Vital Mummies: Performance Design and the Store-Window Mannequin

Why yes, I am still knee deep in my research about window displays! This by Sara Schneider in 1995 was the most complete deep dive I’ve yet read, giving the full treatment to the 1939 Dali-riding-a-bathtub-through-the-window story among other details. “Narcissus White” at Bonwit Teller in 1939 was a collaboration of Dali with Tom Lee, featuring a claw-foot bathtub covered in white fur, 100 mannequin hands rising up from the tub with mirrors, an old mannequin with tears of blood and long blonde hair crawling with beetles only wearing a negligee. Bathtub filled with dirty water and the display apparently offended people to the point where store management altered it, infuriating Dali who tried to destroy it and accidentally crashed through the window, then being arrested.

Another artist to add to the list: James Rosenquist worked as a freelancer under Gene Moore. Also freelancing for Moore, Jasper Johns & Bob Rauschenberg who shared a joint pseudonym, Matson Jones (from their mothers’ maiden names), because didn’t want their commercial work confused with their “real” art. Surrealist Exhibition of 1938 had misogynist treatment of mannequins. “Man Ray, Joan Miro, Kurl Seligmann, Salvador Dali, Andre Masson, Maurice Henry, Marcel Duchamp, Oscar Dominguez, and Max Ernst made department store mannequins into objects of decay and depravity by covering them with snails, matting their hair, painting colossal tears on their cheeks, enclosing their heads in bird cages.”

She includes a lengthy discussion of Lynn Hershman’s 1976 Bonwit Teller “Bonnie” windows (25 Windows: A Portrait/Project). Also Diane Everett’s live robot routine, and Colette’s 1978 performance in the Whitney Museum window (“The Last Stitch”) faking a suicide.

In the Who Knew? department:

  • For years in New York, women were prohibited from working past 10 PM, effectively keeping them out of the window display industry where most of the work takes place at night.
  • In many parts of the country it was illegal to undress or dress a mannequin in front of spectators. In the 1950s in NYC you could get a ticket for undressing a mannequin in the window.

The American Store Window

This 1978 book by Leonard S. Marcus is primarily useful for the large catalog of photographs at the end. Includes short biographical profiles of the major window display artists of the 20th century.

André Breton collaboration with Marcel Duchamp (1944) at Gotham Book Mart, NYC:

Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns window for Bonwit Teller, 1950 (working with Gene Moore):

Andy Warhol’s Bonwit Teller in 1957 (also working with Gene Moore):

Dali, Bonwit Teller, early 1940s:

Tom Lee, 1938 or 1939, Bonwit Teller:

Evidence that crowds would gather for the Christmas windows; Macy’s 1884:

Discovered that Gump’s (soon to be gone in San Francisco) was known for its windows in the 1950s & 60s.

Buildings and Society: Essays on the Social Development of the Built Environment

A slightly interesting collection of random essays about buildings, obtained primarily for Robert Thorne’s essay Places of refreshment in the nineteenth-century city. Ladies, of course, were barred from going anywhere unaccompanied by a male escort, but there began to sprout up various tea rooms and pastry shops where their rumbling bellies could be fed. Restaurants popped up in London in the early 19th century though Paris had them since 1760s. Public houses (shortened to “pubs”) and taverns also served food, mostly to men, (the part of the pub called the tap room was where food brought in by customers could be cooked and eaten), and everyone was wild to keep the classes from intermingling. Compartments were rampant, either curtained boxes or in the case of the Goat in Boots public house (1889), bar compartments around a central serving area that gave a maximum of privacy for those ashamed to be drinking in public. Drinkers in one compartment were completely hidden from others.

Another decent essay was about the apartment house in urban America, with the rise of palatial apartments for the obscenely wealthy, luxury apartments for the affluent, and efficiency apartments for everyone else. In 1924 Mrs E.F. Hutton agreed to having her townhouse on 5th Avenue razed in order to construct a massive apartment building, provided that she get the top three floors build to an exact replica of the home that was destroyed (54 room apartment).


Lightly fictionalized account that’s also covered by La Batarde (and is much more readable there, loads less dialog that makes Ravages a clunky read).

Skimmed through this quickly, just wanted to note that this is a weaker, first attempt at what comes out more perfectly formed in her autobiography.

Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture

ARGH. I just spent an hour crafting a post about this book and it’s gone. Instead, all I have energy for is to just copy/paste some of the text that I found interesting. William Leach’s book covers the beginning of consumer culture, 1880-1930, with specific interest in window displays and the artistic merit therein.


