Puppets and Mannequins: Silent Partners (Exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, UK)

One of my favorite stories by the Sci-Fi writer Ray Bradbury is the one titled Marionettes.Inc. It refers to the old dream of having a clone, a puppet who can replace you in those boring chores of daily life. In the story, a man -Smith- usually trapped in his marriage talked to his friend -Brailing- about how he invested some money in this company’s product: Marionnettes.Inc, and how this has liberated him of his boring duties in order to have the occasional drink, while his wife stays with  the puppet -which is so convincingly true to the original-. It is an expensive “investment, but worthwhile”, says Smith. Brailing, who also feels the burden of the marriage routine, is impressed. They said goodbye, and Smith comes back home and tries to return the puppet to the box, where he keeps it. But this time the puppet is not having it so easily… after all, if he can convince  Smith’s wife that he is the original, who else could tell the difference? […]  On the other side of the city, Brailing got enthused by the idea and checked their bank account to see how much money he can use for this “investment”. Unknown to him there has been a big withdraw of money -almost exactly the amount required for the puppet, and it is then when he realised  that his “wife” actually got before him in the puppet scheme!

photo 5

The fascination with dummies, dolls, and mannequins have been an essential part of our stories and myths. This is the topic of the exhibition “Silent Partners: Artists and Mannequins, from function to fetish” at the Fitzwilliam Museum, a co-production between University of Yale, U. Cambridge and a museum in Paris. It traces back the story of the mannequin, that silent partner which in its likeness aid, support and sometimes replace the human model. From early “dolls” in the form of saints, to the mannequins used by the Pre-Raphaelists in their biblical scenes, this is a great collection of paintings, artifacts, films, automatons, wax figures, mannequins and other theatrical artifices. This is a very original exhibition of an untold story of those “silent partners” in art and commerce, their unclear origin: their vogue, decline and later revival in contemporary art.

STinkerbellendomehow I started the exhibition by the last rooms, thus, I went through a descending chronology of the use of the mannequin. Interestingly, my first encounter with the mannequin is a small doll with a “rude” nose kept in a bell glass: it is the naughty work of the Chapman Brothers titled: Tinkerbellend, which alongside two grotesque mannequins of children/cyborgs/apes update the puppet fascination that started so early in history.



photo 3Going through the different rooms I found the weird obsession of Oskar Kokoshka, already a very controversial painter of wild colors. He commissioned a doll with the features of his former lover Alma Mahler: he closely supervised the construction of her “replica’ by the famous doll maker Hermine Moos. Alma had skin like velvet, sparking, dark and deep eyes, and a full shape of generous forms. The painter became obsessed with the mannequin, it was his muse, his model, his fetish… he took it to parties, it was “his silent woman”… subjected, obedient, docile.  The romance did not last long, and in one drunken rampage he destroyed the mannequin…

What is this fascination of men with dolls? Just recently there was a documentary about men obsessed with inflatable dolls. The way that they look after them, care for them, live with them. Is this a poor man version of an idealised Stepford Wives?  Is it not enough with the media objectification of women bodies? Is it necessary to have them as “obedient” partners as in a doll, or through the process of “dolling” women: the odd fashion of hairless genitals,  the process of making “barbies” out of ordinary women, or just the simply derogatory term “doll” in everyday sexism?

Of course this is related with the consumerist model of early twentieth century society, which actually became the golden era of mannequins, automatons and dolls. This “vogue” started in Paris, where both mannequins and dolls became key players in the national economy. According to the Jane Munro author of the catalogue of the exhibition “by 1880 over 40000 workers were employed in the [doll making] industry, which generated almost 25 million francs for the national economy” (Munro, 2014: 29).  At the same time, a new type of “mannequin” developed by Alexis Lavigne actually opened the way for the Fashion mannequin, in an era when pret-a-porter (ready to wear) clothing started to expand.  It was one of Lavigne disciples, Ferederic Stockman, who improved this “fashion mannequin”, using new materials better suited for shop display and creating “the perfect female body”, an impossible size that even now dictates the way we think we should be.

Curiously, the size of the mannequin has  hardly changed in almost 160 years of the mannequin, and when new ” normal sizes” are daringly developed in the market, they make the headlines. Take for example, the recent news about “size 14-16” mannequins in Sweden, or mannequins with pubic hair, causing great controversy: for some it was the normal size of women, for others was the “normalisation” of obesity!


But well before the vogue of mannequins in fashion and mercantilism, the mannequin was a “silent” partner for artists: it was not only a cheap way of having a “model” -indeed so many could not afford it- but it also was a “docile body”.  Notwithstanding, artists went to great lengths to “obscure” or to “silence” the presence of the mannequin, as a killer phrase by critics was “the stench of a mannequin” in a painting.  Yet the versatility of the mannequin was the basis for important art work. For example, Pre-Raphaelists relied on the use of mannequins: John Millais, and most evidently, Ford Madox Brown, whose painting “The Last of England” feature two figures leaving the country for good… their stillness is so revealing of the absence of models: they are mannequins albeit decorated in a way to show the historical context and some attempts at a forlorn wish for the journey ahead.

But not all the painters were afraid of the stench of the mannequin, for example, the Cambridge-based painter Alan Beeton (1880-1922) made of the mannequin the main subject of his work. His paintings do not try to “animate” the mannequin, rather, it becomes the central subject of the compositions.  Curiously, it was only until 2012 when they found the mannequin in the workshop of one of the painter’s descendants: “with a broken nose, shattered fingers and moth-eaten clothes, yet still elegant and composed, a benign, compelling and companionable presence” (Munro, 2014: 21).

photo 2With the invention of photography, the mannequin is suddenly forgotten, but not disappeared. In fact, the surrealists resurrected it from dusty attics. They saw in the mannequin the perfect representation of the dehumanization of social life.  Artists like Man Ray, Hans Bellnef and Sandor Bortnyk, used the mannequin to poke jokes to the homogenisation of urban life. Are we all “puppets” being manipulated by marketing, advertisement and publicity? How can we distinguish reality from artifice? What are the boundaries between desire, aspiration and imitation? Are we all dreamers not being able to wake up?


I truly enjoyed this exhibition in the sense of taking an apparent “silent” subject, an “aide”, you can say and question its role in art, painting, fashion and in our own contemporary obsession with docile bodies.  Moreover, the advancement of Artificial Intelligence and the Sci-Fi promises of a “robot” who can replace us -well, we are actually replaced by robots in industry and manufacturing- but in other more domestic and emotional tasks.  Or the unquestioned progress of drones as part of new military strategies, also to be used in commercial services and surveillance routines…

Which makes me think, and with this I would finish, in the story of El Golem as told in the poem by Jorge Luis Borges… the story of a creature made of mud created by an old rabbi in Prague in order to protect the community. But the creature was clumsy, voiceless, and could be only activated by the creator’s wishes.  The same story is used by Borges in his very famous work El Aleph. He remind reminds us of the power of “the Word” as giver of life or death: according to Wikipedia, in some versions the forehead of the golem is inscribed with the hebrew word emet (אמת, “truth” in Hebrew), on the other hand, by removing the letter “aleph”  aleph (א) in emet, thus changing the inscription from “truth” to “death” (met מת, meaning “dead”).

And the Aleph, ah! that’s another story…






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