The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

The Dream of Eros: Surrealism on the Midway, 1939

Robin Blyn
University of West Florida

This essay focuses on the pavilion that Salvador Dalí designed for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Rather than arguing that the pavilion confirms the well-worn "death-by-exile" narrative of the avant-garde, or that it evinces Surrealism’s heroic critique of the American culture industry, I argue that it makes manifest the contradictions and compromises that Surrealists brought with them to American shores. Specifically, as it dramatizes Surrealism’s own repetition compulsion and the commodity fetishism to which it responded, the “Dream of Venus” discovers the grounds for its own renovation: a radical rethinking of the revolutionary potential of desire.

Keywords:  Surrealism / dream / Salvador Dalí / desire / commodity fetish / 1939 World's Fair

From the point of view of a daunting body of Eurocentric scholarship, the avant-garde comes to America to die.  Fleeing from fascism in Europe, it arrives safely on American shores only to fall victim to an equally menacing and more lasting threat: the singularly insidious capitalism and culture industry that took root in the United States in the aftermath of the Great Depression.  The staying power of this admittedly threadbare tale of woe is remarkable, despite decades of challenges to it posed by art historians, film scholars, and literary critics alike. And the denouement to the old story is not much more uplifting than its central drama; when any movement like the avant-garde flares up on this side of the Atlantic, critics can still follow Peter Bürger and Andreas Huyssen in bemoaning that it is sadly belated, hopelessly derivative, and politically compromised by rampant commercialization.1 Exhibited for the profit of flashy mass culture impresarios, the American avant-garde is a glorified freak show. 

From the perspective of this all-too-familiar narrative of displacement and decline, Salvador Dalí’s “Dream of Venus” emerges as an iconic example of Surrealism’s death by capitalism (Fig. 1).2 Exhibited as the “Surrealist House” in the Amusement Zone of the 1939 World’s Fair, “Dream of Venus” can be seen as a thinly veiled girlie show performed amid the abject remains of French Surrealism. 

Proffering tried and true Surrealist tropes for mass consumption, “Dream of Venus” appears to be the kind of rank commercialization of the avant-garde that led André Breton to excommunicate Dalí from his Surrealist group in France. Certainly, “Dream of Venus” has its defenders, particularly among those who see it as an underhanded critique of Breton, as well as those who argue that mass culture has always been fertile ground for avant-garde experimentation and dissemination.3 Here, however, I offer an alternative view, one that neither celebrates “Dream of Venus” for offering an immanent critique of Bretonian Surrealism nor focuses upon the recuperation of “low” and “middle” brow cultural practices. Rather, I contend that a closer look at “Dream of Venus” reveals its remarkable fidelity to the central precepts of Bretonian Surrealism and, as such, it embodies a crisis in Surrealism that predates the arrival in New York of its European practitioners. In the process of flaunting the avant-garde’s abject afterlife as commodity on the Amusement Zone of the 1939 World’s Fair, Surrealism discovers the grounds for its own renovation: a radical rethinking of the revolutionary potential of desire. 

As late as 1938, Bretonian Surrealism remained committed to desire as a revolutionary force. As Jennifer Mundy has written, although “desire runs like a silver thread through the poetry and writings of Surrealism in all of its phases,” in the later phases “desire—specifically, though not exclusively erotic desire—came much more to the fore” (11).  Coterminous with Breton’s break with the Communist Party, this insistent focus on desire becomes increasingly caught up in the very bourgeois assumptions that Surrealism was conceived to contest. Long seen as both the “real functioning of thought” and the means of disrupting the reality of bourgeois society, desire becomes the pure expression of the subjective imagination.  When Breton expresses the “omnipotence of desire” as “Surrealism’s sole act of faith” (qtd. in Lomas 55), or declares that “the artist can only serve the struggle for emancipation when he is subjectively permeated with its social and individual import and when he freely seeks to give artistic form to his interior world” (qtd. in Sawin 22), he has apparently left dialectical materialism far behind. Indeed, when they meet in Mexico in 1938, Trotsky himself chides Breton for his tendency toward the mystical (Sawin 22). As both “Dream of Venus” and Breton’s 1938 Beaux-Arts exhibition in Paris demonstrate, however, the danger of grounding revolution in desire was not so much that it eschewed dialectical materialism as that it failed to see the extent to which a conception of desire premised on absence and lack serves capitalist interests.  In a context in which “all desires, all social aspirations of whatever type of intensity could be instantly reprocessed as the empty commodities” of the capitalist marketplace (Roberts 63), desire loses its revolutionary force. It is precisely because Dalí’s “Dream of Venus” remains committed to the revolutionary potential of desire that it is able to both materialize the contradictions and compromises that threatened to turn Surrealism into a rear-garde enterprise and to map an alternative route. The dangers and potentials of Bretonian Surrealism and the peculiar plight of “Dream of Venus” come into view alongside two contemporaneous Surrealist texts that have earned more critical acclaim, but are equally confounded about the efficacy of desire as a revolutionary force: Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1933) and the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme at the Galérie Beaux-Arts (1938) curated by Breton.  

