Hans Bellmer - Biography and Legacy
German Artist, Sculptor and Photographer
Katowice, German Empire (now Poland)
Biography of Hans Bellmer
Childhood and Education
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.
Bellmer agreed to study engineering at the Berlin Polytechnic to escape from his father, but his true passion was art. In 1924 he quit school, and took up work as an illustrator and designer of advertisements for the Malik-Verlag publishing house. Attracted by the Dada movement, he illustrated Dada novels, including Das Eisenbahnglück oder der Antifreud (1925) by Mynona. He befriended avant-garde artists such as John Heartfield, Rudolf Schlichter, and George Grosz and attended lectures at the Bauhaus. The artistic freedom of Berlin in the Weimar period was crushed by the rise to power of the repressive Nazi regime under Hitler in the late 1920s. The Nazi party denounced modern art as "degenerate" and banned the work of many artists such as Grosz. Bellmer drew a connection between fascism and his father (a proud Nazi), and he recalled this time as one of "inner revolt and repressed despair." However, he fought back. In 1933 he cut relations with his father and made a vow to refrain from any useful activity (such as working as an illustrator) that might assist the Nazi regime, demonstrating his political conscience.
His symbolic rejection of the Nazi's took the form of a doll, a figure which would become his life's obsession. He decided to create an "artificial girl" who was "capable of creating the heights of passion, even inventing new desires." He drew inspiration from many sources: classical myths such as Ovid's Metamorphoses; the animated doll in E.T.A. Hoffmann's Sandman, the Sleeping Venus archetype of the Old Masters, the Dada dolls of Lotte Pritzel and Hannah Höch, and the infamous doll of Oskar Kokoschka, a wax replica of his lover Alma Mahler.
Die Puppe (The Doll, 1933) was created out of wood, metal, and plaster. Once the doll was complete, he took a series of photographs of the doll being dismembered. He drew on various influences for the photos: from Man Ray and Brassaï's headless, limbless, female torso photographs, from Jack the Ripper (Bellmer had previously illustrated a book on him), and a recent series of shocking "torso murders" which had made headlines.
In Paris, André Breton's Surrealist Manifesto had called for words to be cut up and rearranged. In Berlin, Bellmer responded by using the doll's body parts as poetry, noting: "I tried to rearrange the sexual elements of a girl's body like a sort of plastic anagram." Bellmer's cousin Ursula was studying in Paris, and at his request she provided Breton with his doll photographs. Breton was ecstatic - calling Bellmer's doll "the first and only original surrealist object with a universal, provocative power." When the photographs were published in Minotaure in December 1934, Bellmer's doll became a Surrealist icon.
Bellmer had indeed turned his fantasy into "a real object to be possessed." The doll was a screen for the projection of desires and acted as a fetish object. But Bellmer's desire had a sinister, violent side. He showed himself with the doll in a double exposure, in a power play of domination and cruelty. He was the puppet master - a violator and voyeur. His choice of words to describe his dolls included "deformation" and "a hint of vengeance" and his essay Memories of the Doll Theme (1934) has echoes of sexual violence, and desire which "probes with aggressive fingers."
This dark exploration of sexuality drew from Bellmer and the Surrealists' shared fascination with the Marquis de Sade. Bellmer's latent sadism was taken even further in Jeux de la Poupée (Games of the Doll, 1935). This doll was fleshier, more realistic and was posed in real locales, from domestic indoor settings, to parks and gardens. The elaborate use of props such as a wig, a beret, socks, and shoes presented the doll now as a little girl, now as a woman, now just a pile of body parts. Bellmer was obsessed with what he called the "brennpunkt" (burning point) where outer meets inner. Like the way a child breaks a toy to see inside, he wanted to see inside a woman. Yet his "games" with the doll were sinister - she was tied up, hung from a tree, dumped on a stairway. The photographs were tinted with lurid colours - for instance red on the thighs. This, coupled with the doll wearing little socks and Mary Jane shoes led to accusations of paedophilia and of dehumanizing women. The Surrealist sculptor, Meret Oppenheim - herself known for playing with sex and identity - told an interviewer that she felt Bellmer treated women without respect.
