German Artist, Sculptor and Photographer
Katowice, German Empire (now Poland)
Summary of Hans Bellmer
Hans Bellmer's art, often in the form of dolls he called language images, served as a form of personal therapy, in which he objectified abusive relationships, explored his fantasies, and projected the essence of his desire for women and objects. He lived through the repression of artists in Nazi Germany, which became another trauma informing his art. After the war, he became well known for his explicit and sometimes pornographic illustrations. He created images that reflected what he felt was a disturbing, and disturbed world. His work has been hailed by some as representing the limits of human sexuality, while others have found his work to simply objectify the female body as a captive of the male sexual gaze.
- Bellmer believed art could stimulate desire in the viewer, and he played with his objects to explore how an artificial figure of a girl could create authentic passion, desire, or fantasy.
- Putting Breton and Tzara's ideas into practice, Bellmer posed his dolls with various parts missing, or in odd combinations, or as seemingly random juxtapositions in order to shock the viewer into making new connections between things, and to reveal how love obsessively alters the object of one's desire.
- Bellmer created objects out of, and to present, psychoanalytic concepts: the fetish, desire, drive, ambivalence, the gaze, and sadism. By exploring these, art became a stand in for analysis, as trauma, desire and obsession could be acted out on the object. He used his dolls as an attempt to understand life and death by investigating erotic limits, unconscious fears, and desires.
Biography of Hans Bellmer
Bellmer spent his adult life working through childhood trauma. He and his brother lived in fear of their stern father, who showed the boys little affection. He believed he was denied a normal childhood, as natural childish play was forbidden under his father's "cold shadow." Later in life, driven by an obsessive hatred of his father, he wasted no opportunity in interviews and poems such as Der Vater (The Father, 1936) to reiterate the evil spell his father had cast over his life, once noting his "father issues" would have made him a perfect case study for Sigmund Freud. Bellmer saw his behaviour as a response to his father, and categorized it as "rebellion, defence, attack". His early interest in cross-dressing reflected a curiosity about being a woman, an early sexual interest in girls, and an opportunity to lash out at his father. Biographer Sue Taylor reports that he deliberately sent his father into a seizure by powdering his face and wearing lipstick.
Important Art by Hans Bellmer
The inspiration for Bellmer's first doll was allegedly his unfulfilled sexual desire for his underage cousin Ursula Naguschewski who was then living with him and his wife. He created the doll from wood, glue, plaster and straw in his studio - obsessively driven to create what he called a "real object to be possessed." Once finished, as important as the doll itself were the photographs he took - posing it various settings and accessories. In this photograph a breast, part of the stomach, and the buttocks are exposed, while the angle of the head, gazing at the viewer, makes the face uncharacteristically real. In many of his doll photographs her face is a blank mask onto which the viewer can project whatever they feel, but here she has character.
Bellmer's interest in girlish things is made more explicit in an unrealized element of the work - he had originally intended to project a film through the doll's navel. His adult evocation of child sexuality created a furore when he reflected in Memories of the Doll Theme, of seeing "young girls" whose "minxes' legs" and "pink pleats" frolicked around him. The Surrealists believed in resurrecting childhood as a time when viewers were closest to real life, but Bellmer resurrected his childhood darkness, inviting allegations of deviancy and pedophilia still levelled against him today.
After Bellmer shot to fame via the Surrealist infatuation with his doll, he created this series of photographs, posing this new doll in over a hundred scenarios. The title 'games' seems to be implying that the doll is a willing partner but from what the viewer sees, it would appear not. The two torsos, severed and stuck together next to a tree, are utterly defenceless and powerless. The one enjoying the games is the puppet-master, the shadowy voyeur in a long dark coat and boots, hiding behind a tree. Again, disturbing references to childhood are raised; the body could be child or woman, but the white socks and shoes suggest a youth, rather than an adult. Bellmer chose to carefully hand-tint each photograph, and his choice of the pink and yellow aniline dyes was a nod to the erotic postcards of the time. However, his choice of red for the body suggests violation, while the yellow tinted forest suggests a feeling of sickness. The overall feeling is one of a sick fairy tale, where the woods hold the fears of violation, threat, and observation.
The last three decades of Bellmer's life were mainly devoted to producing pornographic works dealing with sadist, erotic, sexual transgressions. As such he was a perfect choice as the illustrator for Bataille's graphically pornographic novel L'Histoire de l'oeil (The Story of the Eye, 1928). Bellmer's illustrations for this later edition took graphic sex to new heights. The story narrates an eyeball removed from a corpse and includes a notorious scene in which a teenage seductress asks: "milk is for the pussy, isn't it? Do you dare me to sit in the saucer?" Then I lay down at her feet without her stirring and for the first time, I saw her 'pink and dark flesh,' cooling in the white milk." Bellmer's twelve prints to illustrate the text pushed the boundaries of taste even further; in addition to the Surrealist trope of the vagina as an eye, he drew a young girl watching a phallus emerge from her vagina that was not even an image in Bataille's text (but undeniably captured the spirit of it). Bellmer would himself go on to refer to this vagina-as-eye motif in his drawing of his lover and artistic muse, Unica Zürn, titled Eye Vulva (1964).
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Hans Bellmer
- Death, Desire and the Doll, the Life and Art of Hans BellmerOur PickBy Peter Webb and Robert Short
- Hans Bellmer: The Anatomy of AnxietyBy Sue Taylor
- Death, Desire and the Doll: The Life and Art of Hans BellmerOur PickBy Peter Webb
- Behind Closed Doors: The Art of Hans BellmerBy Therese Lichtenstein
- The Story of the EyeBy George Bataille
- The Man of Jasmin and Other Texts: Impressions from a Mental IllnessBy Unica Zürn
- Memories of the Doll Theme (1934)By Hans Bellmer
- Small Treatise of Physical Unconscious on the Anatomy of the Image (1957) (In French)By Hans Bellmer
- Hans Bellmer: The Wandering Libido and the Hysterical BodyOur PickBy Sue Taylor / Art Institute of Chicago / Retrieved 19 January 2016
- Guys and Dolls - "Silent Partners" Exhibition, Fitzwilliam MuseumBy Steven Connor / Cambridge / December, 2014
- Alma Mahler: The Mannequin of Oskar Kokoschka(With interviews) / Retrieved 19 January, 2016
- The Painter of Modern Life and Other EssaysBy Charles Baudelaire / Essay on Toys