Performative Models

By Caitlin Baucom

They career gaily through all centuries and through all costumes, and, like actors,
are interesting only when not themselves.

—Oscar Wilde, London Models, 1889

2. Predictive Models

1: What is a model?

There are artists, and there are models.

At first, I thought language itself morbidified the model body—that conversations structuring the model and artist in parallel lines, permanent face-off, were inherent in the terms. Hierarchizing without question, assuming the artist as creative and autonomous and the model (literally) dumb, exploited, and barren.

These assumptions are evident in language around fashion models and artists’ models, particularly in the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries, perhaps increasingly in fashion as the industry recedes somewhat from art. With Warhol, the artist’s model becomes something quite different, a conceptual muse. As fashion becomes more conceptual in the late 20th century, its models less so, with fewer muses and more faceless faces.

Not inherent then, the problem lies rather in unthinking usage. Syntactically, the word “model” allows for far greater inconsistency and flux, creativity than “artist,” given its fluidity as a part of speech and also in meaning. “Model” in all its uses implies being and yet not being, inhabiting something too small or too large. Not matching up at the edges of an expectation or concept, a stand in for or concentration of an assumed real.

A fashion model (not muse) stands in for a future woman, for a true body inside clothing, for one’s imagined version of oneself. A model airplane inhabits the shape and refers conceptually to the idea of an airplane, but as airplane without transportation cannot be more than a concept, the two are irreconcilably distinct. Weather, as a predictive model, represents something which has not yet happened and may never happen, an abstraction of a limited understanding of past phenomena. An economic model, an even further abstraction of an already abstract and constructed system.¹

A model citizen is, like a manufacturing model, considered a correct template and, therefore, dangerous. It is one instance in which the model is posited as complete without possibility of change or advancement, where the subject/model knows it falls short but keeps up pretenses, threatening both itself and those seeking to reproduce it.

Model citizen aside, these definitions point to a resistance to reification and wholeness. Their ends don’t quite meet; they’re never truly there, finished, or factual.

1. Vs.

2. Through the Looking Glass

In Lacan’s psychoanalytic model, the first identification is not with the father, as with Freud, but with the infant’s own mirror image. In this way, the initial spark of selfhood, the imago of the I, is based not on an external model, not on the model citizen.

It is instead a conflation of other models: fashion, predictive, and conceptual. It is in a developmental non-time, when apprehension is immediate, without memory, language, or morals, without sense of social acceptability or precedent. This human model, looking at its own image, recognizes itself in and as Other, long before it begins the actual work of distinguishing the self from Other. The infant primate confronted with his own image quickly grows bored and moves on—the human infant is fascinated.² It looks and looks and changes position as it looks; with no past, it must, in each moment, fix itself as image, again and again.

This is a two-way looking. In a Freudian model, identification begins with a one-way looking: at the father, the manufacturing model for human being. Transformation begins relative to a finished specimen. If primary identification instead takes place in the mirror stage, then transformation begins relative to a shifting and fractured image of the subject—as itself and other, never whole and never finished.

The term “finishing school” first appears around 1830. It is a place to finish and refine women based on a manufacturing model so that they may understand and enact their roles in society, so that their bodies cease to be a source of social anxiety and become something knowable—a wife, a mother, a lady. This is a concerted objectification of woman, rooted in a fear of the abstract and unpredictable.

Artist/subject/model relationships take a turn or two in the 19th century. It is during this period that the artistic subject emerges from a temporal or spatial distance into the present, the model from standing in for an external and whole image—mythical, biblical, allegorical, commemorative– to standing in its own image. The first is a kind of one way looking. The artist, painter let’s say, looks through the model body to an already finished figure, a Greek goddess, an apostle.

The second, however, can be viewed as a two-way, specularly circular looking. The painter looks at the model; the model poses as itself, right now, and looks back. There is no mythic time between them, no lofty representations. Even when Camille Doncieux is dressed in an ornate kimono, she is still herself as an image of Camille as La Japonaise.8. Camille

11. Irving as Hamlet
3. Why All This Fanciful Postulation?

It is during this century that artists begin working repeatedly with the same models, often wife, lover, child-bearer. Distinct from, say, the Renaissance practice of using friends and family as models, in the late 19th century many looming art historical figures work from professional female models with whom they subsequently sleep, live, impregnate and/or marry.

The popularized trope of the artist/model relationship, that of the active male artist looking and the passive female model being looked at, also comes out of this period, particularly in France, when/where “the social category of professional female models”3 arises along with the cultish artist personalities of late Realism and Impressionism.