Max Weber’s Chicago experience:

Writers, including Henry James, Willa Cather, Edna Ferber, and Dreiser, on shop windows:

Frank Baum’s trade journal about window dressing:

Hired window gawkers!

Covered windows in Sunday:

Department stores, not museums, patronized modern art:

Joseph Urban, Austrian immigrant:

Georgia O’Keeffe, Norman Bel Geddes, Boardman Robinson:

Lelia: The Life Of George Sand

While reading Grace Hartigan’s journals wherein she swoons over reading this biography of George Sand, I realized I knew shamefully little about this foremother, this literary giant. I resolved to remedy that by going to the source that Hartigan was clutching in the 1950s, this by Maurois. Hundreds of pages later, I’m not certain I know George (Aurore Dupin -> Madame Dudevant -> George Sand) any better. Certainly her life was filled with passion, as Maurois describes her lurching from one love affair to the next, separating from her husband and desperately seeking a romantic attachment that fulfilled her.

She had fierce friendships that went down in flames, such as that of Lizst’s pretty girlfriend Marie d’Agoult, the entire breakup letter printed here in full. She provided Chopin with a loving home for several years and he chose the side of her daughter Solange against George. (Maurois claims that without Sand’s support and encouragement, Chopin may never have written his best work). She knew everyone: Flaubert, Balzac, Hugo, the Dumas family. Some of them remained loyal to the end.

There are some hilarious bits, such as her written up contract to try and bring her husband around to providing her what she needed (eight formal “Articles” that mostly laid out how he needed to educate himself, read books and provide her with his opinions of them).

Maurois’ prose is quite eloquent: “The passage of time and the accidents of life wash ceaselessly about our feet many strangers, some of whom, thus wrecked upon the coast of our own lies, remain there. New deposits of friendship take the place of those sucked backward by the ebb.”

The Briefcase

Hiromi Kawakami’s book (translated from the Japanese by Allison Powell) was a quiet, wonderful surprise. Her prose envelops the soft, budding relationship between a thirty-something woman and a teacher she had in high school. They connect years later by randomly frequenting the same after work bar and strike up a friendship that becomes central to Tsukiko’s life (she calls him Sensei because she doesn’t remember his name, but continues to call him that as a term of endearment). Their drinking buddy relationship gradually morphs into something more, Tsukiko declaring her love for Sensei in drunken bursts and he politely ignoring her until they finally begin to date. Mushroom hunting, ferrying to the island where his wife is buried, cherry blossom festival, but mostly they sit side by side at the bar, downing infinite bottles of sake. Very tender and precious, in the best way.

A Natural History of the Senses

I can’t remember how I fell into this particular rabbit hole of inquiry, perhaps it was after a memory swarmed to the surface of my mind after I caught a faint scent and began wondering why smell short circuits directly to the memory. Indeed, smell was the sense that I most enjoyed reading about if my notes are any indication, although touch had some interesting digressions about tattoos (apparently Tsar Nicholas II, King George V, and Lady Randolph Churchill were tatto’ed Victorians, it being the “thing to do” when one was in Japan).

This is a beautifully written book jammed full of interesting threads of information. Some highlights:

  • “Smell is the mute sense, the one without words. Lacking a vocabulary, we are left tongue-tied, groping for words in a sea of inarticulate pleasure and exaltation.”
  • “The physiological links between the smell and language centers of the brain are pitifully weak. Not so the links between the smell and the memory centers, a route that carries us nimbly across time and distance.”
  • “In a world sayable and lush, where marvels offer themselves up readily for verbal dissection, smells are often right on the tip of our tongues, but no closer, and it gives them a kind of magical distance, a mystery, a power without name, a sacredness.”
  • “When the olfactory bulb detects something, it signals the cerebral cortex and sends a message straight into the limbic system, a mysterious, ancient, and intensely emotional section of our brain in which we feel, lust, and invent.  Unlike the other sense, smell needs no interpreter. The effect is immediate and undiluted by language, thought, or translation.”
  • “Weightlessness makes astronauts lose taste and smell in space. In the absence of gravity, molecules cannot be volatile, so few of them get into our noses deeply enough to register as odors.”
  • “Smell was the first of our senses, and it was so successful that in time the small lump of olfactory tissue atop the nerve cord grew into a brain. Our cerebral hemispheres were originally buds from olfactory stalks. We think because we smelled.”