Published six years before the 1939 World’s Fair opened, The Day of the Locust  foregrounds the struggle between the Surrealist artist’s two interpretations of dreams, a struggle, in other words, to rediscover an alliance between desire and revolution that remains true to the foundational dream of Surrealism itself.4 In its pages, protagonist and incidental Surrealist Tod Hackett follows his “Nadja,” the relentlessly vapid Faye Greener, through a back-lot labyrinth of Hollywood sets in a pursuit that includes some of the most Surrealistic moments in the novel.5 In the sprawling and involuted space of the studio lot, Tod finds a pastiche of simulated worlds rife with the symbolic force of the dreamwork: a group of men and women in riding costume eating cardboard food in front of a cellophane waterfall, the skeleton of a Zeppelin, a corner of a Mayan temple, a flight of baroque palace stairs that start in a bed of weeds and end against the branches of an oak, a saloon from the wild American west that opens onto a Parisian street (131). It is a landscape informed by desire and littered by debris, an accidental Surrealist masterpiece and a dumping ground for the disarticulated remains of classical Hollywood cinema, and it is specifically in view of the junkyard on the studio lot that the Surrealist artist contemplates the work of the culture industry.7 In perhaps the most quoted passage of the novel, Tod watches from atop a hill as a ten-ton truck adds another load to the “gigantic pile of sets, flats and props” accumulated in the field below: 

He thought of Janvier’s “Sargasso Sea.” Just as that imaginary body of water was a history of civilization in the form of a marine junkyard, the studio lot was one in the form of a dream dump.  A Sargasso of the imagination!  And the dump grew continually, for there wasn’t a dream afloat somewhere which wouldn’t sooner or later turn up on it, having first been made photographic by plaster, canvas, lath and paint.  Many boats sink and never reach the Sargasso, but no dream ever entirely disappears.  Somewhere it troubles some unfortunate person and some day, when that person has been sufficiently troubled, it will be reproduced on the lot. (132)

In the critical conversation surrounding West’s novel, the passage has been read as a commentary on the culture industry’s commodification of desire and colonization of the imagination, for the “Sargasso of the imagination” is clearly crowded with the refuse of Hollywood (re)production. 8 Where André Breton discovers his “Cinderella ashtray” in the Saint-Ouen flea market, Tod Hackett, we can say, discovers the junked dream of Bretonian Surrealism itself: a dream in which desire ferments a revolution in libidinal and political economies alike.  Rather than the talisman of the objet trouvé, Tod Hackett finds the commodity fetish. It is thus no coincidence that on the studio set, in pursuit of Faye, Tod stumbles upon a Greek temple dedicated to Eros wherein “[t]he god himself lay face downward in a pile of old newspapers and bottles” (131).  Rather than the revolutionary life force, Eros in its fallen and simulated state is a monument to the reification of desire itself.  By 1933, Bretonian Surrealism has apparently already been trodden underfoot by the capaciousness of the American culture industry.  Eros will not undermine bourgeois hegemony; Freud and Marx will not become brothers in arms.  

Although much of The Day of the Locust apparently bears out Tod’s insight into the reification of desire by Hollywood cinema and the manufacture of dream by “plaster, canvas, lath, and paint,” the novel cannot completely evade the complication posed by the final sentences of the passage. Within these lines, the possibility of a dream that precedes its own Hollywood reproduction remains and, with it, a form of desire that is not underwritten by the culture industry. According to Tod, dream-laden boats are “afloat” prior to their arrival at the Sargasso Sea of the Hollywood studio lot.  “Many boats sink and never reach the Sargasso,” Tod reflects, “but no dream ever entirely disappears.  Somewhere it troubles some unfortunate person and some day, when that person has been sufficiently troubled, it will be reproduced on the lot” (132).  In short, though he has stumbled on the fallen statue of Eros, Tod has not yet relinquished the Bretonian dream: the dream as the liberated and liberating creation of desires that exist prior to and independent of the corrupting force of mass culture.  It is only by assuming that desire persists in this innocent state that Bretonian Surrealism endows the desublimation of desire with revolutionary potential. 

In Tod’s discourse on the reproduction of dreams, the dream is not the product of Hollywood; it is Hollywood’s raw material, the latent desire made manifest on the studio lot. Desires have not been created, but appropriated by the culture industry.  Certainly, the passage questions the potency of even these dreams, which are bound “sooner or later” for Hollywood reproduction and, ultimately, for the junkyard.  Hence, the novel does not imbue these dreams with anything like the revolutionary power for which Breton so valued them.  Yet, the fact remains that Tod’s meditation offers two interpretations of dreams completely at odds with one another:  At once, the dream is commodity fetish, an icon of reified desire underwritten by culture, and, at the same time, the dream is the product of the a priori desires whose de-sublimation and dissemination into the waking world Breton saw as the prerequisite to social, political, and economic transformation. If the dream of Bretonian Surrealism never “entirely disappears” in The Day of the Locust, it remains so “sufficiently troubled” as to require radical reconsideration. 

