Life-size Female Atelier Mannequin
Sculpted and carved beech wood.
France, early 20th century
It measures: height 70.07 x 14.96 x 9.84 in (178 x 38 x 25 cm).
Weight 61.72 lb (28 kg).
State of conservation: almost perfect, few slight signs of use
The mannequin offered here sets itself apart from traditional models. The author shuns any element attributable to realism and naturalness: no concession to anatomical detail, no characterization of the face which is immobile and expressionless. Were we to take it apart, many of the parts that make it up would be individually indecipherable. Even articulated hands, an example of engineering virtuosity, are impersonal (anonymous) from an aesthetic point of view. The joints, mechanisms and locking screws are intentionally exhibited and reinforce the “mechanical” and modern taste of sculpture: the intention of the author to diverge from the formal clichés of the past is perceivable.
Yet this mannequin is far from cold, in fact it exudes an unusual and sweet charm. Perhaps it is the volumes of the various parts of the female body that give it a particular, almost sexy appeal: this is the only objective license that the sculptor has granted himself. Or maybe it’s the power of suggestion over us created by the odd lack of expression on her face, which strikingly reminds us, even a hundred years later, of Sonny, the robot protagonist of the movie I, Robot (2004, directed by Alex Proyas, produced by 20th Century Fox).
The author’s choice is sculptural and not merely handcrafted: the fact that he used a quality wood, such as beech, and not a “poor” variety (fir, pine or poplar), of which most mannequins are made, seems to confirm a precise cultural choice on the part of the artist. However, the work was intended for an atelier and to serve as a model and basis for anatomical studies: it had to be intended “for nude” study, without being hidden under clothing or drapery. The research here is not anatomical or naturalistic, but an expression of volume and essentiality, fully detached from the more classic interpretation of the body or model. A “modernist” divergence which stimulates a search for the essential versus the traditional vision of portraiture. A volume of naturalness, without completely canceling the human essence that the mannequin had to transmit to the artist: not merely academic, but a wisely researched reinterpretation of the template.
The verb “mannequiner” (from which the English word “mannequin” comes) appears for the first time in eighteenth-century France and is used to describe the act of skilfully draping cloth over a mannequin with a natural effect (J. MUNRO, Silent Partners: Artist and Mannequin from Function to Fetish, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, October 14, 2014 – January 25, 2015, exhibition catalogue, p. 28).
“… The articulated human figure made of wax or wood was a common tool in artistic practice in Europe from the 16th century. Its indefatigable limbs and silent compliance enabled the artist to study anatomical proportion, fix a pose at will and perfect the depiction of drapery and clothing. In the course of the 19th century, however, the mannequin (or “lay figure” in English) gradually emerged from the studio to become a subject in its own right, at first humorously, then in more troubling ways, playing on the unnerving psychological presence of a figure that was realistic, yet unreal, lifelike, yet lifeless.
Despite the plethora of human effigies and avatars, both virtual and real, that inhabit our 21st century existence, the mannequin continues to fascinate and disturb, an empty vessel for our fears and fantasies … ” (MUNRO, Jane, op. cit., introduction to the exhibition catalogue).
“As a tool in the artist’s arsenal, however, mannequins were hidden from view and rarely, if ever, included in representations of the artist’s studio – their presence hinting at the laborious act of painting and diminishing the perception of the artist as inspired genius …” (J. MUNRO, op. cit., p. 2).
Cover Photo: Fabrizio Stipari