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How Much is That Dali in the Window?

What does a Surrealist window display look like? Salvador Dali, the late Catalan artist known for his iconic mustache and vaudevillian eyes as much as his mind-bending works, relished the shock and awe his antics provoked. And the prim ladies window shopping at Bonwit Teller were shocked indeed when on this day in 1939, Dali came flying through the glass of the store’s front window.

Given his artistic shenanigans, it wasn’t a stretch to think Dali was giving the crowd a taste of his performance art. It turns out that crashing through a window, stuntman style, was actually an accident.

High-end New York department store Bonwit Teller, in conjunction with the opening of the “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, had commissioned a series of windows by Surrealist artists. Who better to contribute than Dali, exemplar of the movement, creator of the ubiquitous melting clocks and the man who said, “I myself am surrealism?” For all of his quirky works of art, he really outdid himself on the Bonwit window.

Dali based his work on the Narcissus complex, and he created one window evoking this concept as “Day” and the other as “Night.” The Day window featured a tub lined with black Persian lamb and filled with water, Narcissi floating on the surface. Three wax hands reached out from under the water holding mirrors, and a hoary, has-been of a mannequin was stepping into the tub. Mannequins, like clowns, are generally creepy, but imagine a mangy, 1890s-vintage wax mannequin with real red hair wearing a barely there negligee of green feathers. She was the centerpiece of this controversial display.

As if the Day display wasn’t enough of a freak-show funhouse attraction, Night featured a bed standing on four buffalo legs, with a canopy made of a buffalo’s head clenching a bloody pigeon in its jaw. Another wax model lounged over a bed of hot coals. Dali described the work as “the decapitated head and the savage hoofs of a great somnambulist buffalo extenuated by a thousand years of sleep.” WTF?

It must have been quite a shock for 5th Avenue shoppers who hoped to pop into Bonwit for some retail therapy to happen upon this gory scene. Ironically, it wasn’t the taxidermied buffalo munching on bloody carrion, or the ghoulish hands reaching up from the depths of the tub, but the scantily-clad mannequin that upset the genteel crowd. Spies from the store infiltrated the bystanders to gage opinion. There must have been one too many hushed whispers of indecency, because the store summarily replaced both wilting beauties with store mannequins dressed in suits.

Enter Dali, who walked by the store the following afternoon and was none too happy about the defacing of his art. Pinstripes and gabardine certainly didn’t suit his phantasmagoric opus. As he said, he “was hired to do a work of art,” not to have his “name associated with typical window dressing.” After tearing the company lawyer a new one in both French and Spanish, Dali proceeded to his window display and plied the bathtub free from its moorings. As he did, the tub slipped and crashed through the window along with the maestro. Miraculously, Dali didn’t have a scratch on him, and though he was arrested for malicious mischief, he got off scot-free. Upon releasing him Judge Louis Brodsky said, “these are some of the privileges that an artist with temperament seems to enjoy.” Tell that to Charlie Sheen. —Kristine Lloyd

Photo Credits: Salvador Dali with mannequins (above) and leaving the courthouse on March 16, photographers unknown.

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In a machine age, dressmaking is one of the last refuges of the human, the personal, the inimitable. In a epoch as somber as ours, luxury must be defended inch by inch.

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