West’s novel thus clarifies the provocations for the transformation Surrealism was to make for its survival as a potent art of dissent. In its efforts to produce a revitalized avant-garde, Locust finally redefines desire as a productive force, previewing the kind of argument that Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari first offer in their Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia some thirty years later. Moreover, as it offers a thoroughgoing critique of a Surrealist practice grounded in Breton’s notion of revolutionary desire, West’s novel provides an apt description of the conundrums and contradictions that plague Bretonian Surrealism well before it arrives in New York.  For just as West’s novel is caught between commitments to Breton’s dream of revolutionary desire and the manufactured dreams of the marketplace, Surrealism was compromised by the incursions of the culture industry in France, incursions that were greeted with varying levels of denial and chagrin. Nowhere is this more evident than in the infamous 1938 Exposition International du Surréalisme at the Galérie Beaux-Arts in Paris, which was curated by Breton in collaboration with a circle of artists that included Dalí himself.    

The most infamous elements of Breton’s 1938 exhibition attempt simultaneously to provoke the liberation of libidinal desire and to critique a consumer culture that defines desire for the marketplace, and it is this ambitious goal that threatens the ability of desire to serve as a revolutionary force.  “Mannequin Street,” with its deformed and fetishized female bodies, the labyrinthine exhibition space covered with coal sacks still exuding dust, the displays of anomalous bodies, as well as the giant pantaloons suspended from the ceiling of the main exhibition space, all create a space suggestive of dream and informed by desire. For Breton, access to those repressed desires allows for the resurfacing of the imagination unfettered by bourgeois social convention.  This is the reason that he conceived of desire as revolutionary.

At the same time, these very same features of the 1938 exhibition suggest a social world in which desire is the product of the capitalist marketplace.  The mannequin, after all, is an instrument of the advertisement industry, and, as Hal Foster writes, “in the mannequin the human figure is given over to the commodity form—indeed, the mannequin is the very image of capitalist reification” (21).9   In the exhibit’s critique of capitalism, the mannequins cease to be uncanny representations of desublimated desire, and become, instead, simulacra. At once, the mannequins are asked to serve two regimes of meaning. They are figures for the liberation of revolutionary desire and, at the same time, figures for the work of the commodity fetish. What the exhibit fails to grasp is that the mannequins cannot attest to both at the same time, for if walking down “Mannequin Street” were a walk into the unconscious, it would have to be an unconscious infused not with revolutionary desire but with the violated remains of the marketplace—a Sargasso of the imagination.10 Yet, to ignore the mannequin’s alliance with capitalist reification, to focus simply on the oneiric elements of the display, is to cater to the bourgeoisie that eventually frequented the exhibition. Without its critique of the marketplace and its reifications, revolutionary desire loses its revolutionary function and the liberation of desire is left to follow the conservative telos of repressive desublimation; Surrealist transgression evinces the entrenchment of the bourgeois status quo.11

The repercussions of these contradictions in Bretonian Surrealism can be seen in Hélène Vanel’s notorious performance of a hysterical fit at the opening of the Beaux-Arts exhibition.  In Vanel’s performance, Surrealism apparently returns to its roots, for as a young medical student Breton worked under former students of Charcot and at the neuropsychiatric clinics that treated the form of hysteria known as shell shock (Foster 1).12 It is at these clinics that Breton discovers the techniques of free association and dream interpretation that, as Foster argues, “inspired the automatist devices of early Surrealism” and materialized the psychic states of surreality.  By 1928, Breton and Aragon would claim hysteria as “the greatest poetic discovery of the nineteenth century” (2).  For Breton, the enigma of the hysteric is the unconscious itself. The hysterical fit, like the dream, is a mystical communication, a liberation of repressed desires, and a form of automatic writing.13  Thus, the performance of the hysteric at the 1938 Beaux-Arts exhibition apparently enacts the desublimation Breton linked to revolutionary desire itself.  

But, of course, Hélène Vanel is not a hysteric; she is a performer, coached by Dalí, as it turns out, to simulate a hysterical fit. In her act, Vanel appears in various states of undress, casts spells over an audience gathered around a brazier, brandishes a live cock, and splashes muddied water on the guests’ evening clothes.  It is a performance that bespeaks both an attempt to unleash repressed desires and to abuse the consumers of it.  Like “Mannequin Street,” the simulation of hysteria strives to desublimate revolutionary desire and to critique the spell of the commodity fetish at the same time.  Yet, like the mannequins, Vanel cannot simultaneously perform an immanent critique of the commodity fetish and a celebration of revolutionary desire at the same time, for the subject of desire she represents is the very object of bourgeois consumption.  The hysterical performance thus enacts the crisis of Surrealism in 1938: a crisis in which the expressions of revolutionary desire threaten to follow the path of repressive desublimation.  In the confusion, revolution misrecognizes itself as scandal.  This misrecognition is the crisis that “Dream of Venus” recreates on the midway of the 1939 World’s Fair.  Rather than robbing the European avant-garde of a meaningful context, the arrival of Bretonian Surrealists on American shores throws into relief the contradictions and compromises that were stowed in their own baggage. 

