A fascinating and informative exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum on artists’ use of mannequins or lay figures, an essential piece of studio equipment for centuries. Chiefly used for maintaining the shape and fall of garments when the sitter or model had finished their sessions, these articulated, life-size dolls have their own uncanny presence, like puppets, life-like but lifeless, in relaxed or alert poses, seen but unseeing. They are technical, practical objects like easels, mirrors, plinths, yet masquerade as humans, with plump or muscular limbs, which can stand, sit, recline, or simulate the flight of angels.
The exhibition, curated by Jane Munro, explores the practical, the jokey, the surreal and the uncanny aspects of the studio mannequins from the 18th to 21st centuries. One serious aspect is the length to which artists used to go to conceal their use of stuffed or jointed figures, and how nonetheless glimpses are visible on the resulting canvases. Indeed, one effect of the exhibition is to see lay-figures behind or within the figures in every and any dramatic or convivial subject.
In the 19th century artists and critics mocked pictures with stiff or elaborately posed figures as ‘mannequinised’, with the apparatus showing through in scenes that claimed to depict total naturalism. Felix Nadar drew a satire on Corbet’s Demoiselles au bord de la Seine as recumbent dummies, which still makes one laugh. And though it does not make the connection, the exhibition also prompted me to wonder about the relation between Manet’s nude Olympia and her near-contemporary mechanical namesake in the Tales of Hoffman.
Even if they like to imagine it, few viewers now think that Millais’s models for the couple in The Black Brunswicker actually embraced in the studio – especially as Kate Dickens posed for the woman – but the stagey nature of their clinch betrays the mannequin’s presence. Though I’d guess this was more essential for the sake of the shimmering satin skirt than to avoid any impropriety. The Pre-Raphaelite claim of painting directly ‘from nature’ – a claim magnified by their fans – is in my view not really undermined by the technical use of lay figures, especially where careful figure studies preceded painting. But it suggests an interesting reason why poor Lizzie Siddal should have lain in Ophelia's bath-tub for so long – this was one pose where a wooden or fabric mannequin would not substitute for the live model.
The exhibition contains some original mannequins, one supplied by the Roberson firm from which many of the PRB circle obtained their materials, with one of the enormous volumes detailing Millais’s account. The ledger for Marie Spartali shows that typically hire of a female lay figure cost one pound a month, and a child’s figure 15 shillings. Plus, in Spartali’s case, Robersons’ charge for delivery and collection; one envisages a shopman in his brown overalls carrying the effigy through the streets.
From such functional matters Silent Partners progresses to explore artists’ playful and performative relations with mannequins, which shade into Surrealists’ use and abuse of stuffed and live women and the Chapman Brothers’ grotesque and obscene figure installations. Oneunsettling example is Oscar Kokoschka's creation of a life-size soft-fur fetish of his adored but lost Alma Mahler, carried around and finally beheaded in rage. Other fringe manifestations like talking dolls, tailors’ dummies and fashion mannequins are included, but surprisingly no link is made with waxworks, whose lifelikeness is their claim to fame. But in fact the purpose of lay figures is to assist the illusion of reality, not enact it.