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).

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:

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.

The Complete Fables of Aesop

Philosophical nuggets delivered in the tiniest of forms—through Aesop’s fables. I can’t remember how this crept up in conversation lately, but I got a hankering to read the slightly more scholarly and un-white-washed version that Olivia and Robert Temple published with Penguin in 1998, supposedly the first English translation of “all” 358 fables. “All” being a bold claim when some (most?) of these fables are refuted by the Temples as being created by Aesop at all, due to their exotic animals, plants, and locations that more accurately describe Libya or Egypt than Greece. The text is translated from Chambry’s 1927 French edition.

The morals were added to the collection of fables along the way, and the Temples faithfully translate them but admit that they’re “often silly and inferior in wit and interest to the fables themselves. Some of them are truly appalling, even idiotic.” Sometimes themes are repeated, but animals are varied. Themes beat into your head the need to recognize your place in the world, don’t foolishly challenge people who are stronger/smarter than you, don’t be greedy, accept your lot, evil people should be avoided and can’t be reformed. I found some of the morals to be downright perfect, like 127’s (The Sun and the Frogs): “Plenty of empty-headed people are jubilant about things which they have no cause to celebrate.”

Fable 252 (The Logs and the Olive) warranted a long discussion in the footnotes about whether it came downstream from the Bible or if the Bible appropriated it. Since it originally had humor and the Book of Judges copy did not, the Temples decide that the fable came first. “What has happened is that a funny fable was misinterpreted by a Hebrew author whose Greek was a bit rusty, and borrowed for a wholly non-funny purpose of a man complaining that his family have been murdered – just about the most incongruous context imaginable.”

Several fables are recognizable, such as The Fox and the Bunch of Grapes where the fox decides the grapes are unripe when he can’t jump to reach them. Also the idea of not killing your golden goose (287’s The Hen That Laid The Golden Eggs), the boy who cried wolf (318’s The Joking Shepherd), and the Tortoise and the Hare (352).

Nell Blaine

Nell Blaine was a member of the Second Generation of the New York School who kept cropping up tangentially in the pages of the epic Ninth Street Women. Unfortunately, coming off the heels of that well written and researched book, this retrospective of Blaine’s life falls flat, the lifeless writing leaves much to be desired. Great for the color plates of her work, but you’re left wanting a bouncier text that shines a clear spotlight into her life and artistic process.

Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art

Meticulously researched and expertly written, weaving threads of history (WW2, Depression, WPA projects) into the stories of these five amazing artists. A beefy 700+ pages (with an additional 100+ pages of notes) is necessary to layer in all the stories, to cover what Lee’s life was like before-during-after her time with Pollock, to outline Elaine’s scintillating intellectual climb to the top of the art critic circuit in tandem with her own artistic progress, to detail Grace’s decision to give up her son to focus on art and her close relationship with Frank O’Hara, to show how Joan and Helen’s privileged upbringing was something they both rebelled against and benefited from. It’s a nonstop whirlwind of a read, details of a time when poets and painters got together in cafes to talk about art as if it were all that mattered. In fact, it remains all that matters. It was a time when a supportive community of artists encouraged and inspired and egged each other on, unpolluted by what art would become—fashion. Gabriel also tries to make the case that it was a time before frothy misogyny shut women out completely, but Clem Greenberg’s comments denigrating women artists belies this point. Highly recommended read if you want to submerge yourself completely in the 1950s Abstract Expressionist world of these women.

A random assortment of tidbits I picked up:

* WPA project funding artists threatened by members of Congress who saw no value in work made by “Hobohemians.”

* Mondrian thought his eyes were so powerful (trained in the art of really seeing) that he kept them downcast so he wouldn’t look directly at people.

* Bonwit Teller windows keep coming up for me—Lynn Hershman’s 1976 renditions bursting out of the window. In this book, I learned that Dali crashed through a Bonwit Teller window in 1939 in a bathtub full of water in a dispute over changes made to his window. (And Jasper Johns designed Tiffany’s windows with Bob Rauschenberg in 1955.)

* Peggy Guggenheim treated Lee Krasner horribly, inviting her over for dinner and then insisting that Lee cook for the 50 guests. Surprise! But her monthly stipend did keep Jackson Pollock painting through the lean times.

* Potential cause of increased sexism I hadn’t ever considered: war as incubator for misogyny; “At the end of the war, not only had veterans returned more sexually experienced… but living those many years in a community of men, in which the women they encountered were often viewed as mere sex objects, had changed them.”

* NYU’s quest to consume all of the Village began decades ago,  century-old buildings torn down and replaced by vacant lots or NYU buildings.

This is eerily relevant to today:

It is difficult to comprehend the emotional, social, political, religious, and artistic tumult of 1945. How people could have absorbed such cataclysmic changes, coming one after the other, over a period of just a few months.

Also this, from Judith Malina’s diary: “Everyone says, ‘I can’t stand reading the newspapers. I dare not listen to the radio.” The news was pure madness.

* Pollock’s skyrocketing success is shown as a harbinger of doom, he describes himself as a clam without a shell and that people don’t look at you the same anymore. A tidal wave of mail arrived, strangers showed up to meet him. Celebrity was too much of a price to pay.

* The art market changed in 1955 when the U.S. tax code allowed deductions on art purchases made with the intent to donate to a museum. In 1956, Lee’s insistence on quadrupling prices on now dead Pollock’s work opened the floodgates for huge prices. Gabriel contends that that single sale (of Pollock’s first post-death piece to MOMA for $30k) rest the entire market for modern American work. Galleries took 30%, and artists were still making more money than they’d ever seen, resulting in the usual excesses and depressions. Paul Brach said 1957 was “the last year that artists made other artists’ reputations.” After that, it was done by the machine of the art establishment.

* The list of speakers at the Club is bananas: Joseph Campbell, Hannah Arendt, John Cage.

* I’m left with scores of people to research further, like Bunny Lang, Zarah Leander. And check out this amazing photo of Lee in 1972:

The English Mail-Coach and Other Essays

I spent the afternoon being jostled along reading De Quincey’s essays, including “The English Mail-Coach” (1849?) which keeps popping up in my life. The mail-coach was an entertaining read and held up best among all the other works. De Quincey gives you a thrill ride on the mail coach, sitting outside on the box, of course, because that’s where the fresh air and action is, and perhaps you’ll be able to catch the reins and drive for awhile. The essay celebrates this royal form of mail delivery while hinting that it’s soon to perish, mentioning the railway and its requisite boredom. Best parts were riding along and bringing fresh news from London to the surrounding areas of all the battles during the Napoleonic wars. He also tackles whether tis better to die suddenly or not, in the context of an accident he witnessed on the road when the driver was asleep and the coach was hurtling on the wrong side of the road toward a flimsy carriage.