When Salvador Dalí Dressed — and Angrily Demolished — a Department Store Window in New York City (1939)

If you want to under­stand the his­to­ry of art in twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca, you can’t over­look the cor­ner of Fifth Avenue and 56th Street in New York City. No, not Trump Tow­er, but the build­ing it replaced: Bon­wit Teller, the lux­u­ry depart­ment store that had stood on the site since 1929. Then as now, any shop on Fifth Avenue has to find a way to set itself apart, and by 1939 Bon­wit Teller had built a “rep­u­ta­tion for hav­ing Man­hat­tan’s screwiest win­dow dis­plays.” So says Time mag­a­zine, cov­er­ing a minor deba­cle that year over one of the instal­la­tions by “the world’s No. 1 sur­re­al­ist, Sal­vador Dalí.”

Dalí had pre­vi­ous­ly dressed Bon­wit Teller’s win­dows with­out inci­dent in 1936, rid­ing high on the buzz from his first Amer­i­can exhi­bi­tion that same year. When invit­ed back by the store to cre­ate a new dis­play, writes Tim McNeese in Sal­vador Dalí, “he decid­ed to use the win­dows to depict the ‘Nar­cis­sus com­plex,’ ” divid­ed into day and night. “In the Day win­dow, Nar­cis­sus is per­son­i­fied,” says The Art Sto­ry. “Three wax hands hold­ing mir­rors reached out of a bath­tub lined with black lamb­skin and filled with water. A man­nequin entered the tub in a scant out­fit of green feath­ers. For the Night win­dow, the feet of a poster bed are replaced by buf­fa­lo legs and the canopy is topped by its pigeon-eat­ing head. A wax man­nequin sat near­by on a bed of coals.”

As for the pub­lic reac­tion, writes the New York Times’ Michael Pol­lak, “words were exchanged, not all of them com­pli­men­ta­ry, and the store’s staff made quick changes. The skin­ny-dip­per in ‘Day’ was quick­ly replaced by an attired man­nequin. Out went the sleep­er in ‘Night’; in went a stand­ing mod­el.” As soon as he caught sight of the unau­tho­rized mod­i­fi­ca­tions, Dalí took cor­rec­tive action. McNeese quotes the artist’s own mem­o­ry of the pro­ceed­ings: “I dashed into the win­dow to dis­arrange it, so that my name, signed in the win­dow, should not be dis­hon­ored. I was nev­er so sur­prised as when the bath­tub just shot through the win­dow when I pushed it and I was there­after most con­fused.”

Dalí was charged with dis­or­der­ly con­duct but issued a sus­pend­ed sen­tence since, as the judge put it, “These are some of the priv­i­leges that an artist with tem­pera­ment seems to enjoy.” Noth­ing like this hap­pened to Andy Warhol when he lat­er dressed Bon­wit Teller’s win­dows, writes i‑D’s Briony Wright, though “a com­mis­sion for the depart­ment store in 1961 brought what could be con­sid­ered his big break.” Those same win­dows also became oppor­tu­ni­ties for a host of oth­er artists includ­ing Sari Dienes, James Rosen­quist, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschen­berg, the last two of whom col­lab­o­rat­ed on a dis­play as Mas­ton Jones. They had their own rea­sons for the pseu­do­nym, but an artist of Dalí’s par­tic­u­lar sen­si­bil­i­ty knows you don’t turn down a chance to get your name on Fifth Avenue.

Relat­ed con­tent:

When Sal­vador Dali Met Sig­mund Freud, and Changed Freud’s Mind About Sur­re­al­ism (1938)

When Sal­vador Dalí Cre­at­ed a Sur­re­al­ist Fun­house at New York World’s Fair (1939)

Sal­vador Dalí Gets Sur­re­al with 1950s Amer­i­ca: Watch His Appear­ances on What’s My Line? (1952) and The Mike Wal­lace Inter­view (1958)

When Sal­vador Dalí Cre­at­ed Christ­mas Cards That Were Too Avant Garde for Hall­mark (1960)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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