cars and robots had been replaced by a universe of dreams"


It should not surprise us that the façade of the "Dream of Venus" be a kind of shapeless mountain from which sprouted out, like from the body of a sticky hedgehog, a series of soft appendages, some in the shape of arms and hands; others of cactus or tips and others of crutches.

If the façade of the pavilion was not in keeping with the rational, practical modern spirit of the Expo, what one could see on the inside was even less so. The world of machines, cars and robots had been replaced —or should one say challenged— by a universe of dreams where one could feel a sense of decadence which no doubt clashed with the proposed cleanliness, order and clarity of the surroundings. What one saw in the pavilion, in fact, was blurred, confusing, not clear at all. It was about overdramatizing the "impregnable oneiric substance of Venus". In other words, to put his dream on stage.

How did the artist manage to achieve this aim of “putting his dream on stage”?

Montse Aguer: Once visitors entered the pavilion, a chorus of voices informed them of what they were about to see: a goddess stretched out on a hot bed consumed by the fever of love, dreaming "burning dreams”. It had two parts – firstly a “wet” part, followed by a “dry” part, the latter being the most important for Dalí as it gave the show meaning.

In the dry part, there was a red satin bed, thirty-six feet long where a girl took the part of the goddess while she was asleep (that is to say dreaming). At her side, another girl holding her finger to her lips gesturing to them not to wake her. On the right-hand side of the bed near the headboard, two large mirrors mirrored their reflection. Behind the bed were painted scenes of beautiful enchanted beaches, soft watches and herds of giraffes with burning necks. Various mannequins and objects were also scattered around with altered parts, including a figure comprised of the head of a tiger and a body made up of liqueur glasses, or a gramophone in which the arm of the record player was a hand while the record was a feminine breast.

In the "wet" part of the pavilion, there was another oneiric cut out coming out of the goddess’ head: a dream of water. The same as in the "dry" part in the tank, there were a large quantity of objects: a piano with keys that were the body of a woman, bunches of telephone receivers, typewriters, chimneys, mummified cows, seaweed that were chains, etc. It was here that there were “living mermaids with crustacean finds – and little else” who were swimming underwater playing the piano, telephoning, typing, lighting the fire, and from time to time milking the cow.

How do you see Dalí’s artistic vision and bold objectives for the Dream of Venus translated into the pavilion?

Montse Aguer: It is a surrealist experiment. The notion of ‘dream’ and of the subconscious (sleeping and dreaming) had been associated to the act of diving down into the water. Dalí plays with iconography such as the one inspired in mythology: Venus – Aphrodite, reference to Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, and to Leonardo da Vinci’s Saint John the Baptist. Renaissance art is very present, and at the same time the formal architectural option of Modern Style, the mechanisation of modern man present in De Chirico’s work, allusions to Hans Bellmer, to Dutch still lifes… These are ideas that are well present in his artistic output: accumulation and baroquism. Dalí looks back at the great masters’ tradition and looks at the same time to future.

The Dream of Venus is an early example of installation art, and Dalí’s first ‘inhabitable’ artistic creation. Did the pavilion influence Dalí’s future work? Did it anticipate and shape the development of installation art?

Montse Aguer: I consider the Dream of Venus as a precedent of the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres. There is a clear notion of a ‘Surrealist House’ to, in a sense, push the visitor to intervene, to act with the artwork. The idea that the visitor, through his perception, ends up configuring its meaning.

"Dalí issues a statement against modern architecture, a claim against the mechanisation"

Dalí has the pavilion in mind while he puts together and shapes the Theatre-Museum as well as some of the rooms of the museum, like the Mae West Room. There he creates a very particular space that reminds us of Etant Donnés by Marcel Duchamp, but also the wet section of the Dream of Venus pavilion.

And especially then, he issues a statement against modern architecture, a claim against the mechanisation. And a surrealist experiment, with an overwhelming power upon the visitor.

90 years after its opening, “The Dream of Venus” remains an iconic creation in the history of art and of World Expo pavilions. What is its place in the work and legacy of Salvador Dalí? And what was its impact in sharing his vision with the public at large?

Montse Aguer: It has a very special place. As I said before, you can consider it a precedent of the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres, the city where he was born. Dalí knew, in a certain way, how to transgress and break the rules and to pave the way for a freer rein to the imagination. In fact, he proclaimed the independence of imagination and he knew how to shake the Expo’s visitors.

They were impressed by a building and a Universe that was totally out of place but that, then again, was so attractive because of its own singularity. It is an example of a new relationship between artists and spectators: blurring the line between the established high culture and mass culture.

For more information on the Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, visit the official website.

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