Silent Partners – Photography

For most people a mannequin is seldom more than a dummy showing the latest fashions in the windows of high street stores. However, these unattainably perfect figures are just the latest manifestation in a long and convoluted history of partners in painting, sculpture and fashion. For centuries, the mannequin, or ‘lay figure’, was usually only a studio tool, a piece of equipment along with canvas, easel, pigments, brushes and marble, hammer and chisel – until it came to be celebrated in its own right.

Silent Partners – Artist & Mannequin From Function to Fetish, at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until 25th January 2015, shows the multiple purposes the mannequin served: fixing perspective; understanding the fall of light and shadow; acting as a support for drapery and costume; and tireless stand-in for restless models. By examining the history and ubiquity of the mannequin from the Renaissance to the present day, the exhibition goes beyond the practicalities of artists’ working methods to look at notions of realism and artifice in representational painting.

Though widely used, the mannequin had it limitations and even with the best available models it could impart a stiffness to paintings that critics disliked and there was a backlash in the mid-18th century against ‘the stench of the mannequin’ – the lay figure should be conspicuous by its absence. (Given the subsequent history of the mannequin it is ironic that the supposed stiffness it imparted to paintings had nothing on the rigidity forced of the human subjects of photography for the first decades of its practice.) However, the mannequin eventually asserted its identity and moved centre stage to become the subject of the painting for artists such as Joseph Albrier (1791-1863), Heinrich von Rustige (1810-1900), Edgar Degas (1834-1917), John Ferguson Weir (1841-1926), Giovanni Boldini (1842-1931), Alan Beeton (1880-1942) (ComposingPosingReposing and Decomposing, which parallel Dada and Surrealist interpretations of the mannequin) and Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978). Eventually, in creative partnership with the artist, it became a work of art in its own right.

This rise to prominence arguably achieved its greatest expression through photography. Silent Partners reveals this by showing as a continuum how the medium was used to produce studies for other art works, to document mannequins and to create new interpretations of the subject. (Incidentally, it is nice to see the Fitzwilliam using this exhibition to take photography seriously for a change.  The exhibition also includes volumes of Iconographie Photographique de la Salpetriere the work of Jean-Marie Charcot on hysteria, though these are peripheral to the thrust of this review.)

Edward Linley Sambourne (1844-1910) made photographs of people and lay figures together for use as the basis for his drawings in Punch, e.g. Otley in the backyard at 18 Stafford Terrace, 7 May 1986. The photographs, cyanotypes and platinum prints, are curious and illuminating period pieces in themselves. The Spanish muralist Jose Maria Sert (1874-1945) photographed individuals and groups of small wooden figures to prepare his large-scale decorative paintings, e.g. Photographic Study for ‘The Triumph of Humanity’, 1937.  Through the positioning of the figures and steep camera angles he achieved both vitality and monumentality, such that what were intended as aids to painting create a strange world of their own. This use of the mannequin in photography can elide into something other. Francois Brunery (1849-1926) used photography of mannequins and figures as part of the working process to achieve a high degree of realism in his finished paintings around 1890-1910, e.g. Mannequin in a ruff, c. 1890-1910. In doing so he exploited the ambivalence between truth and illusion, animate and inanimate, to create a highly original body of photography carrying hints of sexual tension that anticipates aspects of surrealism.  Emil Zola (1840-1902) allowed a figure to retain a childlike innocence in Zola’s daughter, Denise, holding a doll, 1900-02

A bridge between this and a new world of mannequin imagery was created by Eugene Atget (1857-1927), who photographed shops and their displays of heads and full figures in the 1920s, e.g. Coiffeur, Palais Royal, 1926-7. His carefully composed images, presented with a sense of separation to preserve the figure’s aura of apartness, was an influence on, and appropriated by, the Surrealists. Dora Maar (1907-1997) also documented figures in shop windows as part of an interest in the fetisisation of fashion, e.g. Mannequins in a shop window, 1935. Silent Partners progresses to show how aspects or surrealism went on to transform the mannequin into anything but a silent lay figure.