Although “Dream of Venus” has long been seen as the kind of stunt for which Dalí earned the anagrammatic nickname “Avida Dollars,” the recent critical conversation surrounding the World’s Fair pavilion partakes of a more nuanced debate surrounding Dalí, Surrealism, and mass culture.14 The central place of “Dream of Venus” in the debate has been enabled by the rediscovery of Eric Schaal’s photographs, and by the archival work of Lewis Kachur and Ingrid Schaffner. Kachur and Schaffner, the two writers most responsible for the revival of interest in “Dream of Venus,” also present contrary paradigmatic views. In Displaying the Marvelous, Kachur ultimately depicts “Dream of Venus” as evidence of the "death-by-exile" narrative of the avant-garde. He concludes that the exhibition offers a “literally watered-down, popular-culturized ‘Surrealism’ for the American audience” (151), registering the extent to which “true Surrealism gives way to popular entertainment in the U.S” (160).  On the midway of the 1939 World’s Fair, Surrealism is entertainment; its disturbance contained and packaged for consumption.  In contrast to Kachur’s critique of the pavilion, Schaffner pictures “Dream of Venus” as “an episode of inspired insanity: the chance encounter between art and popular culture” (146) that “refreshed and reinforced Surrealism’s identity” (40).  In the carnivalesque Amusement Zone where it chose to set up shop, Schaffner suggests, Surrealism finds its proper place, for the Amusement Zone was “a surrealist spectacle in its own right, … the fair’s unconscious, libido, and alter ego all rolled into one” (32).15 Where Kachur finds commercial savvy, Schaffer finds “inspired insanity.”  

By recognizing the extent to which “Dream of Venus” inherits the crisis enacted at the Beaux-Arts exhibition, I have suggested that what Schaffner calls a “chance encounter” between art and popular culture was no accident at all, but rather determined by the course of Surrealism itself.  Ironically, in its fidelity to Bretonian Surrealism, “Dream of Venus” embodies a crisis in Surrealism that predates its arrival in New York.  In the Amusement Zone of the 1939 World’s Fair, “true Surrealism” finds neither its demise nor its reinforcement, but the grounds for its own renovation. If, as Robert Lubar has argued, Dalí’s publicity stunts in New York in 1939 belie “the lack of dialectical tension in Dalí’s enterprise,” blurring rather than enforcing the divide between art and the commodity (241), the collapse of that dialectic owes as much to Bretonian Surrealism as it does to American consumer culture. Despite the strained relations between Dalí and Breton, then, “Dream of Venus” not only remains committed to revolutionary desire as conceived by Breton; it also recreates the very crisis in revolutionary desire conveyed in Breton’s 1938 Surrealist exhibition in Paris. “Dream of Venus” thereby suggests that the future of Surrealism lies not merely with the recovery of dialectics but with the reinterpretation of desire. 

In the project of constructing a model of erotic desire capable of challenging the reign of the bourgeoisie, context proved informative; the 1939 World’s Fair is remarkable not only for its vision of “the World of Tomorrow,” but also for its conception of “a world of consumers.”  As one critic writes, “This Fair, more than had any previous effort, promoted as a major purpose the availability of consumer goods and services.  It was a Fair that from the very start viewed the people not only as observers but as potential consumers of the products it displayed” (Susman 19).   The Amusement Zone, where the Surrealist house was envisioned from its earliest conception, was no exception to the rule. While the central area of the fair amazed its audiences with television, washing machines, and the latest in technologically enabled commodities, the Amusement Zone proffered erotic arousal, most often in the form of the female body in various states of undress. Within a context in which erotic desire was marketed to the masses, desire as absence or lack necessarily reveals its affinity with the commodity fetish.  And it is precisely this necessity that makes it possible for “Dream of Venus” to convey critically that which “Mannequin Street” mystifies.

Schaffner’s assertion that the Amusement Zone functioned as the fair’s “unconscious, libido, and alter ego all rolled into one” registers both the possibilities and constraints of the Surrealist house. Its location in the Amusement Zone allows “Dream of Venus”—and Surrealism as such—to distinguish itself from the officially recognized tradition of art celebrated by the fair.  The location promises, that is, to enable a physical reminder of Surrealism’s attack on the institution of art.  Yet, in its identification with the sideshow spectacles of the Amusement Zone, Surrealism offered an “unconscious” littered with the manufactured desires and debris of the culture industry.  “Dream of Venus,” quite literally, offers a Sargasso of the imagination, a dream that has already been reproduced on the lot. The more “Dream of Venus” succeeds in rendering the unconscious dream state so valued by Breton, the more it reveals an Eros “made photographic by plaster, canvas, lath and paint.”

Thus, I am not contending that “Dream of Venus” was improperly or insufficiently Surrealist. Nor am I suggesting that Dalí’s pavilion represents a larger project in which, as Marc J. LaFountain has argued, Dalí offers a “scandalous rendering of Breton’s official Surrealism” (xii) that was “subversively ironic and dissimulatively surrealistic” (xvi).16 Rather, it is because “Dream of Venus” is so true to Bretonian Surrealism, so devoid of subversive irony, that it is able, however unwittingly, to open a new direction for avant-garde aesthetics.  The extent to which “Dream of Venus” follows in the Surrealist path overseen, if not forged, by Breton, can be seen in the desires it seeks to elicit and in the tropes it uses to accomplish these tasks.  In its striking pink and white art nouveau design, the pavilion aspires to the marvelous state of Antoñio Gaudí’s Barcelona architecture, buildings which appear suspended in the act of melting, or, conversely, in the act of solidification.  Indeed, the plaster of Paris façade of “Dream of Venus” prohibits a clear distinction between liquid and solid, between the flow of the unconscious and the calcified thoughts of a consciousness tyrannized by rationality.  

