A rarely heard original 1939 recording of Salvador Dalí’s poem The Dream of Venus from the Archive of West Dean College of Arts and Conservation greets visitors to the Arp Museum Bahnhof Rolandseck, Germany. The exhibition, Salvador Dalí and Hans Arp – The Birth of Memory explores the parallels between the two artists, featuring well-known works from international museums and collections.
The sound recording of Salvador Dalí’s poem The Dream of Venus, is being played in the exhibition, which re-opened last month. It was originally played at Salvador Dalí’s Dream of Venus, the Surrealist pavilion he designed for the New York World’s Fair in 1939, and has recently been digitised from a 78rpm soundtrack from the archive featuring Ruth Ford narrating the poem along with an evocative chorus.
The original Dream of Venus recording is a rare artefact, with just a handful of 78rpm records thought to have been produced, funded by Dalí’s close friend and patron, Edward James. The recording is held in the Edward James Archive at West Dean College, an educational foundation that James established in the early 1970s.
James is widely recognised as one of the 20th century’s most important patrons of the arts. His support of Dalí throughout 1930s famously led to a number of iconic works including the Lobster Telephone, also on loan to the Arp Museum. Between 1937 and 1938, Dalí worked under contract for James, an arrangement that provided the artist with security and freedom to concentrate on serious work, leading to what many consider his most significant period. James and Dalí also worked on innovative ideas for domestic interiors and furniture designs, such as the Mae West Lips Sofa.
The opportunity for Dali to design the Dream of Venus pavilion initially came about through his gallerist Julien Levy, with James soon joining as President of the company founded to support the venture. As James said, he was “no board-meeting President”, and was soon involved in building the façade, diving into water tanks, and liaising with rubber manufacturers that were partners in the project.
Dr. David Stent (Fine Art Subject Leader at West Dean College), who is researching and writing about the life of Edward James, explains that James’s influence is also evident in the Dream of Venus soundtrack: “Reading a script translated by Levy and James, Venus was played the young actress Ruth Ford, then a love interest of James and someone else whose career he supported. As in other instances, James’s friendships and connections proved crucial to the realisation of Dali’s ideas.”
The voice of Venus broadcast from the façade of Dali’s pavilion, itself a strange coral-like structure with spiny protuberances, a fish-head ticket booth, and an image of Botticelli’s Venus intended by Dali to have the head of a fish. The soundtrack beckoned visitors inside where they encountered a surreal fun house complete with mermaids swimming in an aquarium, with objects, costumes and sets incorporating Dalí’s signature motifs: pianos, umbrellas, lobsters and mannequins.
By James’s own account the pavilion was “tremendously acclaimed for its weirdness and originality”, and contemporary reports in Vogue magazine described the pavilion as “the most curious” amongst all the amazing exhibitions on show at the Fair. Yet the production was beset with problems and was ultimately the last venture that Dalí and James worked on together.
The West Dean College of Arts and Conservation has an international reputation for excellence and is a full partner of the University of Sussex. Students get to view or work with material from the College’s amazing Collection and Archive. For conservation and fine art study opportunities see www.westdean.ac.uk.
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