The Pygmalion Complex: Animate and Inanimate Figures

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The subject of the animated statue spans the history of avant-garde photography. With the emergence of Surrealism in the 1920s, artists used the camera to tap the uncanniness of puppets, wax dummies, mannequins, and automata, producing pictures that both transcribe and alter appearances. Laura Gilpin explored this perturbing mix of stillness and living, alluring lifelikeness in her mysterious portrait George William Eggers (1926), in which the subject keeps company with a fifteenth-century bust whose polychrome charm is enhanced by the glow of the candle he holds next to her face. So did Edward Weston, in his whimsical Rubber Dummies, Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios, Hollywood (1939), showing two dolls caught in a pas de deux on a movie-studio storage lot. In Clarence John Laughlin’s eerie photomontage The Eye That Never Sleeps (1946), the negative of an image taken in a New Orleans funeral parlor has been overlaid with an image of a mannequin—one of whose legs, however, is that of a flesh-and-blood model.

The tension between animate object and inanimate female form lies at the crux of many of Man Ray’s photographs, including Black and White (1926), which provocatively couples the head of the legendary model, artist, and cabaret singer Alice Prin, a.k.a. Kiki of Montparnasse, with an African ceremonial mask. Hans Bellmer’s photographs of dismembered dolls and the photomontages of Herbert Bayer, Hannah Höch, and Johannes Theodor Baargeld probe the relationship between living figure and sculpture by invoking the unstable subjectivity and changing conception of anatomical boundaries that followed in the aftermath of World War I.