A body of work emerged in 20th and 21st century art historical writing, devoted to the agency of artists’ models in general, and to the specific 19th and early 20th century women ‘behind’ the artist personality, the shadowy figure of the pre-contemporary model/lover/wife. Ruth Butler’s Hidden in the Shadow of the Master: The Model-Wives of Cézanne, Monet and Rodin, for example, attempts a biographical re-cognition of Hortense Fiquet, Camille Doncieux, and Rose Beuret, respectively. Leading her to this work was “the realization that this was the first generation in which a large number of artists identified their chosen model and chosen woman as one and the same. By the 20th century such a circumstance had become so common among Western artists, we hardly stopped to think about it. It is simply what artists do.”4

These, often revisionist, retroactive visits to the artists’ studios in an attempt to give these mute women a voice tend to situate that voice relative to the master artist who worked from their image. Butler drags Hortense, Camille and Rose up from the dregs of obscurity only to set them down directly in that shadow. Her biographical book is openly already a work of half fiction, depending “on both fact and imagination,” as real information about these women is scarce. Unfortunately that imagination, like other such attempts at a new conversation around these figures, works to close the gulf between artist and model/wife by bringing the model closer to the artwork through affective inspiration or menial labor: either by conjecturing the effect of the model as witness, to the artwork, artist working and, in these cases, artist’s life; or by applying their actual hands to the artwork, Rose Beuret keeping Rodin’s clay moist, while he is out sleeping with other women. Couldn’t Butler have imagined something more exciting for these women she seems to truly care for?

Taking these models as witnesses and factory workers, inspirers and contributors, they are acknowledged as impacting presences, but in the service of other creativities. Still passive. Important simply because they were there, not because they were doing anything.

So perhaps instead we leave the gulf intact. Imagining not some scene of domestic bliss within the atelier, the model’s energies harnessed and subsumed by the artist’s creative genius, but rather simultaneous and vastly different creative workings, meeting or not meeting in the spaces between painter, poser and painting.

12. Dandies

4. So What is it to Pose?

For poser there are two classes of definition. In one, a person who pretends, synonyms are hypocrite, imposter, deceiver; fraud, charlatan, actor. All the fear and mistrust people have of fakery, being fooled, of anything not quite authentic.

The other definition of poser is one who sets a difficult or perplexing question or problem. Synonyms here include enigma, mystery, conundrum; teaser, secret, complication.

The act of posing can occur in public or private. Privately, it is often a mirror stage moment, intentionally executed. Essentialized, embodying some ideal or identity, approaching one’s own specular image and looking, slowly, out of time, changing position, holding position, looking and looking at an image of oneself as oneself as other. Costumed perhaps, but since no one else is present, not a moment of pretense or charlatanism. It is rather a moment of deeply felt and articulated being, stillness and looking. Taking on oneself as the difficult and perplexing problem.

“We have only to understand the mirror stage as an identification, in the full sense that analysis  gives to the term; namely, the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an   image… This form would have to be called the Ideal-I, if we wished to incorporate it into our  usual register… But the important point is that this form situates the agency of the ego before its   social determination, in a fictional direction which will always remain irreducible for the individual alone… he must resolve as I his discordance with his own reality.”5

This returning to the mirror to pose in private might be understood as an act of embracing that very discordance, the fractures, of imagining and othering.

In public, posing relates to that word actor. When performance art is being defensive, there are tangible differences between itself and theatre; this issue of fear and posing is one of them. In performance art the live body presents an honest pose of self as self or an internal other (persona), occurring in real time; in theatre the live body presents a pose of an external other (character), something already finished.

Odd conflations of public and private posing were a part of daily Victorian life, acknowledged and purposefully standardized. Earlier we touched briefly on finishing school, actively guiding women in proper posing, in constructing an appropriate feminine identity for every situation.

Dandyism, another standardized posing– emerging in part as an affectation of class, but which is for Baudelaire a “mysterious institution… These beings have no other calling but to cultivate the idea of beauty in their persons, to satisfy their passions, to feel and to think… they are all representatives of what is finest in human pride, of that compelling need, alas only too rare today, of combating and destroying triviality.”6 This is a focused projection of the self as other, a project in embodying that which one wishes to see in the world. A persona performance. It is also a mode of living which requires slowing down, and looking. “Few men are gifted with the capacity of seeing… Be very sure that this man… has an aim loftier than that of a mere flaneur, an aim more general… He is looking for that quality which you must allow me to call ‘modernity’.”7

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, theatrical forms further distilled the actor-pose into the practice of theatrical tableau and tableaux vivant, the “willing desire to de-animate one’s own body into self-made statuary.” Aura Satz, on casting the female model/male artist dichotomy in terms of mythological statue desire:

“We are told that women, more than men, are historically the privileged species to oscillate between the morphological states of hardness and softness, stillness and mobility, pose/ place/pause and continuity. The predominant scholarship on the Pygmalion myth situates it            within the context of the misogyny and desire of the sculpture’s (male) maker, leading to a           reiteration of the outsider view of Pygmalion, not of the statue. We are led to believe that these living statues are forced into silent immobility by their lookers, just as they are brought to life  by their coveters. But why not consider the possibility of their withdrawal into stillness as a voluntary act that restructures looking, that questions and extricates authorship and that can  be thought of in alternative terms to those of the petrifier and the petrified?”8

13. Tableau
However, Satz’s subject, tableaux vivants, seem to attend more to character performance, bodily morbidification; as Satz herself points out in the same essay, “The living picture lacks articulation (vocal, physical and narrative), it has ossified into rigor mortis, and if and when it slackens, this is only so as to shift into the next pose, the next statue, or to snap out of it and back to normal fluid life. The tableau vivant is in fact a temporary cadaver, a presence which has petrified into object, like an outmoded, unusable, damaged utensil…”9

The tableau maintains earlier modes of posing, those allusions to the historical, allegorical, already finished. The body in tableau is a cadaver because it hardens into something already dead, something which had died long before it (the new body) arrived to attend to it. More than a cadaver, a cadaver of a cadaver, referring always to a body image outside of its own. It is operatively a literal objectification, insisting as it does on a completed statue or a painting, the body becoming stone.

Satz writes of Emma Hart (Lady Hamilton), crediting her with the tableaux fad, for enacting this public posing in a private, domestic setting, as a kind of guessing game for guests. “One of the main novelties of Lady Hamilton’s act was this process of iconographic identification. The moment the copy is recognized, the next copy can appear, silently asking the question ‘who am I?’ all over again. The original Emma retracts into the copy, enabling the image to surface, whilst she herself withdraws. There is no climactic spellbinding instant in which she comes to life, but rather the strange moments in which she switches off, glazes over, becomes the image.”10

This question of ‘who am I?’ cannot, in this context, become the difficult or perplexing question of the poser– because it is easily answerable, with cries of ‘Medea!’ or ‘Lady Macbeth!’

Women artists who are historically heroic, who have broken through barriers and flung themselves fighting into a system which excluded them, have overwhelmingly used their own images to do so. I am thinking particularly of performative models, in which must be included work which finally exists primarily through two dimensional images– Claude Cahun, Cindy Sherman, Frida Kahlo come to mind– and we can, too, include writing as performative. One gets the sense that the time in which the artist considers herself as model for the image of herself as Other, spent thoughtfully with her specular double, is where the art happens, rather than in the finished and flattened final image of the artwork. They are asking the question ‘who am I?’ in a way which resists answers, remains in the fractured moment of specular, speculative mirror play in which nothing external exists.

In live performance work, this time of thoughtful Othering happens in front of other people; they look at the live image of the model/artist, who looks back at them. Whether the performance is literally still or not, it is a kind of withdrawal into a stillness of time, taking the body out of context and into a space of restructured looking, which “questions and extricates authorship and… can be thought of in alternative terms to those of the petrifier and the petrified…”

The female performance artist plucks her live body from its morbidified place in art history and, conflating artist and model, considers and returns the gaze. Not rejecting being looked at, but looking back, and taking the looking into her own hands, in real time. Even the two dimensional works mentioned earlier maintain the confrontational looking of the performative moment, despite their flattened finish.

16. Claude Cahun
5. Poser as Performer

So as the female model makes the move from standing in for a subject, posing as the Virgin Mary, as Galatea, as Aphrodite, to posing as herself as subject, we can begin to read modeling as an act of self-creativity, tracing it as part of a lineage of female artistry which stretches through early 20th century struggles for inclusion, through feminism, through performance art, up through contemporary life, beyond art world conversations, in which the imaging of self as subject is the daily preoccupation of the media individual (so much so that the practice comes full circle to mindlessness).

But in the 19th century, this new mode of modeling is necessarily mindful. Posing as a character (theatrical) is a hierarchical activity, clear edged, fraudulent, actorly. Non-creative in that there can be no creation, only imitation or reiteration. Posing as oneself as oneself (performative) is creative, the real time creation of an image of self, a mystery, the posing of a difficult question.

This is the private pose, the mirror stage moment, brought before another set of eyes, that of the artist. Recall the non time in which we earlier situated the infant: when apprehension is immediate, without memory, language, or morals, no sense of social acceptability or precedent. This is the same non time in which the new model now finds herself. No precedent or memory; no language; and as an artist’s model, already outside of morals and social acceptability– the model therefore free to be her body, in the present. In, again, an act precursive to the public presentation of self/identity in performance art, the artist is witness to the model’s effortful performance of an “I” through stillness and being.

