Salvador Dali’s Nasty Woman
If you’re visiting Paris this summer, check out this little-known portrait of Paris’ Grande Dame
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Paris is often known as a feminine city — a city that celebrates the beauty of women, womanly charms, of all things feminine. For women coming from America — where you should have a career but not be ambitious, where you should be independent but not strong, where you should be charming but not demanding, where you should be sexy but not a slut, where the ideal woman is really just a spunky teenager, regardless of her real age — Paris is a relief.
Finally, you are allowed — encouraged, actually — to rejoice in your curves, your wrinkles, your experience, your sway, in the power of every inch of your body — including some surprising corners! — where you get to be a woman.
More than one American has landed in Paris a girl and grown into a woman there.
One of the most famous is the Countess Mona von Bismarck, philanthropist, socialite and art collector, for whom the Mona Bismarck American Center is named.
It’s in the tony 16th arrondissement, on the right bank of the Seine, in the very fabulous restored Hotel de Ville of Mona von Bismarck herself. It hosts a collection of 20th century art and fashion collected by Bismarck during her lifetime, as well as new exhibitions, performances and installations. The Center puts on regular events: classy affairs, with hors d’oevres and free champagne (Berlin!), and it’s not unusual for the US Ambassador to show up, or other luminaries in the Franco-American cultural scene in Paris.
The first time I was there, glass of champagne (that I didn’t have to pay for, Berlin!) in hand, I wandered through the grand ballrooms to check the place out. While admiring some filigree on a fireplace (seriously — it was really admirable filigree), I looked up to see a portrait of the namesake herself, Mona von Bismarck, placed in honor over this particular filigreed fireplace, surveying the crowd and all that her legacy endowed.
This painting has haunted me ever since.
The portrait was famously commissioned by Mona Bismarck from Salvador Dali, which says something about the subject right there. I mean, unless your main goal is to appear interesting, you’re not going to ask Picasso, and unless you’re a whimsical Russian peasant in love, you’re not going to ask Chagall. But to commission a portrait by Salvador Dali? That takes a certain dark humour, a certain self awareness and a certain backbone, and a certain taste for risk — well, it takes a gambler. Or an icon.
Here is what Wikipedia says about Mona Bismarck:
Mona von Bismarck was born Margaret Edmona Travis Strader, in 1897, in Louisville Kentucky. Her father was a horse trainer, and her mother… well, her mother divorced her father when Mona was a child, and she and her brother were raised by their grandmother instead.
In 1917, when Mona was 20 years old, she married Henry J. Schlesinger, a wealthy businessman from Wisconsin and 18 years her senior. During the marriage, Mona bore a son, Robert Henry, whom she left in the custody of Schlesinger in exchange for half a million dollars when they divorced in 1920. In 1921, she married the banker James Irving Bush, 14 years her senior, said to be the “handsomest man in America”. They divorced in Paris in 1925.
In 1926, Mona opened a New York dress shop with her friend Laura Merriam Curtis. At the time, Laura was engaged to Harrison Williams, said to be the richest man in America. On July 2, 1926, Mona married Harrison Williams instead. Williams was a widower 24 years her senior.
They had houses on Long Island, in New York, in Florida, in Paris and in Capri. Mona entered high society, and in Paris became the first woman ever to be named The Best Dressed Woman in the World. She was friends with Umberto II, the King of Italy. She collected art, haute couture, and jewels, along with a gaggle of interesting writers and artists who, no doubt, found her money as beautiful as Mona herself. She had wide set, green eyes for which she was quite famous, and striking red hair — a combination of Anglo exoticism that evokes fairies, or sirens. Truman Capote based a character on her; Cole Porter sang about her.
For the daughter of a horse trainer from Kentucky, she was doing pretty well for herself.
