1 Méliès, L'Artiste at le Mannequin. Star Films cat. 284. 1900.
2 Borzello. The Artist's Model. 1982.
3 Platz. “Drawing Live.” 2014.

George Méliès’ L’Artiste et le Mannequin1 is a little comic film about imposture and disorder. The premise is simple: an artist’s assistant and an artist’s model conspire to play a prank on a ‘heroic’ painter (Méliès himself) by secretly substituting an artist's mannequin with a living model. In a burlesque of the life studio, the artist wears a ludicrously oversized beard, inhabits a posh interior and dresses his studio mannequin, or ‘lay figure’, in neoclassical costume. Lay figures were regular fixtures in artists’ studios until the latter half of the nineteenth century, but, by the time Méliès made his film, they were tokens of a dusty and antiquated academicism. When Méliès turns his back on the lay figure, the model, wearing identical neoclassical garb, makes a clandestine switch and swats the squatting artist in the ass with a broom, sending him reeling into his easel and painting. She quickly switches back before the artist retaliates. He attacks the lay figure, believing it has come to life, and destroys his studio in the final punchline. The gag disrupts the serious, regimented and absurd contemplation intended between artist and puppet.  Puppet ontologies are seeded by impertinence, quasi-animation, ferocity, destabilisation and ambiguity. They estrange and mystify the studio encounter. Méliès may have fallen into the regressive trap of equating model and mannequin, but the complexities of the model’s status, subjectivity and activity burn through such narrow notions, and the complication of puppets upsets conventional studio schemes. When puppets are invited (or pummelled) off the dais to make drawings, the life studio adapts. 

The life studio and life drawing are routine territories for anyone who has studied the visual arts or engaged recreationally with drawing. In its simplest mandate, life drawing is a studio transaction between co-present bodies (artists/models) that co-operate to make drawings. It is also typically a private affair in a private space (the life studio) — a circumstance that amplifies the mystery and fantasy of life drawing and its voyeuristic promise for artists such as Méliès.2 Life drawing endures in its assertion that bodies will come together in the studio to draw bodies in drawings about the body. This exposition frames the potentials and impacts of estranging both artists and models from the life studio and the drawing mandate ‘from life' through puppetry. ‘From life’ is a slippery phrase.3 In the Méliès film, the artist intends to draw ‘from life’ a counterfeit of life — an inanimate studio puppet. In common usage, ‘from life’ can mean an immediate response to subject matter before the artist (landscape, figure, object), or it can mean a human model posing to be viewed and drawn. In this latter case, ‘from life’ is hierarchical, indicating the model’s position of prestige over the life studio's other inhabitants: casts, lay figures, photographs, prior drawings and cadavers. The pedagogical tradition of drawing from life required students to pass through layers of initiation with inanimate bodies before being granted the privilege of working from the living model, but the surrogates never fully receded. Their quasi-presence continued then, and continues now, to haunt the life studio encounter. This project illuminates their occluded bodies. Puppet bodies are coming together in the life studio to draw puppet bodies in drawings about the body.



4 Platz. “Posing Zombies.” 2015.
5 Leverette. “The funk of Forty Thousand Years.” 2008, 193.
6 Mayhew. “The Naked and the Blind.” 2008.
7 Bloomfield. Moral Reality. 2001.
8 Platz. “Drawing Live.” 2014.
9 Jespersen and Carrara. “Two Conceptions of Technical Malfunction.” 2011.

In the prescriptive matrix of the life studio, disruptive relationships between the living and their surrogates go largely unnoticed. The presence of puppets is buried beneath the vivifying fantasy of working ‘from life’. Méliès, however, in his calamitous scene, experiences a puppet's estrangement from the binarism of living and non-living. Perhaps the most efficient manner of describing the strangeness of a puppet's ‘life’ is through analogy. The puppet's status as alive-and-dead-and-animate-and-inanimate-and-subject-and-object recalls recent scholarship, including my own, on the topic of zombiism.Zombies, like puppets, are both living and dead and neither concurrently, or in such rapid succession that the moments of metamorphosis blur and vanish. Again, as with puppets, it is faulty to calculate an easy equivalence between model-body and zombie-body. Zombies infect the entire life studio process. The weird circumstances of puppet-life and zombie-life are resolved by Marc Leverette in his construal of zombies as agents of ‘life/death’, ‘an aesthetics under erasure’.This little malfunction of text also serves puppets well. Puppets aren't expected to conform to clear demarcations between life and non-life, or to behave as they ought to relative to functional concepts of the living and the dead — they are creatures of  life/death. In the life studio, stable functioning — aesthetic, pedagogical, moral, behavioural — serves a super-function: good drawing. But, of course, the history of life drawing is overflowing with malfunction and super-malfunction. Bad drawing abounds.6

Malfunction describes things when they are behaving as they oughtn’t.7 Puppets have no stable aesthetic, pedagogical, moral or behavioural function, nor any super-function to make good drawings. Puppets garble the functions and malfunctions of life drawing. They estrange the life studio from its cultivated mandates — its ‘oughts’ —  which, at the risk of exposing life drawing to accusations of pedantic instrumentalism (but, what else is new), catalyse functions and malfunctions. This does not nullify life drawing. On the contrary, it is invigorating. There is an infamous example of puppet malfunction from eighteen years after Méliès released L’Artiste et le Mannequin. Estranged from his lover Alma Mahler, Oskar Kokoschka commissioned doll-maker Hermine Moos to create an effigy of his lost inamorata. Moos delivered a baffling and bizarre feathered surrogate which Kokoschka would use in his studio (at least) for several paintings and drawings before beheading it in his garden.8 As a demented emblem of a ‘from life’ encounter and puppet estrangement, Kokoschka’s folly provides a useful measure of malfunction. There are two possibilities for estrangement in the case of a ‘technical malfunction’, according to Boris Jespersen.9 In the first, the ‘subsective’, the malfunctioning thing remains ontologically stable. The inability of the puppet’s feathered skin to yield under Kokoschka’s touch, as it ought, does not negate its skin-ness. In the second, the ‘privative’, the malfunction of the thing is disqualifying. In the privative case, the feathered skin’s uncanniness and incongruity, its malfunction as skin, dissolves its skin-ness. 

 -Edward Gordon Craig, ‘The Actor and the Über-Marionette’ 1907




Kokoschka was never able to negotiate the mandate ‘from life’. His frustration in working from puppet-life, or from life/death, came to an estranged and violent conclusion, as it did for Méliès. This shadowy episode bespeaks the shadowy history of studio puppets and lay figures, occluded in the artist’s process and dismissed in the era of Modern Art. Although they are easily spurned as eccentric symbols of outmoded studio practices and old-men-behaving-badly, puppet's privative malfunctions liberate them to become much more. The Fitzwilliam Museum’s exceptional exhibition and catalogue on the history of lay figures titled Silent Partners re-invests lay figures and studio puppets with practical, aesthetic and occult power, and, although it isn't always explicit, malfunction prowls throughout.10 Silent Partners has been an important point of reference for this current studio research.

10 Munro. 2014.

George Méliès L’Artiste et le Mannequin 1900

Series of puppet sketches in studio, 2018-19, ink and gouache on stained Kozo paper.

Puppet instant self-shots 2018