So, too, “Dream of Venus” troubles the distinction between inside and outside, between the interiority of the dream state and the exteriority of the waking world.  Penile protrusions extend from the surface of the façade at varying angles, thick stems with bulbous extensions, suggesting the penetration of repressed desires into the conscious, waking, consuming arena of the Amusement Zone.  At the same time, open crevices serve as windows into the dark interior.  They house a variety of female forms: reproductions of the Mona Lisa and Botticelli’s Venus, a plaster mermaid, and a big-breasted torso held in check by iron tongs.  Half inside, half outside, the female figures suggest desire emerging in the liminal space between dream and reality, desires which, in other words, are mythically and recognizably surreal.17  Just as the penile protrusions penetrate the external world, the feminized crevices invite penetration, entry, absorption.  Thus, it is no surprise that to enter “Dream of Venus,” one must step between the spread and gartered legs of a giantess.  The return to the unconscious is, at once, a return to the womb and an act of coitus.  And the price of admission, quite literally, is the threat of castration, figured explicitly in the saw-toothed fish-head posed between the giant legs (Fig. 2). 

From the eyes of the fish, one may exchange quarters for the right of entry. “Dream of Venus” thereby presents itself as the dream of Eros, offering a dream state of uncanny desires that conform, as I demonstrate below, even to the most literal reading of Breton’s first Manifesto and surely to the spirit of the Beaux-Arts exhibition of 1938.

Inside the pavilion, the visitor finds a veritable collection of Surrealist tropes that link “Dream of Venus” generally to the development of French Surrealism and specifically to the Beaux-Arts exhibition. Here we find two tanks. The depth of the unconscious is figured in a wet tank wherein scantily clad female swimmers engage in any of a variety of activities: playing milkmaid or secretary, fondling or kissing rubber corpses, chatting on floating telephones.  Some of these “Lady Go-divers” follow the sea motif advertised on the outer façade, sporting fish heads, tails, or fish-net stockings. In the dry tank, Venus herself lies dreaming amid exquisite corpse furniture, lobsters, champagne and other delicacies.  Linked to food, it is her body as well as her dream that the spectator is invited to consume.  She lies on a 36-foot bed, with a mattress of apparently glowing coals, covered in satin, ivy, and foliage (Fig. 3).

For the uninitiated viewer, a recording speaks Venus’ dreams aloud: “In the fever of love, I lie upon my ardent bed.  A bed eternally long, and I dream my burning dreams—the longest dreams ever dreamed without beginning and without end…. Enter the shell of my house and you will see my dreams” (qtd. in Schaffner 18).  A mirrored reflection behind the reclining Venus includes a bare-breasted woman with crossed arms.  A massive bouquet hides her face and head.  She twitches and shakes.  Behind the bed, in an oval cutout in the headboard, a window onto the adjacent wet tank, suggesting that the wet tank functions at once as the depths of her unconscious and, literally, her dream (Fig. 4).

The underwater world of the unconscious is a seascape, like the Hollywood landscape West’s Tod Hackett traverses, rife with desire and littered with debris. So, too, the underwater world in the wet tank is recognizably surreal.  Unwittingly, then, the interior of “Dream of Venus” offers a veritable pastiche of the tropes of Bretonian Surrealism, a pastiche that effectively calls attention to the repetition compulsion of Surrealism itself.  Representing the unconscious in terms of watery depths, desire in the figure of a mythologized and scantily clad female body, was, even in the U.S. in 1939, familiar enough to function as a kind of short hand for Surrealism itself.  Subtler, perhaps, is the return of the exquisite corpse of the Beaux-Arts exhibit, here literalized in the form of the underwater piano, which sports a rubberized female body striped black and white to resemble a keyboard (Fig. 5).

We should not be surprised, then, to find that both the mannequins and the hysterics of the 1938 Paris exhibit make uncanny returns in “Dream of Venus,” and they bring with them the suggestion not only of the trappings of the commodity fetish, but also Bretonian Surrealism’s own repetition compulsion.  Because the impotence of desire in the face of the commodity fetish suggests the impotence of Bretonian Surrealism, the repetition compulsion so vividly portrayed in “Dream of Venus” presents itself as a defense mechanism against castration anxiety.  

Indeed, within the two tanks of “Dream of Venus” and in the tableaux that accompany them, the Surrealist art reappears in such a way as to suggest a compulsion to repeat redolent with castration anxiety and aesthetic exhaustion. The return of previous images taken from Magritte, Lautréamont, Masson, and Dalí, among others, bespeak an imagination with its own reified iconography.  The leopard-headed mannequin covered in protruding shot glasses and straws recalls Dalí’s own mannequin for the Mannequin Street at the Beaux-Arts exhibition, as well as his 1938 Aphrodisiac Dinner Jacket. So, too, the figure of the man with a bird cage as a torso, adorned only with a top hat and cape, recalls both Masson’s mannequin of the 1938 exhibition and Magritte’s Psychiatrist. The flaming giraffes pictured on the backdrop to the wet tank are lifted directly from Magritte, while Dalí owes the umbrellas, of course, to Lautréamont.  Even the bed of coals upon which Venus lays recalls the coal sacks slung notoriously from the ceiling of the Beaux-Arts exhibition.18  Thus, among the things that “Dream of Venus” dreams is the last decade of Bretonian Surrealism, submitted here to the displacements and condensations of the dreamwork.  