Journals of Grace Hartigan, 1951-1955

My continued obsession with 1950s artists dropped me into Grace Hartigan’s world, captured spectacularly in her journals from the early half of the decade when she’s fighting for money and taking random temp jobs despite having sold paintings to MOMA. Her journal notes the day to day struggle of a working artist, believing a painting to be finished one day and the next attacking it to add something else, then deciding it’s ruined, then loving it again. Cyclical. The importance of having a group of friends with whom to bounce ideas, to deeply discuss the craft and problems encountered. Bravo to her unconventional flinging aside of the claims her young son had on her, thrusting him instead to her ex-husband and her parents to leave herself free to pursue art. She occasionally visits them, such as this note after a week at the beach in 1952 with her son Jeff and family: “Amazing in the American middle-class the worship of the extrovert personality. Mother tries to force this on Jeff when he is a naturally shy and gentle child.”

The constant pressure to get a job to earn money in order to not work for a while and to paint. In May 1953 she gets up in the middle of the night and writes in her journal about her refusal to go into a job she just found: “Something happened tonight and I won’t work tomorrow at that tabulating job for morons. It isn’t that I am such an artist, but that I have value as an intelligent human being, and if I must work and move in the world, then I am capable of being more deeply engaged in what I do. I can give more than automatism, I refuse to submit myself to such degradation.”

Later that summer she’s wondering why John Myers gave her a book on Byron: “I had no feelings of identification with Byron–far more with a spirit like Rilke, shy, but at times powerfully sure, mystical, misanthropic–I feel also for Cezanne, his outward desire to fit into a conservative life, his antagonisms, etc. Or even I’m more like Melville or Hawthorne. I can see in the future more and more withdrawal from everyone but a few trusted friends.”

She embraces her dwindling circle but seems intent on counting the names. The September 9th entry (1953) was particularly great:

Everything changes.

I will be quite alone now. Frank [O’Hara] has moved to Sneedens Landing with Bobby Fisdale–it should be good for him and his work, a kind of isolation he couldn’t do for himself in the city. Larry [Rivers] will spend his first winter in Southampton. Al [Leslie] has been in Hoboken for so long it seems he always lived there. Waldemar doesn’t exist for me any longer, we have nothing to say to each other, he’ll never write a novel, he’s too afraid of failure. Jane [Freilicher] will be returning the end of the month, but I am so embarrassed by the weakness of her painting I can’t bear to see her.

Well, who knows, maybe there are others.

“One must beware of beautiful beginnings and feel free to destroy them. What comes eventually is better and more true.”

Weimar Surfaces: Urban Visual Culture in 1920s Germany

I’ve been tracking down a side project that flared up from Lynn Hershman’s Bonwit Teller windows in 1976. Janet Ward’s book about Weimar Germany makes a case that innovations in department window design took place in Berlin first despite Germany’s late start (France, England, U.S. all had several decades of huge growth in department stores before Germany’s 1890 rise). Architecture gave rise to the importance of display windows as light courts were introduced. Professional window dressers (the Schaufensterdekorateurs) were trained in schools. From 1909 on there were annual display window contests in Berlin, and Ward states that the displays of the city were the “most renowned worldwide until the gradual decline in innovation during the 1930s with the onset of Nazism.” (From her footnote: “In the initial euphoric period of Nazism, display windows were so overstocked with Nazi symbolism (especially at Christmas) that a law had to be passed in December 1933 to prevent the Nazi Hoheitszeichen being used except for official purposes.”)

The impact of mixing art with advertising was long lasting; “there was no longer any fixed boundary between the aesthetics of painting and popular culture, and no more autonomy for creative artists unrelated to the needs of industry.”

She does an excellent job weaving in sources as varied as Walter Benjamin, Fritz Lang, Baudrillard, and Nietzsche. I’m left with several leads on additional sources to track down.

More gold from the footnotes:

  • The 1st U.S. trade magazine for display windows was founded in 1897 and was first edited by L. Frank Baum (Wizard of Oz creator)— The Show Window: A Monthly Journal of Practical Window Trimming. Oz also authored The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows (1900).
  • Did you know that window displays were covered on Sundays up until the 1930s in the U.S.?? Germany dropped this “churchgoing prescription” in the 1910s.
  • Both Dali and Marcel Duchamp designed windows in 1930s NYC.
  • Elizabeth von Stephani-Hahn was an early innovator. She was “a portrait and flower painter hired in 1904 to create window designs for the Kaufhaus Wertheim, recognized later as the key figure in the reform of window design.” (Quote from August Macke’s Shoppers: Commodity Aesthetics, Modernist Autonomy and the Inexhaustible Will of Kitsch by Sherwin Simmons in a 2000 article in Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte). She published the definitive book on this topic in 1919, Schaufensterkunst (The Art of the Display Window, which I found a copy of online!).
  • Weimar culture critics waxed poetic about the displays: “The old specialty shop was static, the department store is dynamic; there everything was fixed, here everything flows. Then small, now big. Then dark, now bright. Then soul, now intellect.” (Werner Sombart)
  • While citing Sara Schneider’s Vital Mummies, Ward notes that her approach, “while insightful, neglects the closer kinship of film over theater to the window art form… [and her] book title also indicates her anthropomorphic bias, which downplays how show window display of the German 1920s focused equally on nonmannequin scenes; she also seems unaware of Weimar German predominance in the field, implying instead that it was a uniquely ‘American modern art form.'”

A display from the waning days of the Weimar, showing women mannequins climbing over each other in an attempt to get into the store:

A couple of my favorites from Stephani-Hahn’s 1919 Schaufensterkunst:

Eileen Myles @ the Nourse

One of my favorite living writers was on stage at the Nourse tonight, an otherwise stunning performance marred by the subpar pairing with a Berkeley English professor who bumbled his way through the conversation, not seeming to know much about Myles or her work. She read a few of her pieces, including her memorable Acceptance Speech given in the run up to the 2016 election, celebrating Zoe Leonard’s “I Want a President” piece which was written in 1992 to mark Myles’ run for the presidency.

Best moment for me was the full body slam smackdown she put on the guy who asked her to explain what’s so great about Gertrude Stein. Oh you know, only the most important thing to happen to American writing besides New Narrative. (Myles stuck in a jab at Hemingway, too, “We used to care a lot about him but not so much anymore, but he learned how to write from Stein.”) Her favorite Stein, like mine, is Lectures in America.

Random jottings I captured in the dark:

  • Weird is the real deal. She used to claim to be on the fringe of poetry, but that assumes there is a center of normal somewhere.
  • By anticipating, you find readers. You don’t get small because people might not be listening to you; you stay as big as possible so they can find you.
  • Before the internet discovered cats and you made sure the world knew what your cat looks like, people had to be sleeping with you to know what your cat looked like.
  • None of her books are memoirs although the book people insist on calling them that because of her named character, Eileen Myles. “I would never write a memoir… so sentimental.” Later she joked, “Bound to Fail. If I ever wrote a memoir, that would be the title.”
  • “The obscenity of using your own name for a character.”
  • What’s great about form is that it leads you to spaces you can’t imagine.
  • If you don’t know where to put something, put it at the beginning.
  • Allow the reader to watch the act of invention. Put faith in the act of making art.
  • She had puppets she made as a kid, soon to be featured in a movie about driving from Marfa to Alpine in the back of the truck. (Mentioned Pull My Daisy, a movie about the Beats I hadn’t heard of, written & narrated by Kerouac)
  • What’s New Narrative? The secret, influential writing style that was a reaction to theory’s constraints, the post-poets turned to prose in late 1970s San Francisco (Bob Gluck, Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Killian, etc.).
  • Hitchhiking prepares you for a life in writing, making up stories and lies, becoming different characters.
  • Just like dinosaurs became birds, so did vaudeville turn to radio to TV to performance art.
  • A poet’s impulse to inventory sounds and sights.
  • Found freedom to write the stories as postcards to herself from another time. Follow the visuals, follow how it looks. A story happens right in front of her.
  • Every time she figured out how to do something in prose she got excited.
  • Fame was the only way to survive. “I always imagined I would be known.”
  • Where does she get inspiration? Life is interesting, literature, so much art to see. Turned on by other’s work. There’s always a hole, a yearning to get something done but not entirely. Lots of things in motion, uncomplete. Have 3 or 4 things going, a mess. Always things to do. Defiance is still inspiration. Have to make up projects that no one wants b/c then she’s being bad (instead of working on the book projects she has grants and contracts for).
  • Books are like yoga classes, you do one pose and then you want to do the opposite stretch. Use the energy, change it up, figure out how to make it energetically readable. Keep it moving forward, don’t block the flow. People should know where they are—you can go anywhere in the universe as long as there’s a clear landing.

Later: I’m just realizing the context of the “Are you Robert De Niro, actor? I’m Eileen Myles, poet” comment that Eileen made to De Niro in the 1980s—De Niro was probably introducing himself like that because his dad was Robert De Niro, artist, to that group of people. When reading Ninth Street Women, I came across De Niro (Sr) a few times and was super confused. In reading Grace Hartigan’s journals just now, a footnote explains that the elder was one of the abstract expressionists of the 1950s. YES! Love it when things fall into place in my brain.

