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Salvador Dalí's Bikini Exhibit At the 1939 New York World's Fair, Caught On Home Video

Salvador Dali's career has, over the years, slowly been distilled into posters of melting junk that inspire millions of _whooooaaaaas_ in dorm rooms everywhere, but his surrealist work wasn't limited to the canvas. In fact, he designed an entire...

by Derek Mead
Aug 24 2012, 3:30pm

Salvador Dali’s career has, over the years, slowly been distilled into posters of melting junk that inspire millions of whooooaaaaas in dorm rooms everywhere, but his surrealist work wasn’t limited to the canvas. In fact, he designed an entire pavilion dedicated to surrealism at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York called “Dream of Venus.” It turned into a psychedelic underwater paradise, with models in bikinis swimming around giant fish bowls.

In a letter to the Queens Museum outlining his plans, Dalí said that he planned on bringing explosive giraffes. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, but as noted by Brooklyn Rail, his vision was still rather shocking:

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.

The exhibit opens the video above, which is a massive compilation of home video from the World’s Fair on Check the link for a detailed description of all the segments, but Dalí’s exhibit is featured from about 45 seconds in and runs for just a few minutes. Trust me, you won’t miss the women swimming about.

The Queens Museum, which supported the exhibit, recently published some archival photos from “Dream of Venus” along with a short retrospective. What’s fascinating, as archives manager Louise Weinberg points out, is that Dalí’s vision stood in stark contrast to the rest of the highly-lauded ’39 fair:

While the 1939 World's Fair has remained in the public consciousness for decades as a thrilling moment in modern architecture and design, a remarkable and historic pavilion designed by Salvador Dalí has faded from memory. Dalí's Surrealist pavilion, Dream of Venus, featured a spectacular façade made up of soft curves and protrusions reminiscent of Gaudí's Pedrera building, and was accessorized with semi-clothed beauties acting out an underwater fantasy. Neither sleek nor functional, Dream of Venus was an extraordinary achievement of the artist's personal vision and, for fairgoers, an introduction to the often-mystifying Surrealist movement.

An extraordinary vision indeed, and in my eyes, pretty damn impressive to have pulled off at a World’s Fair seven decades ago. It’s a testament to Dalí’s vision as well as his ability to convince organizers and sponsors alike to stick to his rather ludicrous vision. I have to ask: Do you think “Dream of Venus” could still be created today?

Top image via Queens Museum

Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead.

Salvador Dalí