Quoting again from Wikipedia:
‘Her husband Harrison Williams died in 1953; and in January 1955, Mona married her “secretary” Albrecht Edzard Heinrich Karl, Graf von Bismarck-Schönhausen (1903–1970), an “interior decorator” of an aristocratic sort and the son of Herbert von Bismarck and grandson of the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, civilly in New Jersey and, in February 1956, religiously in Rome. They lived mostly in Paris at an apartment in the famed Hôtel Lambert, later at Mona’s townhouse at 34 avenue de New York, and at Capri.
In 1970, Mona was widowed again and, in 1971, married Bismarck’s physician, “Count” Umberto de Martini, a nobleman, who was 14 years younger than she. It was only after his death in a sports car accident in 1979 (later referenced by socialites as “Martini on the rocks”) that Mona realized that de Martini, like Bismarck, had married her for her money (exactly the same way she had married Schlesinger, Bush and Williams, so many years before).’
Five husbands, one child, and two continents later, Mona died in 1983, her will having established the Mona Bismarck American Center for Art and Culture in Paris. She was 86 years old.
Of course, Bismarck would keep her legacy in Paris, the city that recognized her “noble beauty”, her impeccable taste, and her elegant charms. In Paris, femininity is the highest ideal. Women are placed on pedestals.
In 1943, when she was 46 years old, Salvador Dali placed the middle aged Mona von Bismarck, still a great beauty, on a pedestal too.
I’ve spoken before about how tiresome the idea of the female body as muse is, how it’s often used as an excuse for crappy behavior in male artists. As though female artists aren’t inspired by beauty, as though they don’t have sexual appetites, as though they are not also motivated by love. But it’s rare, the female artist that objectifies the male body, collects a harem of so-called “muses” she keeps around, feeds her ego off of, and discards at will.
Now Dali has, for his subject, someone who in her time was considered one of the most beautiful women in the world.
In art texts, entries for this painting often refer to it as an excellent example of Dali’s sense of humour.
Mona stands front and center, in the foreground of the painting. Her head and face are clear and lovely, she’s looking whimsically up into the sky, thinking about something that amuses her. Her lips are a deep red, not especially full, but not thin with old age either. She is a mature woman, what people used to refer to as “handsome”. A handsome woman. A handsome woman implies grace, elegance, class, style, and a quiet, a-sexual, respectful beauty. I guess all the qualities of a man… ?
Anyway… Mona’s head: there is a slight golden, glowing halo around her head, an aura like that of saints in Renaissance paintings. It’s difficult to tell whether this halo is meant self-referentially, as though this is what Mona thinks of herself — it’s implied because of the look on her face, she looks so pleased with herself — or whether the halo exists because she was such a patron of the arts. Or whether Dali was, begrudgingly, mockingly, acknowledging her fundamental humanity. But the halo glows so bright, it almost obscures the features of her face, the physical part of her where her beauty mostly resided.
The whole painting is a sickly green — a reference to the color of Mona Bismarck’s green eyes, which she was quite famous for. She’s standing among ruins. in the middle ground behind her, and to Mona’s right, are two pyramids. A dramatic scene projects onto the wall of the nearest one. They are not the evenly balanced, majestic geometry of the pyramids in Egypt or Mexico. They are uncomfortable pyramids, tall and pointy.
They are the the tombstones of Mona’s first two husbands, whom she divorced.
On Mona’s left, opposite the pyramids, are two Corinthian columns, shining a little brighter in the murky green from the light that angles in from the unseen sky. One her current husband at the time of the painting, Harrison Williams, the other I guess her husband to be, his secretary.
Standing all along the walls are small figures, dancing? mocking? rejoicing? Or are they just the hangers on? A sad bust of a man, head hanging in sorrow is in the foreground — Mona’s adult son? A sphinx, a panther with daggers stuck in its side. A severed foot, as though the only thing remaining from a Colossus. More writhing tiny figures. In the very foreground of the painting, just below Mona’s feet, a rider on horse pleads with her, tugs at her clothes. Her past again — her father was a horse trainer.
She is, in essence, emerging out of her past.