In fact, it is only from the perspective of such dreamwork that Dalí’s rampant appropriations can be read as more than blatant theft.  In her more generous reading, Schaffner contends that “Dalí’s liftings...imply a sense of Surrealism as collective imagination” (132), but her comments unwittingly connect that collective imagination to the consumer population of the capitalist marketplace.  “What one artist realizes becomes part of everyone’s reality,” she writes, “And if something is compelling enough, it is worth representing in a new context, like a shop window or an Amusement Zone” (132).  Once again, Schaffner’s comments are extremely telling, for they evoke both the repetition compulsion and the displacement of the compelling object into a new context, without conceding the consequences of that change of context.  That is, they evoke the dreamwork of the culture industry itself, linking the “collective imagination” of Surrealism to the collective imagination that the commodity fetish crafts and exploits.     

Lying on her bed of coals, Venus herself recalls both Charcot’s hysteric and Freud’s hypnotized subject.  The audible account of her dream, no doubt, represents the kind of automatic writing Surrealism valued so highly.  Theoretically, we are getting the dream prior to its narrativization, prior to its domestication to the dreaded dictates of rationalism.  Yet, as “automatic writing” the dream literally leaves something to be desired—the dream itself.  In fact, the account of Venus’s unconscious thought is an invitation to a dream, rather than content of that dream.  While she does make mention of elements in the wet tank—the woman chained to the piano, for instance—the mainstay of Venus’s speech is mere promise: “Enter the shell of my house and you will see my dreams,” she says, as if the audience were outside, rather than inside the pavilion (qtd. in Schaffner 96).  If we take the mechanical tape loop as the automatic writing of the dreamer’s unconscious, then “Dream of Venus” is the ballyhoo of a carnival barker. It is, in short, the hysterical performance of the commodity fetish, tendering what Theodor Adorno famously called the “promissory note” of the culture industry, which “perpetually cheats its consumers of what it perpetually promises” (139). Dreaming an advertisement for her own dream, Venus perfects the work of the commodity fetish.

In fact, what Adorno concludes of the culture industry speaks with particular specificity to Venus and her dream, both laid out like a feast.  As Adorno writes, “The promissory note which, with its plots and stagings, it draws on pleasure is endlessly prolonged; the promise, which is all the spectacle consists of, is illusory: all it actually confirms is that the real point will never be reached, that the diner must be satisfied with the menu” (139).  Promised the “Dream of Venus,” the audience enters the pavilion only to find yet another promise.  Like any commodity fetish, then, “Dream of Venus” never delivers.  As Adorno would have it, the Surrealist pavilion thus threatens neither desublimation nor sublimation.  It threatens what the sexual transgressions of the culture industry always threaten: repression. 

The singularity of “Dream of Venus” is that it is as true to the American culture industry as it is to Bretonian Surrealism.  This can be seen if we look for “Dream of Venus,” not in her unconscious speech, but in the watery depths of her unconscious, visible through a peep hole scored into the headboard of her bed.  If what Venus dreams is the content of the wet tank in the “Dream of Venus” pavilion, she dreams images multiplied and refracted everywhere on the Amusement Zone of the 1939 World’s Fair.  As David Gelenter tells us, “pornography was a mainstay of the fair” (125), and the vision of naked, semi-nude female bodies was as ubiquitous as attempts—however tongue and check—to endow the spectacle of the female body with the aura of art.  Indeed, the most popular attraction on the midway was “Billy Rose’s Acquacade,” featuring swimming champion Eleanor Holm and other bathing beauties.  At the “Living Magazine Covers” display, topless women posed within a frame simulating a cover of Romantic Life Magazine (dated 1949), their statuesque postures serving as their artistic alibi.  Among these displays, Venus, it seems, dreams the very girlie shows that compete for her own attention.19

The most compelling evidence of the problem of distinguishing “Dream of Venus” and her dream from the traffic of women on the midway is perhaps the ingenious spectacle of Norman Bel Geddes’s “Crystal Lassies.”  As Kachur notes, the display exploits both cubist and vorticist techniques (156).  Like “Dream of Venus,” then, “Crystal Lassies” present the commodified female body as an expression of avant-garde aesthetics.  The analogous relation between the two runs deeper, however, as Gelenter’s description of the exhibit makes clear:

“The Loveliest Dancing Girls at the Fair,” claimed the ticket booth.  A nude manikin stood on a pedestal outside; behind her, the words “Inside she’s real. 15 [cents].”  A dancer gyrated within an octagonal structure whose inner surfaces were completely mirrored.  Two spectators could stand at each facet of the octagon and peep through narrow one-way mirrors at the many, many dancers evidently cavorting within.  The dancer’s costume varied at different shows.  At times she was (in effect) naked.  On another occasion a dancer was sighted topless but sporting a G-string labeled Amusement Area. (125)

“Crystal Lassies” not only reproduces the figure of the commodified female body feebly dignified by the technological innovations of the avant-garde, but also its multiplication for mass consumption.  In this sense, the “Crystal Lassies” is a figure for the Amusement Zone itself, and as such, it reveals the conceit of the peephole drilled through the headboard of Dalí’s sleeping Venus.  To look through the hole in the headboard on the bed upon which Venus sleeps is to see a “marine junkyard” of dreams “made photographic by plaster, canvas, lath, and paint,” and to witness desire literally liquidated of its revolutionary force. “Dream of Venus” is a “Sargasso of the imagination” in the sense that what Venus dreams, what lies in the depth of her unconscious, is the surface of the culture industry that surrounds her on the midway.  