Witness also to the difficult questions, and on the receiving end of them, which begin to be articulated in 20th century performance practice– who am I? Who are you? What does it mean that we are here, together? What does it mean to look at me, to look at you, to look at each other, what is an object, what does it mean for you to objectify me, what does it mean for me to objectify myself, am I an art object or a use object, what kind of object are you?

6. Art Work

We were imagining the atelier– not as a scene of domestic bliss, respectful reciprocation, unidirectional creativity, but as a place alive with alternating currents. From this atelier, as with aforementioned female artists using themselves as models for two dimensional work, we have available for contemporary study the finished object, painting, sculpture, drawing, now perhaps a video. But we have also, in our imaginations, the knowledge of that time spent with the self as lived artwork. So just as easily as Ruth Butler can imagine that “Camille Doncieux and Rose Beuret both loved the work they helped create, but both of them suffered…”11 or that “Monet and Camille were a wonderful working couple…She just loved to pose…”12 we can instead imagine that there are, in these sessions, two distinct modes of artistic working, of works created. The live performance and purposed embodiment of an identity through looking and being looked at, which later becomes foundational for confessional, performance, video, feminist, etc., art via the model; and the attempts to re-cognize a person right there, in real time, and translate image as image into another medium, paint, clay, bronze, via the artist.

The models are important not because they’re there as witness, as silent support, providing their body with an equal kind of humble submission as they would food or childcare, but because they are doing something, being something, which is wholly of themselves and out of time, only in the very minute present. “The past is interesting… by reason of the beauty which could be distilled from it by those artists for whom it was the present, but also precisely because it is the past, for its historical value… The pleasure which we derive from the representation of the present is due not only to the beauty with which it can be invested, but also to the essential quality of being present.”13


1. Emanuel Derman, Models Behaving Badly: Why Confusing Illusion with Reality Can Lead to Disaster, on Wall Street and in Life (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2011), 45-46.

2. Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W.W. Norton, 1977), 1-7.

3. Marie Lathers, “The Social Construction and Deconstruction of the Female Model in 19th-Century France” Mosaic, (Winnipeg: June, 1996), 23-30.

4. Ruth Butler, Hidden in the Shadow of the Master: The Model-Wives of Cézanne, Monet and Rodin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 2.

5. Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W.W. Norton, 1977), 1-7.

6. Charles Baudelaire, ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, trans. Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon, 1995), 26-29.

7. Charles Baudelaire, ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, trans. Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon, 1995), 12.

8. Aura Satz, “Tableaux Vivants: Inside the Statue”, Aura Satz and Jon Wood, Articulate Objects: Voice, Sculpture and Performance (Oxford, New York: Peter Lang, 2009), 166.

9. Aura Satz, “Tableaux Vivants: Inside the Statue”, Aura Satz and Jon Wood, Articulate Objects: Voice, Sculpture and Performance (Oxford, New York: Peter Lang, 2009), 163.

10. Aura Satz, “Tableaux Vivants: Inside the Statue”, Aura Satz and Jon Wood, Articulate Objects: Voice, Sculpture and Performance (Oxford, New York: Peter Lang, 2009), 171.

11. Ruth Butler, Hidden in the Shadow of the Master: The Model-Wives of Cézanne, Monet and Rodin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 11.

12. Ruth Butler, “Author Gives Voice to Artists’ Silent Muses, Their Wives” New York Times, by Patricia Cohen (New York: 2008), E1.

13. Charles Baudelaire, ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, trans. Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon, 1995), 1.


Caitlin Baucom received her MFA in Performance from The School of The Art Institute of Chicago, and BA from The Evergreen State College. Her interdisciplinary performances indulge freely in divergent musical, poetic, performance and visual/technological practices.

Recent and upcoming exhibitions include shows at Defibrillator Gallery, Links Hall, MDW Fair, Reversible Eye Gallery, Mana Contemporary, and High Concept Laboratories in Chicago; The Kinsey Institute; Verge Fair in Miami Beach; Stockholm Fringe Festival, Stockholm; Dimanche Rouge Festival, Paris; Naherholung Sternchen, Berlin; Galerie KUB, Leipzig; and ABC NO RIO, Savoir-Faire Performance Festival, HERE Arts, Panoply Performance Lab, Fountain Art Fair, and LUMEN Festival in NYC. Residencies include The Contemporary Artists Center in Troy, NY, and SOHO20 Chelsea in NYC. She is the Winter 2013 Fellowship Recipient of the Atelier Program, ACC-Galerie Weimar and the City of Weimar, Germany, on the theme ‘Criminality in Art.’