BY Sally O’Reilly in Reviews | 01 NOV 06
Featured in
Issue 103

Hans Bellmer and Pierre Klossowski

BY Sally O’Reilly in Reviews | 01 NOV 06

The net of history appears to have closed around Hans Bellmer and Pierre Klossowski, lumping them together as ‘sensualists’, as it might be put in polite circles. Tangential and direct connections can be traced throughout their work and lives: both were associated with the Surrealists and the movement’s tactics of transgression; they also shared an obsession with erotica, especially the writings of the Marquis de Sade, and a preoccupation with Freudian psychoanalysis, seeing these discourses as modes of retaliation against Fascism. Odder, more direct connections can be dredged from their biographies too: for instance, Bellmer began exploring his obsession with dolls after a recommendation by doll-maker Lotte Pritzel to read Rainer Maria Rilke’s essay Puppen (Dolls, 1914); Rilke, meanwhile, was having an affair with Klossowski’s mother and apparently had some influence on his education too.

Yet there are indelible differences that indicate a wider taxonomy of the erotic imagination. Downstairs at the Whitechapel the Klossowski hang is bold and the imagery strident. Large drawings from the 1970s, both in colour and black and white, depict effeminate youths being pawed by cowled, hook-nosed men, or a primly detached woman in varying stages of anticipation and penetration – here in an embrace with a stag, there thrown down onto a bizarrely small bed by a hairy man. Klossowski’s figures are over-emphatically concrete, as if made of butter or some other substance parading as a solid, and recall the sturdiness of the girls painted by his younger brother Balthus. Characters and situations seem to be drawn from an eidetic memory using a lazy eye – a cock, for instance, appears to grow from a thigh, imposing an uneasy posture and improbable pleasure. Klossowski was primarily a writer and translator, and these paintings feel like descriptions rather than evocations of sensuousness. Three sculptures, literally three-dimensional renderings in wood of groups of figures from his paintings, demonstrate his formal boldness – not without its theoretical complexity but aesthetically in enormous contrast to Bellmer’s filigree fantasies upstairs. Klossowski’s motifs tend to be mythic and timeless – an eagle, a mountain and diminutive imps – with a sousing of religious iconography, while Bellmer’s Surrealism bears more familiar psychoanalytical motifs rather than theological or atavistic ones.

The museological arrangement of Bellmer’s work undercuts Klossowski’s muscular display. The intensity of works on paper, book illustrations, tinted photographs, collages and scandalous dolls hints at an obsession that is more like the febrile scratching of some insidious itch than the flat-handed slap of Klossowski. The surgical precision of Bellmer’s pencil or pen-and-ink lines, carving up bodies into striations, falsifying contours and puncturing and binding the female form, is quite terrifying. Surrealist conflagrations and baroque accumulations of vulvas, eyes, feet and phalluses speak of desire and horror more viral or chemical than Klossowski’s mechanics. Photographs of Bellmer’s lover bound up with string, forcing uncanny, luxuriant folds of flesh, invite the real world in yet threaten to topple it into the
phantasmagoric deformations of his dolls, the over-articulated monsters that infamously spawned Jake and Dinos Chapman’s genital-rich mannequins. Here a ball-joint above a pelvis lends a double axis of symmetry to four legs – two up, two down – while breasts are disembodied like gauged eyes. Bellmer thought of human anatomy as an anagram, with infinite permutations that could elicit endless meanings and desires. His profligate output bears out this corporeal-linguistic theory, and it is tempting to consider his eventual death, from prolonged drug use, as evidence of its rigorous self-application.

But it is difficult to know how to reappraise this work now, when erotica are so often eclipsed by accusations of perversion or co-opted by the entertainment and marketing industries. After a brief sojourn in the open air of late 20th-century liberalism, pornography has passed under the shadow of paedophilia, and Sigmund Freud has drifted into literary history, usurped by genetic theories of the body and behaviour. It is difficult, then, not to view Bellmer’s dolls as antiquated embodiments of fetishism or Klossowski’s pageantry of lust as the illustration of ancient Oedipal urges. The Whitechapel goes some way to addressing the more convoluted pathology of desire in its display of artefacts and ephemera, ‘The Vicious Circle’. Pamphlets, drawings,
photography, documentation of performances and film stills by Klossowski, Bellmer and other followers of De Sade, including André Masson, Jean-Jacques Lebel, Gilles Deleuze and Meret Oppenheim, intimate the perceived revolutionary potential of the erotic against the church, the family and the state, so that very briefly a crack in history opens up onto a rich illogical and poetic dialogue.