The Fitzwilliam Museum’s latest exhibition is one of art and artistic process; of semi-humans, who in art are indiscernible from living forms, yet in reality are uncanny and un-living, bordering on disturbing.

‘The Black Brunswicker’ (1860) by John Everett Millais

The display of mannequins and the work they inspired is wide-ranging, ambitious and unique. Over the course of three years, curator Jane Munro and her team have collected over 180 paintings, drawings, books and photographs as well as fashion dolls, trade catalogues, a series of extraordinary patent documents and videos. Paintings and drawings include work by Cézanne, Poussin, Gainsborough, Millais, Ford Madox Brown, and Degas, as well as photographs by and of Surrealist artists such as Man Ray, Hans Bellmer and Salvador Dali.

For centuries, the mannequin was little more than a studio tool: a mere piece of equipment, just as mundanely necessary as an easel, pigment and brushes. Functionality was the impetus behind its creation: mannequins gave human models a break, and avoided real-life situations where male painters had to study lone female figures un-chaperoned. In ‘The Black Brunswicker’ (1860), John Everett Millais used models for the painting, including Charles Dickens’ daughter, Kate. Problematically, propriety dictated that unacquainted members of the opposite sexes could not strike such an intimate pose – even when supervised for a portrait. Kate therefore posed leaning on a man of wood.

As the science behind creating mannequins evolved, they became an increasingly benign, companionable and lifelike presence in the artist’s studio; achieving a Pygmalion-style status. Alan Beeton’s series ‘Posing, Reposing, Decomposing’ (c. 1929) mimics the human life cycle; though the same mannequin sits calmly at a desk as part of the exhibition, and struck amiable lifelike poses in Beeton’s studio throughout his artistic career.

‘Decomposing’ by Alan Beeton (c. 1929)

These striking false humans became works of art in their own right. Mannequins gave artists malleable human forms, which they could easily make vessels of the symbols and emotions they wanted to convey. From beautifully carved sixteenth-century figurines to haunting wooden effigies, painted dolls of full human height and ‘stuffed Parisian’ lay figures that were sought after by artists throughout Europe; mannequins became figurines that makers and artists alike could control – turning up human characteristics they obsessed over to extremes.

Perhaps because of their inherent passivity, mannequins were twisted into creative symbols of repression and erotic potential. Away from the commercial façade of his fashion photography, Man Ray manipulated mannequins into a range of blank, wooden and sexually explicit poses. Jake and Dinos Chapman have unleashed a long lineage of mannequins to provoke and unsettle us. ‘Duck Child’ (2011) conjures images of genetic experimentation (complete with a swastika badge), with speech prohibited and innocence torn away at the mouth by bestial features.

‘Mr and Mrs Woodman’ by Man Ray (1927)

Rarely is an exhibition so anatomically and aesthetically bizarre as ‘Silent Partners’. But equally rarely is a display so original. The collection may be a strange graveyard of figures who, when painted, are indistinguishable from ourselves. But the creative potential unleashed by our artificial Others has long-deserved such exquisite and comprehensive attention.

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‘Silent Partners’ is on at the Fitzwilliam Museum until 25 January 2015. Admission is free of charge. Click here for more information. 

With thanks to the Telegraph, Tate Britain, Fitzwilliam Museum and Centre Pompidou for photographs.