Yet, it would be a mistake to simply equate “Dream of Venus” with “Crystal Lassies,” for the latter has no memory of the dream of Bretonian Surrealism, no investment in revolution or the desires linked to it.  By contrast, “Dream of Venus” remains rhetorically and aesthetically committed to an alliance between “revolution” and “desire” it cannot yet articulate or represent.  It still aims for the dream that disturbs the dreamer and the voyeur.  Thus, rather than viewing “Dream of Venus” as yet more evidence of the tragic demise of the avant-garde on American shores, we may find in the circumscribed view of the peephole an enabling view.  For it is precisely by disowning the ground of revolutionary desire and addressing, instead, the means by which the culture industry writes and rewrites desire that the European avant-garde would find a future already staked out by its American contemporaries. Instead of viewing Venus’s simulacral dream as yet another snapshot of the last avant-garde, we may view the peephole in her headboard as a profane illumination of the necessary transformations that avant-garde aesthetics would make, not only for its afterlife in the U.S. but for its survival.

Citing artistic censorship and unapproved changes to the pavilion, in the end Dalí himself would disown “Dream of Venus” in his own self-promotional style, leaving a trail of pamphlets airdropped over Manhattan.  The pamphlet is named “The Declaration of the Independence of the Imagination,” a title more Bretonian than Breton would, perhaps, approve.  Yet it is in this pamphlet that Dalí announces that “Man is entitled to the enigma and the simulacrums….” (qtd. in Finkelstein 333).  At the 1939 World’s Fair, we can say, the enigma of the simulacra is revealed as the mystique of the commodity fetish, a fact Dalí’s pamphlet may not appreciate, but the progress of Dalí’s career appears to comprehend.  If, as Roger Rothman writes, in the twenties and thirties Dalí became increasingly preoccupied with “the disruptive potential of superficiality and the disorientations of the simulacra” (12), by the forties he had relocated to a landscape less well-known for “the independence of the imagination” than for its commitment to increasingly sophisticated simulation.  Following in the footsteps of West’s Tod Hackett, Dalí arrives in Hollywood, the perfect setting to stage the marriage of capitalist convenience between the dream of Eros and the great American dream—or, contrarily, to reinvent the revolutionary potential of desire itself. 



1 As the epicenter of “the culture industry,” the U.S. appears in retrospect as the most lasting threat to a set of movements devoted, as Peter Bürger maintains, to organizing “a new life praxis from a basis in art” (49).  Thus, when the question of the presence of the avant-garde in the U.S. does arise, it does so in terms of its derivative and belated character.  “Exhausted,” “liquidated,” “depoliticized,” the European avant-garde arrives in New York City in the 1930s as a set of bedraggled refugees chastened by failure.  Escaping fascism and Stalinism alike, the exiled artists find their work domesticated in the American museum, absorbed by modernist high culture, and, worst of all, commodified in a hyperbolized culture industry the likes of which they had never seen before. From this perspective, the U.S. appears to have occasioned and mishandled the burial of some of the most radical aesthetic movements of the twentieth century. Even Andreas Huyssen, who provides the most powerful argument for the revival of the historical avant-garde in American postmodern culture, contends that “the European avantgarde failed to take roots [in the 1930s] precisely because no belief existed in the power of art to change the world” (7).  Dickran Tashjian and Martica Sawin offer important interventions into this narrative.  

2 I am grateful to Britt McGowan for tracking the rights to reproduce Eric Schaal stunning images of “Dream of Venus” to The Dalí Foundation in Figueres, Spain.

3 For studies of Surrealism’s dependence upon and use of popular culture forms, see Robin Walz’s Pulp Surrealism: Insolent Popular Culture in Early Twentieth-Century Paris, Kirsten Anderson’s Pop Surrealism: The Rise of Underground Art, and Jonathan Eburne’s Surrealism and the Art of Crime

4 For a treatment of dreams in the context of the economic depression of the 1930s, see Rita Barnard. David Lomas also addresses the dialectic between desire and revolution.

5 I am referring, of course, to André Breton’s pursuit of his elusive object of desire in Nadja.

6 For readings of The Day of the Locust that acknowledge its complex debt to Surrealism see Jonathan Veitch, Mathew Roberts, and my own “Sounding American Surrealism: The Sensational Subject of the Day of the Locust.”

7 Although the critical conversation surrounding West’s novel remains preoccupied with the relevance of Adorno and Horkheimer’s “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” The Day of the Locust was actually published prior to the essay.

8 See especially Rita Barnard and Jonathan Veitch.

9 Kachur notes that by the time of the Beaux-Arts exhibition the “choice of the nude female body as central fetish was backward-looking.” The “simulacral figuration” of the mannequins,” he writes, “could only be disfigured and/or eroticized in so many ways without becoming repetitive” (65).