When he first completed the painting, Dali depicted Mona Bismarck as a nude. This was unacceptable to a woman who, regardless of her reputation for her marriages, wasn’t exactly known for getting sloppy drunk or partying hard or sleeping with all the artists she supported. Her comportment was impeccable, so her nakedness here was unacceptable. She refused payment for the work until Dali corrected it, and clothed her.
Every artist wants to get paid, but no artist wants to be told what to paint. So clothe her Dali did, but he clothed the Best Dressed Woman in the World in rags. He left her barefoot, in a dress to match her eyes — the vanity of the matching green, the fine gauze of the dress hanging in tatters and clinging to her legs. Her arms are cradled near her breast, her hands cupping the air, evoking a baby that belongs at her breast but isn’t there — a reference to her son, if you remember the Wikipedia entry: the baby she sold in exchange for her freedom and a hefty alimony.
There’s a lot happening in this painting. It’s almost as busy as a Hieronymous Bosch, with all of a life’s tragedy and cruelty jammed into the canvas. Mona stands on top of it, as though she’s risen above it and yet Dali titled this painting The Kentucky Countess.
Even as he raises her up, he tears her down.
The painting is undeniably cruel. It mocks Mona Bismarck, her past, her present. It is a depiction of the nasty rumours rather than a real person. And maybe she was a nasty person — some people are, whether they are men or women. They’re just mean and nasty.
What strikes me so strongly about the nastiness of this painting, though, is that Dali still took the money. Whether he thought he was being funny or being clever (my guess is the latter), it didn’t stop him from taking the money. As though he painted revenge over resentment, braying about biting the hand that feeds him.
And I have to wonder, why did he dislike her so much? What was his problem? Was he punishing her, in the way that men punish women for not loving them back? For not being attracted to them? For not returning their crush, in the way that 6 year old boys do?
Or was he punishing her for being better than him, in that other way men do?
Mocking her for her wealth, trashing her beauty, ridiculing her intelligence, calling her a nasty woman? Dredging up her past and twisting it into something ruinous because she did a better job at social climbing than Dali did?
And when all else fails, attacking her moral character — For all her beauty, wealth and accomplishments she is, at heart, a nasty woman.
So it’s ok to hate her.
2016 saw the release of the film about Peggy Guggenheim, notorious for her sexual appetite, a price she demanded from artists she chose to support — at least, that’s the rumour. But couldn’t it have been that it was just a rumour, one that became self-perpetuated as artists offered themselves to her in exchange for her support, and she willingly took it because gosh, she liked a roll in the hay as much as anyone? But the onus falls on Guggenheim, not on the artists. A woman who was considered not beautiful at all, but men still slept with her.
Guggenheim behaved like a man, and that made her ugly. Madonna is a bitch. Hillary Clinton is a shrew. Angela Merkel suffers the classic paradox: after 6 years of high approval ratings, respect for her experience and strength, she is condemned as incompetent and out of touch in one fell swoop for showing compassion (a womanly trait) to refugees. You can’t win for losing.
But back to Mona Bismarck. Maybe Mona was a nasty woman — I don’t know. But I do know that — remember that son she abandoned? She bailed him out on more than one occasion throughout his adult life, until he was ultimately indicted on 8 counts of using his mother’s name and reputation to swindle businessmen out of an elaborate oil scheme.
I do know that she left her first husband because she fell in love with someone else, who turned out to be an abusive alcoholic and went on to be a serial husband, marrying more times than Mona ultimately did.
I do know that she didn’t steal Harrison Williams, her third husband, from her business partner; rather, her business partner ditched Harrison Williams on the eve of their wedding, and Mona married him some months later.
And I do know that their marriage lasted for almost 20 years — it’s not mentioned anywhere on her Wikipedia entry that there may have been love involved.
When you live in Paris for a couple of years, after you’ve adopted your new femininity, you begin to realize that all that encouragement to wear skirts and high heels, sexy lingerie and push-up bras, are really only for the enjoyment of… well, others. Men, mostly.
That you have been duped into believing you’re beautiful, but only as long as you play a certain role, fulfill a fantasy.
