Mannequin Exhibition Explores The Spooky World Of Life Size Dolls

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has announced the final details of its major 2014 Autumn exhibition titled, Silent Partners: Artist and Mannequin from Function to Fetish. This will be the first exhibition ever to uncover the evolution and widespread use of the artist’s mannequin, or ‘lay figure’. It will show how, from being an inconspicuous studio tool, a piece of equipment as necessary as easel, pigments and brushes, the lay figure became the fetishised subject of the artist’s painting, and eventually, in the 20th century, a work of art in its own right. Life-size mannequins, dolls and over 180 remarkable artworks from collections across the world will be displayed in Cambridge this autumn. The world of the mannequin was strange, surprising and riddled with contradictions.

Artists at once recommended them and warned of the dangers of their over-use. In 19th century Paris, the centre of the mannequin-making industry, extraordinary levels of inventiveness were devoted to making and ‘perfecting’ the life-size mannequin, with the aim of making it an ever-closer approximation of ‘the human machine’. Available as female and children, these figures were eerily realistic with articulated skeletons and padded exteriors, designed to have increasingly fluid movements only to be keyed into position to retain a pose. Paradoxically, even Realist painters like Gustave Courbet and the Pre-Raphaelites used these artificial figures to make their paintings ‘truer’ to nature.
Studio secrets of the artist-mannequin relationship – some unexpected, others downright shocking – will be revealed through works by painters such as Fra Bartolommeo, Thomas Gainsborough, David Wilkie, Paul Cézanne, Ford Madox Brown, Walter Sickert and many others. Who would guess that John Everett Millais hired a child mannequin with an optionally attached head to stand in for his daughters in two enchanting paintings of children’s bedtime? More bizarre and disturbing is the account of Oskar Kokoschka and his custom-made love doll ‘fetisch’, in the image his ex-lover, Alma Mahler: an object of erotic longing he generated first to worship, then to eliminate.

From the Renaissance onwards mannequins were used by artists and sculptors to study perspective, arrange compositions, ‘rehearse’ the fall of light and shade and, especially, to paint drapery and clothing. But, while even the very greatest artists condoned its use, the mannequin best served its purpose by remaining ‘silent’: too present in the finished picture, it could make figures appear stiff and unnatural, and so betray the tricks of the artist’s trade.

In the latter half of the 19th century the mannequin started to undergo a transformation from tool to icon and muse. At first it appeared in paintings humorously, and then more darkly, as artists such as Edgar Degas played on the presence in the studio of a figure that was lifelike, yet lifeless; realistic yet distinctly unreal. This more penetrating psychological approach to an extent reflects the then-widespread fascination with hysteria, widely familiar through case studies of the patients of the ‘Napoleon of neuroses’, Dr Jean-Marie Charcot, at La Salpêtrière hospital, Paris. Under hypnosis, these women left the indelible impression of being ‘mannequinised’, manipulated by the doctor as an artist would pose a lay figure.
As the demand for the artist’s lay figure fell away at the beginning of the 20th century, it was replaced in the creative imagination by the shop-window dummy. Trade catalogues by leading French mannequin-manufacturers and vintage wax display mannequins show how, in less than a generation these figures evolved from a cumbersome approximation of the human form to become sleek, abstract and self-styled ‘artistic creations’.

In the final section of Silent Partners the mannequin enters the modern age as a subject of fetishistic desire in photographs by Herbert List and Man Ray and as well as others by Hans Bellmer that explore the doll-like body dis- articulated and recomposed. The Surrealists’ fascination with these objects is shown in a group of photographs by Raoul Ubac and Denise Bellon of the ‘mannequin street’ created by artists such as André Masson and Salvador Dalí at the International Exhibition of Surrealism in Paris in 1938. Three characteristically provocative works by Jake and Dinos Chapman form a 21st century coda to this ‘pre-history’ of the on-going creative partnership between mannequin and artist.

In a new initiative, visitors will be led to the exhibition by an installation pathway, linking Silent Partners to the permanent collections of the Museum in a series of original and thought-provoking interventions. Among these will be a recreation of the ‘grande machine’ used by Nicolas Poussin to ‘test’ his compositions with small figurines, replicating his masterpiece Extreme Unction (1638-40), recently acquired by the Fitzwilliam with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund and Art Fund.

Silent Partners will feature a diverse range of works: paintings and drawings, books, dolls, films, photographs, a series of extraordinary patent documents and videos that will surprise and at times disturb. But among the most striking and fascinating exhibits will be the mannequins themselves: from beautifully carved 16th century small-scale figurines to haunting wooden effigies, painted dolls of full human height and top-of-the range ‘stuffed Parisian’ lay figures that were sought after by artists throughout Europe.

Silent Partners: Artist and Mannequin from Function to Fetish is at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge from 14 October 2014 to 25 January 2015, admission is free. The exhibition forms part of the festival Curating Cambridge from 20 October to 23 November 2014.

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