This is an exhibition now at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, which is subtitled ‘Artist & Mannequin from Function to Fetish’. That last seems to be what makes most people go a bit funny about the show, but it is really fascinating. We are used to seeing the human form in various forms of art, but the images we see are often created using models of some form. These shadowy creatures become recognised in the Renaissance when a few painters acknowledged they used figures to help them pose large scenes, to get the proportions and lighting correct. Nicholas Poussin had a ‘grand machine’, in actual fact, a wooden box, in which small wax figures could be arranged, and light altered to help him depict shadows, and depth of the composition.
But it is the larger, human sized figures that tend to give people the creeps. They were used more to get the human dimensions correct, or when drapery required concentration which would be a strain on humans. This was especially useful in the case of children who except when asleep or dead are notoriously difficult to get to stay still. By the mid 19th century there was a huge demand for accurate human replacements, and some of the greatest artists were accused of using them to excess, making their work look stilted. They were also useful to help dealing with Victorian modesty, such as in John Everett Millais’ painting ‘The Black Brunswicker’ which shows a dashing soldier in close contact with a young woman. As the young couple who modelled for this were not close friends, such close contact was deemed improper, so each took turns cosying up with a wooden substitute. In later years, artists began including mannequins in their work, at first as elements of still life, but also as integral elements in their pictures, such as Heinrich von Rustige’s ‘the farmer in the artist’s studio’ in which an aged rustic tips his hat to a headless dummy, a comment on the yokel. Then came the age of Edison’s doll, which was on display, and a recording of her speaking. I am not surprised that kids at the time found the doll creepy with this robot voice. And then we approach modern times, with the surrealists making widespread use of models as part of their work, as representatives of the mechanical age.
The term ‘mannequin’ is French, as they really cornered the market on these creations in the 19th century, especially in the role of couturier models. But my favourite artist was the artist Alan Beeton, who did a series of beautiful but very odd depictions of models posing, but also creating art itself. He had fought in the trenches of World War I, and there is something rather sad about his images, childlike, but also damaged. Like James Whale’s Frankenstein, there is a sense he made these works in order to deal with the horrors he had witnessed. Something akin to a child clinging to a doll. Not creepy, but a comfort that is always there for him.
See his work at Fitzwilliam.com/prints