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Kate Foster discusses Surrealist mannequins, objects and the human. This research was presented at the Society for French Studies annual conference, held at Queen’s University Belfast, 27-29 June 2022.

Human beings have long surrounded themselves with objects. Whether it’s the clothes we wear, the books we keep on the shelf, or the pictures we hang on our walls, the objects we select and the way we curate them feed into our sense of self. In 1938, the Parisian Surrealists attempted to destabilize the relationship between object and human through the department store mannequin, itself a functional object which they restaged as art installation. At the International Exhibition of Surrealism, sixteen mannequins, borrowed from Maison PLEM, were lined up along a corridor at the Galerie des Beaux-Arts on the rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré, each dressed by a different Surrealist. This was the most talked-about part of the exhibition at the time and, despite the Surrealists’ intentions, many visitors to the (deliberately poorly lit) space recalled afterwards the uncanny nature of these mannequin-women, which reminded them of waxworks from the Musée Grévin, Paris’s answer to Madame Tussauds.

While they may not have welcomed the association with waxworks, the Surrealists were undoubtedly playing on the resemblance between their mannequins and human women. This unrevolutionary concept – the clothing-display mannequin displayed without any clothes – was part of a broader Surrealist trope of the sexualization and objectification of women and their bodies. But if the obvious object-ness of the mannequin can highlight the sexual objectification and commodification of human women, at the 1938 Exhibition it was put into dialogue with other objects, as it was surrounded by paintings, photographs, posters and furniture.

Paintings by René Magritte (1898-1967) – such as The Therapist and The White Race (both 1937) – and Giorgio de Chirico’s (1888-1978) Two Heads (1918) seemed to speak to a similar sense of anonymity as the parade of sixteen mannequins, themselves distinguishable from each other only by the clothes and other objects attached to their bodies. Magritte’s works, although they are not images of mannequins, nevertheless echo a sense in many of the mannequins of the human body reconfigured and understood in a new way. De Chirico’s mannequins – part artist’s lay figure, part shop-window display model – seem to look back at us from eyeless wooden heads, simultaneously an inanimate object and a subject returning the viewer’s gaze. Meanwhile, Hans Bellmer’s La Poupée photographs suggested both the seriality evoked by the exhibition’s repetition of the mannequin figure, and other themes which circulated around many of the Surrealist mannequins on display at the exhibition, including nakedness, sexual fetishism and violence. Salvador Dalí, for his part, was the only artist who dressed his mannequin in an item of clothing which a viewer might be able to buy, a knitted Schiaparelli ski-mask. Aside from this, his mannequin installation brought together apparently random objects and Dalí’s own artworks, simultaneously creating a tableau for the mannequin-woman to inhabit and promoting his own brand.

Bringing the object and the mannequin together in striking fashion were items of mannequin-furniture. By dismembering mannequins and turning them into furniture, André Breton’s Coffre d’objets (a sideboard supported by four mannequin legs with two mannequin arms standing on either end like candlesticks), Kurt Seligmann’s Ultrameuble (a stool whose legs were taken from a mannequin and clad in pink tights and high-heeled shoes), and Oscar Dominguez’s Jamais (a gramophone with mannequin breasts as a turntable, mannequin arm in place of a needle, and a pair of mannequin legs protruding from its horn) seemed to ask which was the most objectified: the mannequin, or the woman she represented?

Kate Foster, IMLR Visiting Fellow 2021/22