Friday, 21 November 2014

Silent Partners: Artist & Mannequin from Function to Fetish at the Fitzwilliam Museum

Paul Huot (French, active 1790s to 1820s), Female Mannequin, c. 1816
Wood, metal, horsehair, wax, silk, cotton and painted papier-mâché head, c. 163 x 65 cm, © bpk - Bildagentur für Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte / Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel

I've written many times about mannequins on this blog and the mannequins I've always been referring to have been real-life women working as fashion models, rather than inanimate objects. But the fact that I need to spell out that distinction goes a little way towards illustrating the complexity of the word 'mannequin'. I looked at that in relation to fashion models here, but the current exhibition at Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum, Silent Partners: Artist & Mannequin from Function to Fetish redefines it entirely again. The exhibition is devoted to the latter definition of mannequin: the inanimate object, that has been used by artists for centuries. The exhibition shows how they were first used to stand in for human models for reasons of both practicality and propriety, but by the 20th century, they become subjects to be explored and manipulated in their own right.

Unknown maker (British, mid-18th century), Fashion doll with costume and accessories, 1755–60

Wood, gesso, paint, glass, human hair, knitted cotton, satin, silk, gilt braid, wire, silk gauze, linen, cotton, and silk satin, H.60 x W.42 x D.43 cm, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

But even these mannequins were more than simply an artist's prop: they became a vast, commercialised industry. There were mannequins figures available for all sizes of wallets, going from basic figures up to the most deluxe padded 'Parisian stuffed lay figures'. It was Paris - also then the centre of the fashion business - that was undoubtedly the centre for these mannequin figure makers too. There's a fascinating crossover between the disciplines, as a mannequin maker would create models for dressmakers and shops as well as for artists - despite their different audiences, these were all model figures, intended to support clothing.  And although the focus of this exhibit is 'art' - demonstrated largely through fine examples drawn from the Fitzwilliam's own collection - this crossover means there's plenty of fashion in the display too, as illustrated by the a print showing a display mannequin used in a shop on Paris' Rue Saint-Honore in 1777, and the inclusion of a "pandora". Also known as "colporteurs" (peddlers) or "couriers", these were intricately painted wooden life-size figures created to be toured around Europe and show-off France's latest luxury fashions - why didn't the real-life mannequins take on one of these names instead, I wonder?

In fact, a very specific vocabulary developed around mannequins in art criticism. For most artists, their use of mannequins were intended to go unnoticed in the finished painting - these objects were the 'silent partners' of the exhibition title. If a composition looked too stiff, betrayed the fact it had been posed by a model, not a human, critics would say that it "stank of mannequin". The noun became a verb to reflect this criticism: "mannequiné", or "mannequinised".

The artist with his two "models". Wilhelm Trübner (1851–1917), Studio Interior, 1888

Oil on canvas, 104 x 88 cm, Museen der Stadt Nürnberg, Gemälde- und Skulpturensammlung
Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg, photo: Jürgen Musolf


By the 1880, mannequin-making was at its peak, contributing almost 25 million francs to the French economy a year. As well as being the dutiful silent partners for mannequins, these figures were seen in dioramas, wax-work displays, shop windows and as dolls. These were expensive and luxury items. One of the most popular dolls was the "Parisienne", a figure shaped like a mature woman, complete with a desirable wardrobe and accessories. She fell from favour to be replaced by the more familiar - but at that time, no less expensive - "Bébé". At the same time, painters began to become more playful with their mannequins, playing up the tensions between the object and their real-life models.

The scale and the sophistication of the mannequin industry had implications on the fashion industry too. Stockman - still one of the 'the' names for mannequins - created a range of mannequins, each in a slightly different size. Producing a standardised range of figures helped pave the way for ready-made clothing.


Jean-Eugène-Auguste Atget (1857–1927), Coiffeur, Palais Royal, 1926–7
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London


What hadn't really occurred to me before visiting Silent Partners - and probably my only criticism of the exhibition - is how, in the 1920s and the 1930s, public interest in both mannequins-the-objects and mannequins-the-women were concurrently at a peak. Mannequins-the-objects populated department store displays at the same time as being exploited by Surrealists for their ability to conjure up a sense of the uncanny.The artist Hans Richter described them as the "embodiment of urban modernity". At the same time, mannequins the women were regularly engaged in fashion parades in these same department stores: sometimes walking two, three times daily. Like their object counterparts they were dressed in the latest fashions, and like their object counterparts, they did not speak (think of the couturier Paul Poiret's commandment "do not talk to the models, they do not exist"). They were every bit a symbol of urban modernity.

Erwin Blumenfeld, American Vogue, 1 November 1945, via

The interchange between the two was carried over to fashion photography too, especially through the work of the Surrealist. Man Ray was employed by Vogue and other magazines to photograph clothes on Siégel mannequins, while a picture in the exhibition by Umbo, titled "Träumende", or "The Dreamers", is reminiscent of a fashion photograph by Erwin Blumenfeld. Fashion still continues to be inspired by this theme, as the installations created by Tim Walker and placed around the museum demonstrate. (The uncanny nature of the mannequin can also still shock, as I remembered as I walked around the final corner of the exhibition to be confronted by some Chapman Brothers creations.)

Silent Partners was a riveting show, which drew together so many different threads of art and cultural history. And, although Silent Partners was definitely an 'art' exhibition, compared to the last 'fashion' exhibition I went to - the disappointing Women, Fashion, Power at London's Design Museum - it definitely taught me something new about fashion history as well. How disappointing that so many fashion exhibitions aren't allowed to step up to equal such challenging, but ultimately satisfying, standards.

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