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Intersections of Identity: Expression, Exchange, and Hybridity Lecture Series

April 27, 2021; 7:00-8:30pm

"Dalí's Dream of Venus: Sex, Surrealism, and Eugenics at the 1939 New York World's Fair"

Keri Watson, Associate Professor of Art History, University of Central Florida, and Director of the Florida Prison Education Project

One of the most important cultural events of the twentieth century, the 1939 New York World’s Fair opened amid the turmoil of a global economic depression and escalating tensions that would soon erupt into a second world war. Despite such dire circumstances, the fair, optimistically subtitled “Building the World of Tomorrow,” was the most spectacular exposition ever held in the United States and one of the best-attended events of the first half of the twentieth century.
Nestled amid the “Strange as It Seems” freak show (complete with a Bearded Lady, Petrified Man, Lobster Family, and Pygmies from Batwa) and “Billy Rose’s Aquacade” (a display of hundreds of female synchronized swimmers), Dalí’s Dream of Venus (1939) offered fair-goers the ultimate escape from the day-to-day. As one reviewer exclaimed, “One of the best sights on the midway is the bewilderment of the cash customers in Dalí’s crazy girl show. They don’t know whether to be angry, amused, or excited.” Scholars have argued alternately that Dalí's Dream of Venus made “manifest the contradictions and compromises that Surrealists brought with them to American shores,” offered viewers “an episode of inspired insanity,” and that it epitomized the ways in which “true Surrealism gives way to popular entertainment in the U.S.,” but the ways in which it combined sex, surrealism, and eugenics to support white, able-bodied heteronormativity has gone unexamined.
This presentation draws upon Lennard J. Davis’s argument that representations of Venus are best interpreted as attempts by “male artists and critics to gird themselves against the irrationality and chaos of the body” to demonstrate the ways in which Dalí’s Dream of Venus worked with the fair's larger decorative program to reassure white, male, heteronormativity. Ultimately, Dalí’s Dream of Venus depended upon the hypersexualized and prostheticized female body to arouse voyeuristic male spectators, embody the male anxiety evoked by women and disability, and expose the ways in which class, gender, and disability were conflated during the 1930s.

Keri Watson is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Central Florida. Her research, which focuses on the power of art to contribute to and challenge stereotypical representations of race, nationality, gender, sex, and dis/ability, has been supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fulbright-Terra Foundation, and the Society for the Preservation of American Modernists, and published in the: Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies; Museums and Social Issues: A Journal of Reflective Discourse; Art and Activism in the Age of Systemic Crisis: Aesthetic Resilience; and Disability and Art History. She is co-editor of the forthcoming Routledge Companion to Art and Disability.

May 6, 2021; 5:30pm

Carol Armstrong, Professor of the History of Art, Yale University

Murphy Lecture: "Chardin, Diderot, and the Muteness of Made Things"



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Apr 27 Intersections of Identity: Expression, Exchange, and Hybridity:
Keri Watson
May 6 Murphy Lecture:
Carol Armstrong

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