10 Jonathan Veitch sees the transformation of the unconscious from font of revolutionary desire to container for the violated remains of the marketplace as definitional to Surrealism in the U.S. between the wars.  Taking Nathanael West’s body of fiction as his exemplary case study, Veitch contends that American “superrealism” jettisons Breton’s conception of the unconscious as the site of “unlimited freedom,” and follows in the footsteps of Surrealists like Max Ernst, René Magritte, and Marcel Duchamp who “create an art that returns us to…the contested terrain out of which our fantasies, dreams, and ideas emerge” (20–21).  

11 My reference here is to Marcuse’s formulation of “repressive desublimation” in Eros and Civilization, but it could just as well be to Adorno, who suggests that the promissory note of the commodity is the invitation to a desire whose satisfaction is endlessly deferred, a promise, that is, that can only result in repression.  

12 In addition to Foster’s account of Surrealism and hysteria, see David Lomas, “Surrealism, Psychoanalysis and Hysteria” and the second chapter of his The Haunted Self: Surrealism, Psychoanalysis, Subjectivity.

13 The attraction to hysteria is symptomatic, of course, of Breton’s attraction to madness.  As he writes in the first “Manifesto,” “I could spend my whole life prying loose the secrets of the insane.  These people are honest to a fault, and their naiveté has no peer but my own. Christopher Columbus should have set out to discover America with a boatload of madmen” (5).

14 The 2004–2005 “Dalí and Mass Culture” exhibition staged at the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida pays tribute to the full range of Dalí’s responses to mass culture, which, in its forms, served as inspiration, object of critique, and marketplace for his work.  Within the exhibit, “Dream of Venus” plays a prominent role.

15 Schaffner passes quickly over the pavilion’s sacrifice of Marx for Freud, conceding that “the integrity of “Dream of Venus” seems fundamentally weakened by its architect’s own self-absorption” (124).

16 I concur with LaFountain’s assessment of the way many of Dalí’s projects between 1931 and 1938 offer a “devastating deconstruction of [Bretonian] Surrealism” (2).  I do not think this is the case with “Dream of Venus” pavilion, however, and nor would LaFountain.  By 1939, LaFountain contends, Dalí’s “exultation of creativity” had become indistinguishable from “the rubbish piles of kitsch, zany eccentricity, and weird selfishness” (3).  My argument, of course, differs on this point, as I contend that “Dream of Venus” may be seen as a final struggle with the Bretonian vision of Surrealism.  

17 Of course, this is a recognizably misogynist strain of Bretonian Surrealism, as well.

18 Kachur points out that the precedent for the “eroticized mermaids” in the wet tank harkens back to the Coliseum music hall in Monmartre.  Among the nude swimmers, Kachur reminds us, was Jacqueline Lamba herself, romanticized by Breton as “Ondine” in L’Amour fou (138).  

19 I am relying primarily on Gelenter’s account of these exhibits in the Amusement Zone in the 1939 World’s Fair. 

Works Cited

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Barnard, Rita. The Great Depression and the Culture of Abundance. Cambridge UP, 1995. 

Benjamin, Walter. “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia.” Reflections. Edited by Peter Demetz, Schocken Books, 1978.

Breton, André, Nadja. Trans. Richard Howard. Grove Press, 1960. 

---. “Manifesto of Surrealism (1924)” in Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, U of Michigan P, 1972.

Breton, André and Leon Trotsky, “Manifesto: Towards a Free Revolutionary Art.” Trans.  Dwight MacDonald, The Partisan Review, vol. 6, no. 1, 1938, pp. 49–53. 

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---. The Freak-garde: Extraordinary Bodies and Revolutionary Art in America. U of Minnesota P, 2014.

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Eburne, Jonathan. Surrealism and the Art of Crime. Cornell UP, 2008.

Finkelstein, Haim. The Collected Writings of Salvatore Dalí. Cambridge UP, 1998. 

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Lomas, David.  The Haunted Self: Surrealism, Psychoanalysis, Subjectivity: Surrealism, Psychoanalysis, Subjectivity. Yale UP, 2000. 

---. “Surrealism, Psychoanalysis, and Hysteria.” Surrealism: Desire Unbound, edited by Jennifer Mundy Princeton UP, 2001, pp. .55–78.

Lubar, Robert. “Modern Art and Mass Culture in America: The Case of Salvador Dalí."  Dali and Mass Culture. Fundación “La Caixa”/ Fundació Gala - Salvador Dalí / Salvador Dalí Museum, 2004. 

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Mundy, Jennifer.  “Letters of Desire.”  Surrealism: Desire Unbound, edited by Jennifer Mundy, Princeton UP, 2001, pp. 10–54.

Perloff, Marjorie.  The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. Princeton UP, 1981.

Roberts, Mathew.  “Bonfire of the Avant-Garde: Cultural Rage and Readerly Complicity in The Day of the Locust.”  Modern Fiction Studies, 42, 1996, pp. 61–90.

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Tashjian, Dickran.  A Boatload of Madmen: Surrealism and the American Avant-Garde. Thames and Hudson, 1995.

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Walz, Robin. Pulp Surrealism: Insolent Popular Culture in Early Twentieth-Century Paris. U of California P, 2000.

West, Nathanael.  Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust. New Directions, 1962.

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