Dalí the dreamer

When she began research on a book about Salvador Dalí Ingrid Schaffner says she was sometimes embarrassed to admit to people what she was working on. Though Dalí may beat even Picasso to the title of best-known-artist ever, his reputation in the art world has never caught up with his fame. The artist’s endless self promotion, his zeal for pop culture and his willingness to caricature himself were, says Schaffner, “all things artists weren’t supposed to do,” and consequently his stock has faltered among the high art cognoscenti.

By the time she’d finished working on “Salvador Dalí’s Dream of Venus”—a fully illustrated tour of the “surrealistic funhouse” Dalí designed for the 1939 World’s Fair—Schaffner says she had new respect for the artistic iconoclast. Schaffner, who is senior curator at Penn’s Institute of Contemporary Art, will talk about the Dream of Venus Feb. 23 as part of this year’s Penn Humanities Forum on Sleep and Dreams. The talk comes on the heels of the Feb. 16 opening at the Philadelphia Museum of Art of a major retrospective of Dalí’s career in honor of the centenary of his birth.

The World’s Fair pavilion, explains Schaffner, took visitors on a wild, hallucinatory journey through Dalí’s brain, with semi-clad, bare-breasted women—“liquid ladies” as Dalí called them—cavorting in an underwater world complete with a mummified cow, a piano keyboard painted on a recumbent nude and telephone receivers floating on their cords like seaweed. At this point in his career, says Schaffner, Dalí was “already the drippy watch guy,” and already a household name.

As shocking as the Dream of Venus sounds, 1930s audiences were probably less easily scandalized that we might imagine, says Schaffner. Also, Dalí purposely located his funhouse in the amusement part of the fair. “Burlesque was still a fairly ribald form of entertainment,” she adds, “and all around were nudey attractions, including a ‘Cuban village’ where a naked girl was ‘voodoo sacrificed’ daily.” In that context, Dalí’s vision seemed almost tasteful.

Still, says Schaffner, it was after the Dream of Venus that Dalí launched himself into “the big time of pop culture,” filming a dream sequence for Hitchock’s “Spellbound,” producing a (ultimately ill-fated) cartoon for Disney, collaborating on a “Lobster Dress” with Elsa Schiaparelli and appearing in TV commercials. Along with advertising work for Alka Seltzer and Datsun cars, Dalí famously appeared in a commercial for Braniff Airlines where he announced to the viewing public, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it!”

Schaffner finds Dalí’s shameless lowculture aspirations fascinating, and liberating. “He sees the goals of the Surrealists and surpasses them, and instead of receiving approval they’re horrified and reject him,” she says. “He was not to be suppressed.”

More and more, when making studio visits with art students, Schaffner detects the influence of Dalí, in a way that would never have happened in the ’80s. What young painters are seeing in Dalí, she says, is the articulation of a fantastic vision that morphs and manipulates the world. “There’s something,” she says, “about his way of representing things that jibes with the virtual reality of game space. Think of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ scenes, with their hyper–realized imaginary zones.”

With the Dalí show taking over the Art Museum’s exhibit galleries this spring, the eccentric genius is finally getting his share of attention from high-art circles. Dalí, we assume, would have loved the publicity.

Ingrid Schaffner will speak on “Dalí’s Dream of Venus,” Feb. 23 at 5 pm in Rm. 17, Logan Hall. For more information, and to register, go to http://humanities.sas.upenn.edu or call 215-898-8220. For more on “Dalí”at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Feb. 16 through May 6, go to www.philamuseum.org or call 215-763-8100.

Originally published on February 10, 2005