The surrealists’ use of the mannequin forces the viewer into the role of voyeur. Umbo’s (Otto Umbehr (1902-1980)) work reflects on the mannequin as a mass produced and eroticised object, evoking the tension between utopian and dystopian worlds, e.g. Pantoffein (Slippers), 1928. Gaston Paris’s (1903-1964) draped wax figure shows him playing with identity, e.g. Wax mannequin at the Musee Grevin, Paris, 1935. Dora Maar used disembodied mannequin parts to explore an erotic side of the conventionally asexual mannequin. Herbert List (1903 -1975) used the handling of light and shade to create a metaphysical mood and his images take on a macabre, threatening air – a tailor’s dummy becomes a bound slave and wax female figures are staged as both sexual threat and victim, e.g. Slavin 2 (Female Slave 2), 1936. Man Ray (1890-1976) used series of figures in photographs in which the mannequins are liberated from their traditional roles and become props in erotic confrontations, e.g. Lydia and Mannequins, 1932. Claude Cahun’s (1894-1954) photographs of mannequins under bell jars in surreal tableaux comment on and mock conventional ideas of sexual identity, e.g. Untitled, 1936. The strangeness of the surreal use of mannequins in photography reaches its disturbing peak in Silent Partners in the work of Hans Bellmer (1902-1975), who’s Poupee, provocative ‘pubescent mannequins, were as political as they were perverse’, e.g. La Poupee, 1935.

Mannequins were central to The International Surrealist Exhibition (ISE) of 1938 in Paris and these were stunningly captured in ghoulish splendour in the photography of: Denise Bellon (1902-1999), e.g. Andre Masson’s mannequin, 1938;  Roger Schall (1904-1995), e.g. Mannequin at the ISE, 1938;  and Roul Ubac (1910-1985), e.g. View of the installation of the ISE, 1938.

The re-presentation of the mannequin in photography is an example of what has been called ‘creative metamorphosis’, whereby one art form transforms itself by absorbing elements of another. The mannequin is central to the development of surrealism in photography. While artists employed the artificial figures to create realistic effects, photographers used those figures to create an unreal world with the lay figure at its centre.  At the same time photographers transformed the mannequin. They built on the inherently uncanny quality of these figures, situated between the real and the artificial, to emphasise their strangeness.  They changed the figures identity: for most of their history the gender of mannequins was undetermined or at least androgynous, sexually indistinct; photographers played with gender, sexing and sexualised the mannequin.  They exploited the mannequins potential for fantasy, tilling the fertile fictional ground between the imagined and the real.

It might also be said that photography saved the lay figure. With the advent of photography, and the increasingly ready availability of detailed images from which the artist could work, mannequins as an artist’s tool drifted towards redundancy (especially in more impressionistic styles of painting), though still in fairly widespread use at the end of the 19th century.  These changes were accompanied by the rise of the mannequin as a partner in the urban growth of department stores and the fashion industry in the last four decades of the 19th century, mannequins that laid claim to the artist’s imagination in the first decades of the 20th century.  The shifting ground was exemplified by the work of Atget, whose studio advertised itself as providing ‘Documents for Artists’. It is doubly ironic that many of Atget’s images should have included mannequins. By putting the mannequin centre stage photographers took to extremes the belief that the mannequin is what the artist makes of it – they achieved fully the shift from function to fetish with the lay figure in control, no longer passive.

For further exhibition details visit

Revised: 19th, 27th November; 5th, 9th December 2014; and 2nd January 2015

Hans BellmerPhoto: Hans Bellmer, La Poupee, 1935-36






Man RayPhoto: Man Ray, Lydia and Mannequins, 1032







Dora MaarPhoto: Dora Maar






herbert-listPhoto: Herbert List, Female Slave 1, 1936







UmboPhoto: Umbo, Pantoffein, 1928-29







Photos: Silent Partners exhibition, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge 2014

Silent Partners 1Silent Partners 2Silent Partners 3Silent Partners 4Silent Partners 5Silent Partners 6Silent Partners 7

This entry was posted in Silent Figures. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Please do this simple sum to prove you are real! *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.