Novita, A Catalogue of the human body as an object

It's astonishing to see the number of artists and photographers who use mannequins in their work. One of the best known is certainly Hans Bellmer. His use of the mannequin made him enter the Surrealist Circle. For Bellmer the use of the mannequin was a fetishist metamorphoses for his sexual fascination for young girls. He was extremely involved with his mannequins. Or the Spanish painter José Maria Sert who photographed manikins as study objects for his paintings.

In the set of photos of mannequins we present here there is a lack of involvement. These photographs are publicity photographs with the only purpose to sell the mannequins made and distributed by Novita. The window dummies' purpose is to sell clothes. A good window dummy must have the perfect body or it isn't possible to show the clothes on them. The materials and colours can be very different.

Novita wasn't such an amazing company. It was founded in 1932 by Mr. Nicola Ianetti and it stopped in 1984. This Brussels (Belgium) based company was in the first place a manufacturer and distributor of window dummies and in the second place a manufacturer of plaster ornaments.

When I bought the legacy of the company I found photo catalogues of their production of window dummies. Striking pictures of man-like objects in daily settings. Very surreal. In fact that's the meaning we are giving to this objects.

In the 1920s the dummies are very naïf and static but later on the mannequins became more realistic and dynamic. You can see that there has been a lot of experimenting with materials and systems to imitate the human movement.

In fact the photos of window dummies are still lives of anthropomorphic objects. At first sight, it is so tempting to give other meanings to mannequins because they are so familiar to us. Did you ever touch a window dummy? (is it a Taboo?)

I was born and raised in my mother's clothing shop and window dummies were part of the daily setting. They were very common objects, but every time I touched them an uncanny feeling went through me. The material was not in proportion to the representation. You don't expect the cold, hard plastic touch of a human look a like. It could be the feeling of a death person but yet very much alive.

At that point there are parallels between the mannequins and photography: the impossibility to represent reality (the search of the third and fourth dimension), calling something dead alive (a surrogate for the missing person or object) and an object with a lot of symbolic meanings (both objects, the mannequin and the photo are meant to be read and questioned). A photo and mannequin are used as a mirror for our own state of being: it's the same looking at a Barbie doll and a photo of a fashion model. Both objects give a certain vision of the reality we strive for. But at the end we realize that it isn't the reality: they are symbols of the fake.

When the window dummies were standing nude in my mothers shop window it was funny to see the reactions of the people passing by. Everybody was a voyeur a that moment. The sexual attraction of dummies is known but still taboo. It isn't the first time that I publish window dummies on this website and it is still one of the most visited pages. Why? Based on the website statistics I know that the most erotic images are the most downloaded ones. (Unsurprisingly.)

Why this fascination for the mannequins and dolls? From the moment man made representations of his species. Every time these anthropomorphic objects were full of special meanings: magic, religious, fantastic, symbolic, fetishist.

One of the returning purposes of mannequins, dolls or window dummies is the possibility to dominate the body and bring it in situations that are for us familiar, uncommon or desired.

A mannequin is often used to digest events or situations. They can take our place in unpleasant situations. A wellknown example is the relationship between Oskar Kokoschka and the doll that represented his lost love Alma Mahler.

When you have a look at the photographs of the 1940's you will see the dummies in very realistic settings. But it must be a very uncommon feeling standing nude in a marina while reading the newspaper... It could be an image from a dream..

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© Xavier Debeerst

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