Art Market

How Christian Dior Became the First Art Dealer to Display Dalí’s Melting Clocks

Alina Cohen
May 31, 2019 7:00PM

In 1920s Paris, it was déclassé to open an art gallery. But the French aristocrats Maurice and Madeleine Dior let their 23-year-old son, Christian, open his own art space, despite their fears it would turn him into a “lowly shopkeeper.” They gave their blessing—and financial backing—to his endeavor, but refused to let him use the family name.

Dior found an easy workaround: He partnered with his friend Jacques Bonjean, who loaned his own name to the pair’s gallery at 34 Rue la Boétie in Paris’s eighth arrondissement. They were in good company: Art dealers including Paul Rosenberg and Paul Guillaume also had spaces on Rue la Boétie. Dior and Bonjean’s gallery opened in 1928 and quickly developed a roster of high-profile artists. A young poet named Pierre Colle joined the gallery’s staff the following year—just when the world economy was collapsing. On October 24, 1929, New York’s stock market crash initiated the Depression. Its reverberations swiftly hit Europe and endured until the onset of World War II. When that conflict ended, Dior finally found his true calling—fashion. But in the apprehensive years between Black Friday and Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Dior immersed himself in the art world and sharpened his aesthetic sensibilities.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

By the time Galerie Jacques Bonjean opened, four years after André Breton published his Surrealist manifesto, the movement was in full swing. Fauvism and Cubism had been around since the first decade of the century, and painters were still using those movements’ techniques to push their canvases toward abstraction. In 1929 and 1930, Bonjean, Colle, and Dior hosted a series of exhibitions featuring artists working in these veins of avant-garde European art, including Raoul Dufy, Max Ernst, Giorgio de Chirico, Max Jacob, and Pavel Tchelitchew; Dior also gave Surrealist Leonor Fini her first-ever solo show. Writing about a 1931 exhibition of contemporary German painters at Galerie Jacques Bonjean, a critic even mentioned Dior’s name in connection with the gallery—to the great shame, most likely, of his mother.

In March 1931, Colle left the gallery he’d run with Bonjean and Dior to open his own eponymous space down the street on Rue Cambacérès. Both Bonjean and Dior’s family suffered increasing setbacks as the Depression raged: The former declared bankruptcy, while the latter’s fortune disappeared. Before the bailiffs arrived at the Dior home to seize the family’s assets, Christian managed to move artwork and design objects to his gallery. Galerie Jacques Bonjean swiftly shuttered due to financial stress. Undiminished by the hardships of being an art dealer during a depression, Dior partnered with Colle.

With Colle, Dior did his most exciting work as a gallery director. The pair presented one of Alexander Calder’s early solo exhibitions in 1931, and Alberto Giacometti’s first-ever solo show in Paris the following year. In June 1931, Colle and Dior debuted Salvador Dalí’s masterpiece, The Persistence of Memory (1931), as part of a larger solo exhibition devoted to the Spanish provocateur. The painting famously depicts melting clocks, bugs swarming on an orange bottle, and an eerie pink skin, all amidst a barren, surreal landscape. Julien Levy, soon to become a major New York gallerist, purchased the work for $250 (New York’s Museum of Modern Art now owns it). Galerie Pierre Colle exhibited an additional 15 Dalí canvases, seven pastels, and one copper sculpture. The gallerists convinced Levy to show the artist in New York, and he arranged Dalí’s first U.S. presentation two years later. Stateside, Levy gave the now-iconic painting a flaccid new title: Limp Watches.

In 1933, Galerie Pierre Colle debuted another Dalí masterpiece: the sculpture Retrospective Bust of a Woman (1933). The strange assemblage features a long baguette drooping like a flimsy hat atop the head of a white female bust. Corn husks are draped around her neck, and a long ink stand perches precariously on the bread. Legend has it that when the gallery showed the piece, Pablo Picasso’s dog ate the original baguette.

In his artist selections, Dior was clearly exercising and refining his taste. But economic circumstances prohibited him from exploring them much further. Before the end of 1933, Dior and Colle ran out of money and had to close the gallery. Colle continued to work as a gallerist, eventually showing paintings by Frida Kahlo alongside Mexican sculpture, in a major exhibition titled “Mexique,” which opened in the spring of 1939—just months before the outbreak of World War II. Dior’s career in the art market, on the other hand, was finished. But he never forgot how formative the period had been for him. Reflecting on the interwar period, he once wrote: “in that varied spiritual climate, I not only formed my tastes, but also forged the strong friendships that have given and will continue to give shape and meaning to my life.” It would be over a decade before he presented his first fashion collection, introducing the world to his now-iconic “New Look.” Dior’s career is now the subject of a major traveling exhibition, “Dior: From Paris to the World,” which opened at the Dallas Museum of Art on May 19th (it was previously at the Denver Art Museum). While its focus is clothing, the show also explores Dior’s career as a gallerist.

Gown designed by John Galliano for the 1999 Spring/Summer haute couture collection of the Christian Dior fashion house. Photo bby Eric Feferberg / AFP / Getty Images.

Though he was no longer in a position to give him solo exhibitions, Dior remained friends with Dalí. In 1951, four years after he debuted his clothing, he attended one of the century’s most famous parties with the artist. Art collector Charles de Beistegui threw a raucous bash at Venice’s Palazzo Labia, and elaborate costumes were compulsory. Dior and Dalí dressed each other for the affair.

In 1957, Dior died mysteriously while vacationing in Italy; he was 52 years old. Rumors circulated about the cause of death, including that he’d choked on a fishbone, suffered a heart attack, or engaged in such vigorous sex that it killed him. The first Dior collection after the designer’s untimely death was created by a 21-year-old named Yves Saint-Laurent. By then the fashion house was already legendary, its founder’s past as a gallerist subsumed by his status as one of fashion’s most influential figures.

Alina Cohen