Despite - or probably because of - his notoriety Bellmer's dolls were a fixture of Surrealist exhibitions, but although his subject fitted the Surrealist ethos, his method did not. He reflected: "I am glad to be considered part of the Surrealist movement although I have less concern than some Surrealists with the unconscious because my works are always carefully thought out and controlled." However, his fame grew at the same time as he experienced personal hardships. His wife Margarete was terminally ill and died in 1938. Bellmer created In Memory of My Wife Margarete (1939) in tribute. It was a collage assembly which included a plastic rose, a pearl-handled penknife, and eight matchboxes, filled with nails, seashells, a cigarette butt, a dead fly, and a glass marble. Now a widower, he left the repressive Nazi Germany for Paris, but because he was German, he was imprisoned by the French in the Camp des Milles, near Aix-en-Provence. There, he shared the cell with a fellow German artist, the Surrealist Max Ernst. According to Ernst, Bellmer was depressed at being locked up and controlled, and actually, during this time Bellmer drew a portrait of Ernst with a face made of bricks, as if he was walled in.
After the war, he renounced his German nationality and continued to explore the theme of love and sex as the ultimate surreality (the fusion of the Self with the Other). For the rest of his life his focus was on pornographic prints, etchings, and engravings. He illustrated Batailles The Story of the Eye (1947); the obscene text was more than matched by Bellmer's pornographic drawings including the notorious vagina in a saucer of milk; he later contributed pornographic illustrations for books inspired by the Marquis de Sade such as A Sade (1962).
During the 1940s and 50s he used the Surrealist technique of Decalomania (ink, watercolor, or paint applied to paper, pressed against another sheet of paper to make an impression). It mirrored his desire to merge identities and literally be the woman he wanted to possess. In 1959 he met artist Unica Zürn at the 1959 Exposition Surréaliste. They began a love affair and a disturbing creative partnership that would last sixteen years. In addition to illustrating books, he drew countless pornographic works of Unica, her vagina, her anus, and visual orgies of body parts. He wrote that a man in love with a woman was a "hermaphrodite" and his obsessive desire was to merge with and become one with her. He developed a personal motif which he would revisit throughout the rest of his career - the octopus-like Cephalopod, often shown as heads with legs, sometimes wearing stockings and heels. He and Zürn collaborated in a highly shocking S&M series Unica Bound which culminated in the front cover of Le Surréalisme, Meme (1958). It showed Zürn trussed up like a piece of meat, string cutting into her torso, no arms, legs, or head visible.
Bellmer's sexual and artistic relationship with Zürn was complex for whereas Breton and other Surrealists used madness as a Surrealist tool, Zürn lived it. In her book The Man of Jasmine, Impressions from a Mental Illness (1965) she tells of the hallucinations, obsessions, and delusions of her schizophrenia. After a decade of repeated spells in asylums, while also living with Bellmer, her illness had so affected him that in 1964 Bellmer wrote that her mental illness had "transferred to his own body." In 1970, Zürn committed suicide by jumping from their 6th floor Paris apartment. Bellmer died five years later, and was buried beside her.
The Legacy of Hans Bellmer
Bellmer remains one of the most influential and notorious artists of the 20th century. As his creations, and his possible intentions behind them have been reinterpreted and debated, his reputation and impact have grown. The feminist movement in particular took a dim view of his objectification of women, as Rudolf Uenzli points out in Surrealism and Misogyny, "these are not just "bodies;" these are always female figures." Subsequently Bellmer's imagery was co-opted and used by the 1990s Riot Girl movement, most iconically by Courtney Love in her disturbing child/woman "Kinderwhore" aesthetic. His work was a strong and acknowledged influence on the erotic art of Paul Wunderlich and the creations of Louise Bourgeois, such as Filette (1968). Bellmer's doll theme is perhaps most clearly elaborated by Cindy Sherman's many doll pieces, some of which explicitly reference Bellmer such as her Untitled #261 (1991) of a decapitated head, amputated legs, and detachable breasts and her Untitled #263 (1991) - a fusion of male and female at the torso, recalling his Cephalopod. His contentious evocations of childhood sexuality have been elaborated by Jake and Dinos Chapman in works such as Zygotic Acceleration (1995). The highly stylized yet disturbing "human Barbie" studies of Alex Sandwell Kliszynski use modern tools to take Bellmer's fantasy to a new level, turning human flesh into a plastic anagram.