Where you couldn’t be strong in the US, you must be downright docile in France. If you are strong and independent, your femininity turns from being a charm into a threat.
I was a threat to the women at the gym I belonged to in Paris. They thought I was there to eat all the men; and the men, with a dirty little thrill, thought so too. Never mind that my reason for joining was to regulate my hormones — because I was over the age of 35, and unmarried, I was a loose woman. As in, a woman let loose on the public at large, unchained to a man, hungry and dangerous, and I could only be after one thing. Because women — especially unmarried women — are never allowed anything as simple as self care.
Mona Bismarck, living in Paris, widowed, wealthy, and of a certain age, was suddenly in a very vulnerable position. Her next husband, the descendant of Otto von Bismarck and the “secretary” that Wikipedia puts in quotes, was, in fact, homosexual. They had been friends for years, and their marriage was, in actuality, a happy companionship that lasted until his death 15 years later.
And Mona’s last husband, that Wikipedia points out was 14 years her junior, was 60 at the time they married (gasp!)… to Mona’s 74 (gasp!)… although it is true he married her only for her money (“exactly, Wikipedia says, clutching its pearls, “the same way she had married her three husbands before”)!
I will never understand what the point of being so snarky about dead people is… I noted this in the V&A David Bowie exhibit last year as well, the little snark about Marc Bolan’s costumes. As though Marc Bolan, dead for almost 40 years, was still a threat to Bowie’s legacy.
Well now you’re both dead, how do you like them apples?
But the real question here is, who wrote this Wikipedia entry? Salvador Dali? Donald Trump? Why so much bitchiness for a dead woman? Why the sensational data that is neither tempered with nor supported by the more mundane fact?
Why paint a portrait of a woman as gold digger, man-eater, cartoon… instead of what she actually was: a woman, a mother of a troubled kid, a human being, who maintained two very longterm marriages and countless longterm friendships, who was a dedicated supporter of the arts, who was intelligent and active and who, like any other human, loved and lost and had regrets and sorrows and joys.
But I guess this is what happens when history and news is created from opinion rather than fact.
After witnessing two world wars, the birth of several significant movements in art and culture, the invention of everything from the automobile to the internet, well into her 80s, the costume designer Cecile Beaton had his own opinion, after a visit to his old friend Mona Bismarck at her home in Capri:
“She is now suddenly a wreck. Her hair, once white and crisp and a foil to her aquamarine eyes, is now a little dried frizz, and she has painted a grotesque mask on the remains of what was once such a noble-hewn face, the lips enlarged like a clown, the eyebrows penciled with thick black grease paint, the flesh down to the pale lashes coated with turquoise… Oh, my heart broke for her.”
The Notorious RGB, US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once observed that, “The pedestal upon which women have been placed has all too often, upon closer inspection, been revealed as a cage.”
Last year in Paris, the Musee d’Orsay had an exhibition about prostitutes in art. I wanted to do an episode on it, but after visiting the exhibit I was just so exhausted by the number of men cruising the exhibit for the sole purpose of picking up chicks. And it didn’t seem to strike anyone but me as ironic or downright grotesque to be hit on at an exhibit featuring prostitution.
It was a meat market, and it was clear that women in Paris were not being put on pedestals to be worshipped, but rather to be poked and prodded, paraded and assessed, in the salons, at the cafes, along the streets of the nation’s capital
I moved to another capital city instead, but there Mona Bismarck stays, barefoot in rags on her pedestal, her empty arms cradling her lost son, her lost youth, cradling what was expected of her, would have been accepted of her, the wife and mother she was supposed to be, standing among the jagged judgment of Wikipedia and Salvador Dali, forever trapped in her gilded frame in the gilded city of Light.
Salvador Dali’s The Kentucky Countess can be seen at The Mona Bismarck American Center for Arts and Culture, located at 34 Avenue de New York in the 16th arrondissemet, in Paris.
That’s all for Artipoeus this year! I’m Susie Kahlich, see you around town!