BY Michael Duncan in Reviews | 05 JUN 93
Featured in
Issue 11

Hans Bellmer

BY Michael Duncan in Reviews | 05 JUN 93

With their blatant fetishism, tentative approach to materials, and polymorphously perverse sexuality, the work of surrealist Hans Bellmer (1902-1975) couldn't look more contemporary. Surrealism is the secret source behind so much neo-conceptual and body orientated work today, from Kiki Smith to Mike Kelley. Bellmer's large constructed doll - his inspiration, soulmate and model - is perhaps the ideal surrealist object, a symbol of childhood, femininity, sexual fantasy, and political victimisation, whose slippery moods and poses speak in a variety of psychologically compelling ways. A Hans Bellmer Miscellany presented drawings, etchings, sculpture and the full set of classic photos from Les Jeux de la Poupée, the book of poems by Paul Eluard written in 1939 to accompany Bellmer's stunning staged settings for his doll.

Inspired by the mechanical doll in E.T.A. Hoffman's tale The Sandman, Bellmer's first version of the doll was constructed from papier mâché and wood, designed with a series of panoramas to be viewed in the doll's stomach which were activated by a button on her nipple. When this proved too cumbersome, a new version was constructed in 1935 with moveable ball-joints, and an extra torso and pair of arms and legs which could be joined and varied with their double bodyparts. Juxtaposing body and machine, the natural and the artificial, the doll fulfilled Bellmer's desire to turn the body inside out, to re-order it in the same way an anagram mixes-up a word's letters to discover new coded patterns. In all of Bellmer's work, the repetition and scrambling of body parts is intended to show how the obsessive nature of desire transforms perception of the beloved's body, endlessly replicating it for its own pleasure.

For Bellmer, the doll represented a complex nexus of desires: as a throwback to the fantasy life of his childhood, as a way to shock his bourgeois Nazi father, as a cathartic surrogate for his desire for young girls, and as an expression of his love for his ailing wife, Margarete. The 15 photographs in Les Jeux de la Poupée present the doll in odd arrangements, both indoors and in startling outdoor settings: in the branches of a tree and stretched along a crucifix-like trunk. In one of them a shadowy man in an overcoat (Bellmer's brother) hides behind a tree in a grove, voyeuristically spying on the double-legged, armless doll, who nonchalantly stands disrobed in two pairs of her trademark stockings and schoolgirl Mary-Jane's. The photo's hand-tinting in artificial colours - here a lurid orange and fetid yellow - is in the style of the turn-of-the-century prurient novelty postcards which Bellmer collected and used as models for some of his later, even more sexually graphic work. Indicative of the protective nature of Bellmer's admirers, the Eluard poems stress the photos' universal, rather than fetishistic, associations. The fear has been that the work be 'misinterpreted' as prurience or pornography, words that have lost their meaning in the world of Mapplethorpe, Jeff Koons and Annie Sprinkle. Similarly, any simplistic feminist reading of this work is negated by its fragility - it's sense of loss, trauma, and tenderness that is far from exploitative. Unlike the worship of the female, common to other surrealists like Dali and Breton, Bellmer's ego-free adoration of his doll is immediate and genuine.

The show also included a copy of Bellmer's other important book work, illustrations for Georges Hugnet's paean to young girls, Oeillades Ciselées en Branches (1939). Here Bellmer reworked earlier ideas, casting strange amalgamations of sexual parts and truanted bodies in these small delicately coloured drawings. Bellmer believed in an androgynous melding of the sexes, the intimate depiction of the female leading him to an extraordinary identification with his object of desire. The result of this is the wild orgies of juxtaposed vaginas and penises in his later drawings and etchings. The drawings in this show included several Articulated Hands (1950-52), whose sci-fi, elongated joints are like exploratory, knobby, penile growths. Bellmer's painted bronze The Top (1938-68) is a tornado-shaped pile of pink tits, inspired by the many breasted Diana of Ephasus, which is a fascinatingly lurid precursor to sculptural work by Louise Bourgeois.

The gallery also presented a room dedicated to the 'legacy' of Bellmer with a small selection of doll inspired works. One of Cindy Sherman's remarkable prosthetic doll pieces indeed approached the bald directness of Bellmer's work. Other works by Bruce Nauman, Francis Bacon, and Frederick Sommer played off Bellmer's work in odd but potent ways. So many artists have used dolls and mannequins in their work, it is easy to put together other, alternative Bellmer legacies. It is even more interesting to contemplate the careers of successful contemporary artists clearly influenced by Bellmer but whose work patently doesn't measure up to his. An artist like Robert Gober, for example, uses similar ideas - notions about fragmentation and physical alienation - yet holds back so much of himself that the work seems all stylish poses. With nothing really personal at risk, his surrogate body parts lack sexual conviction. Similarly lacking in impact is the work of Matthew Barney, who has, in a sense, become his own doll through video impersonations fuelled by sexual fantasies about football players and satyrs. Barney's seemingly sexual confessions are pushed to the limit, yet their distanced deconstruction eviscerates their intended gutsiness. Only rarely does art achieve the eerie strangeness of Bellmer's work. Confession and exploitation are not enough. Bellmer explores the notion of perversity inherent in sexuality; he believed in sexual liberation, regardless of its price. For him, it was a lifetime commitment and it wasn't a pretty life.