In a late photographic portrait of Hans Bellmer, the artist stands behind his lover, Unica Zürn, who is encircled by the arms of a life-size doll he created in the 1930s. Zürn stares blankly into space, as the doll, oddly animated, appears to seek her gaze and Bellmer’s piercing eyes dare the viewer to distinguish between them.
Artists tend to fall in love with their creations, but Bellmer’s photographs explore that desire’s deepest perversion. The whiff of scandal comes not from any naked, fleshly revelations, but from the doll’s weird vitality, her proliferating limbs endlessly reconfigured to suit his lonely imagination.
Men in despair have often turned to dolls for consolation. In 1918, following his tumultuous affair with Alma Mahler, the painter Oscar Kokoschka commissioned a doll maker to fashion an ideal companion. This toy accompanied him to dinner and the theater and entertained friends in his Dresden studio. Bellmer’s doll was conceived in 1933, the year Adolf Hitler came to power. Living in Berlin, the artist must have found the air of Nazi Germany barely breathable. The doll became his plaything, an infinitely malleable, innocent victim over whom he exercised fantasies of total control and domination.
Born in Katowice, a small town in Silesia, Bellmer was sent to Berlin in 1923 to study engineering by his tyrannical Prussian father. He dropped out and began painting, under the influence of Dadaists like George Grosz and John Heartfield; he later married and set up shop as a graphic designer. In 1933, his tubercular wife Margarete’s frail health made leaving Germany impossible. Instead, Bellmer vowed to “give up all work [that] . . . could be in any way useful to the State.” With his brother’s help, he began work on the doll’s construction.
In a photograph, she stands half-finished before a blueprint of her body, wearing a beret and a long brown wig; Bellmer appears beside her in a ghostly double exposure. Is the doll more real than her creator? Shot from behind, with her masklike face turned coyly over her shoulder and her undershirt provocatively hiked above her buttocks, she’s at once dead and alluring. Her molded plaster torso and dismantled parts, veiled in black tulle or white lace bloomers, fill pictures at once prurient and elegiac. Did Bellmer’s far-off childhood, or his sickly wife, inspire him? Or was this disassembled creature a stand-in for the artist, in mourning for himself and his society?
Die Puppe (1934), a small volume of 10 doll photographs, was printed privately, at Bellmer’s expense, in a tiny edition. Goebbels’s notorious “Degenerate Art” exhibition was still three years away, but the climate of repression was already palpable. Still, the photographs made their way to France, where the surrealists admired and published them. Meanwhile, Bellmer began work on a second doll, whose hypermobile limbs, rotating around a central stomach, inspired him to new extremes of manipulation.
His photographs show two pair of legs, wearing white socks and saddle shoes, hanging like a corpse in a doorway or leaning propped against a tree in the forest, an insouciant, headless Gretel. At other times, cornered in a crumbling dungeon and draped in a white shirt, the childlike doll seems abused and vulnerable. Often, it seems, she’s slipped on the stairs; there’s a pair of buttocks where her breasts should be, and one of her legs has been amputated. Sometimes she dissolves into mere fragments of girlhood—a round belly, frilly knickers, a floating eye, and a bow pinned to long, blond tresses. Her accoutrements lend her the aura of youth, but (ungainly adolescent) she’s fully developed, and her tumescent tummy seems pregnant. Bellmer hand-tinted certain prints like Victorian postcards, in pale pinks and blues, with unexpected flashes of red, colors that reinforce a sense of violated girlhood.
In this Bellmer retrospective at ICP and its accompanying catalog, curator Therese Lichtenstein has assembled a rich context of popular culture for his photographs, including 19th-century French pornography, 1920s German sexology, Weimar movie stills, and Nazi publications. But its effects are sometimes unintended. “How cute!” a trio of blond teenagers trilled last week before a Nazi propaganda picture of towheaded twin little girls, kissing. And “Eeeeew!” they exclaimed, pointing to a photograph of Bellmer’s doll, the mutilated victim of some hideous accident.
For others, though, Bellmer is a saint of irreducible perversity. Unlike his friend John Heartfield, who used the formal language of Nazi propaganda against itself in bitingly political collages, Bellmer’s main weapon of resistance was his utter frivolity. The control that Hitler exercised over the social body, he performed upon a puppet for an audience of one. As the German army, like a well-oiled machine, marched in vast public spectacles, he indulged his private fantasies of a mechanized eroticism. In a culture that idolized health and women’s procreative function, he erected tender and violent altars to useless depravity.
After his wife’s death in 1938, Bellmer moved to France, where he remained until his own death in 1972. The exhibition explores his fertile exchanges with the surrealists, who adopted him as one of their own, though its rather weak selection of surrealist photography curiously omits Pierre Molinier, the elderly transvestite and auto-erotic hedonist with whom Bellmer shared close affinities. It also includes only one of Bellmer’s late photographs of Zürn, whose seemingly headless body, tied up like a sausage, disturbs as viscerally as the doll did.
Bellmer’s doll still casts her shadow over Cindy Sherman’s hermaphroditic grotesqueries, Robert Gober’s hairy wax legs, Kim Dingle’s naughty little girls, and Tony Oursler’s video puppets, among many others. But these artists celebrate the neuroses in a world where dime-store analysts proliferate. The fraught atmosphere in which the doll performed her diabolical magic invests Bellmer’s images with a desperate love and talismanic loneliness. In a back corner at ICP, behind a thin curtain, lies a curiously forlorn little figure. The doll’s half-assembled parts seem strangely inert beside Bellmer’s vividly animated photographs. They still await their maker’s hand and eye to inspire them with life.