Mean Girls Club: Pink Dawn

Technically I gulped down this and the previous Mean Girls Club, but the first seemed to just be a teaser compared to the juicier 2nd installment. These mean girls raise hell, drink, drug, shoot guns, club people over the head, mostly kill men who are in their way. The fat mayor of the town is out to get them, sicks the cops on them but (of course) the girls prevail. Hints as to the mayor’s fate are peppered throughout when he keeps asking his sidekick whether his pigs at home got fed. (Not yet! Not yet! and then splat, the fat mayor lands in the hungry pigs’ pen to get devoured). Entertaining palate cleanser between more serious reading.

Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter

I’ve been loving Nina MacLaughlin’s series on the Senses of Dawn this week in The Paris Review, so I scurried to the library to find her book. It’s a memoir tracing her pivot from working as a Boston-area journalist to becoming a carpenter with the tremendous help of her mentor and boss, Mary. Most interesting were the bits about their work, the story of her learning the trade and all the plumbers, haulers, clients that she meets along the way. Less interesting was her attempt to heighten the tone by sprinkling in literary references (mostly Ovid), along with the history of tools and random mentions like the Alaskan hammer museum (simply an excuse to write-off a trip to Alaska?). I was pleased to see her mention We’ll Call You If We Need You, Susan Eisenberg’s interviews with dozens of women in the construction industry that I  enjoyed reading a few years ago.

Under the Jaguar Sun

Calvino meant to write a book about the five senses but had only written about three before his death. This is a beautiful collection of stories about taste, sound, smell. The postscript from his wife Esther suggests that he would have added a framework to the book that would have transformed it even further.

The eponymous story, Under the Jaguar Sun, is about taste, as experienced through the mouths of a couple touristing in Oaxaca, Mexico. Tasting the food of the region where you travel “is the only kind of travel that has a meaning nowadays (1982), when everything visible you can see on television without rising from your easy chair.” Amid mouthwatering descriptions of chiles, tamales, sauces, there lurks a hint of cannibalism.

My favorite was A King Listens (about sound/hearing), imagining the life of a king who is trapped on his throne, unable to move, and he lives vicariously through his ears.

For you the days are a succession of sounds, some distinct, some almost imperceptible; you have learned to distinguish them, to evaluate their provenance and their distance; you know their order, you know how long the pauses last; you are already awaiting every resonance or creak or clink that is about to reach your tympanum; you anticipate it in your imagination; if it is late in being produced, you grow impatient… Vestibules, stairways, loggias, corridors of the palace have high, vaulted ceilings; every footstep, every click of a lock, every sneeze echoes, rebounds, is propagated horizontally along a suite of communicating rooms, halls, colonnades, service entries, and also vertically, through stairwells, cavities, skylights, conduits, flues, the shafts of dumbwaiters; and all the acoustical routes converge on the throne room. Into the great lake of silence where you are floating rivers of air empty, stirred by intermittent vibrations. Alert, intent, you intercept them and decipher them. The palace is all whorls, lobes: it is a great ear, whose anatomy and architecture trade names and functions: pavilions, ducts, shells, labyrinths. You are crouched at the bottom, in the innermost zone of the palace-ear, of your own ear; the palace is the ear of the king.


The Opportunity of a Lifetime

Emma Smith wrote this excellent tale of 1937 Cornwall in the late 1970s, insightful words that whisked me away to that simpler time and place for a few hours. The narrator, Nora, is a fifteen-year-old on a seaside holiday with her older sister Cynthia and her neurotic parents, only a few miles from their home. Two elderly sisters heard of their predicament of not having anywhere to go for the holiday and offered up their tea cottage, the Rose Cafe, for the two weeks. While there, the parents scheme to buy the land and develop a hotel on the spot. Nora meets a 15-year-old boy, Terry, who’s run away from reform school, and is living in a tent while stealing food. There’s the ancestral brooch that Cynthia steals from her mother, the boredom she feels towards the men who swarm her, the devious Peter Miller who is managing the other swanky hotel, the Willis family whose paterfamilias lectures Nora about schools not teaching the right thing. The story is framed from the perspective of 35 years later, triggered by the receipt of a letter from her childhood maid, Beatrice, that includes a clipping of one of the Willis children. Once the tale is told, Nora as middle-aged woman ventures back to live by the sea, near Beatrice, again.