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Artists Hans Bellmer

Hans Bellmer

German Artist, Sculptor and Photographer

Movements: Dada, Surrealism, Modern Photography

Born: March 13, 1902 - Katowice, German Empire (now Poland)

Died: February 24, 1975 - Paris, France

Quotes

"If the origin of my work is scandalous, it is because, for me, the world is a scandal."
Hans Bellmer
"It was worth all my obsessive efforts when, amid the smell of glue and wet plaster, the essence of all that is impressive would take shape and become a real object to be possessed."
Hans Bellmer
"I tried to rearrange the sexual elements of a girl's body like a sort of plastic anagram."
Hans Bellmer
"Do pretty things while simultaneously scattering the salt of deformation with a hint of vengeance."
Hans Bellmer
"One must not stop short of the interior, of stripping away coy girlish thoughts so that their foundations become visible?"
Hans Bellmer
"A man in love with a woman and himself ... is in a peculiar hermaphroditic interconnection between the male and female principles in which the female predominates."
Hans Bellmer
"A totally new unity of form, meaning and feeling: language-images that cannot simply be thought up or written up ... They constitute new, multifaceted objects, resembling polyplanes made of mirrors."
Hans Bellmer
"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."
Hans Bellmer
"And didn't the doll, which lived solely through the thoughts projected onto it, and which despite its unlimited pliancy could be maddeningly stand-offish, didn't the very creation of its dollishness contain the desire and intensity sought in it by the imagination?"
Hans Bellmer
"An orgy of fantasies, projections, substitutions, displacements, even hallucinations."
Alain Jouffroy

"The body resembles a sentence that seems to invite us to dismantle it into its component letters, so that its true meanings may be revealed ever anew through an endless stream of anagrams."

Synopsis

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.

Key Ideas

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.
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Most Important Art

Die Puppe (The Doll) (1934)
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.
Gelatin silver print - Museo Reina Sofia, Spain
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Biography

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.

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Early Period

Hans Bellmer Biography

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.

Mature Period

Hans Bellmer Photo

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.

Late Period

Hans Bellmer Portrait

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.

Legacy

Hans Bellmer Portrait

Bellmer remains one of the most influential and notorious artists of the twentieth 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.


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Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Hans Bellmer
Interactive chart with Hans Bellmer's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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Artists

Marquis de Sade
George Grosz
Oskar Kokoschka
Man Ray
Hannah Höch

Friends

André Breton
Unica Zurn
George Batailles

Movements

Dada
Surrealism
Hans Bellmer
Hans Bellmer
Years Worked: 1933 - 1975

Artists

Cindy Sherman
Jake and Dinos Chapman
Paul Wunderlich

Friends

Max Ernst

Movements

Surrealism
Contemporary Art

Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

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Useful Resources on Hans Bellmer

Books
Websites
Articles
Videos
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
biography
Death, Desire and the Doll, the Life and Art of Hans Bellmer

By Peter Webb and Robert Short

Hans Bellmer: The Anatomy of Anxiety

By Sue Taylor

Death, Desire and the Doll: The Life and Art of Hans Bellmer

By Peter Webb

Behind Closed Doors: The Art of Hans Bellmer

By Therese Lichtenstein

Hans Bellmer

Art Institute of Chicago

Hans Bellmer - Erotic Art

Erotic Art

Hans Bellmer: The Wandering Libido and the Hysterical Body

By Sue Taylor
Art Institute of Chicago
Retrieved 19 January 2016

Guys and Dolls - "Silent Partners" Exhibition, Fitzwilliam Museum

By 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 Essays

By Charles Baudelaire
Essay on Toys

Dada
Dada
Dada
Dada was an artistic and literary movement that emerged in 1916. It arose in reaction to World War I, and the nationalism and rationalism that many thought had led to the War. Influenced by several avant-gardes - Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, and Expressionism - its output was wildly diverse, ranging from performance art to poetry, photography, sculpture, painting and collage. Emerging first in Zurich, it spread to cities including Berlin, Hanover, Paris, New York and Cologne.
ArtStory: Dada
Surrealism
Surrealism
Surrealism
Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
ArtStory: Surrealism
Modern Photography
Modern Photography
Modern Photography
Modern photography refers to a range of different approaches. Some, associated with 'Straight Photography,' celebrate clarity and documentary truthfulness. Others, associated with 'New Vision' photography, are often characterized by unusual perspectives, novel print techniques, and abstraction.
Modern Photography
Marquis de Sade
Marquis de Sade
Marquis de Sade
Donatien Alphonse Francois, Marquis de Sade was a revolutionary French politician and aristocrat, most famous for his libertine sexuality and philosophical pornographic discourse.
Marquis de Sade
George Grosz
George Grosz
George Grosz
George Grosz was a German Dada and Neue Sachlichkeit artist. He was enamored of America and highly critical of Weimar society. Grosz immigrated to the United States just as Hitler came to power and opened a private art school in Des Moines.
ArtStory: George Grosz
Oskar Kokoschka
Oskar Kokoschka
Oskar Kokoschka
Oskar Kokoschka was an Austrian Expressionist painter, poet and playwright. His work is intertwined with the stormy and dramatic life of affairs, fleeing the Nazis and eventually settling in Switzerland as a master of German Expressionism.
Oskar Kokoschka
Man Ray
Man Ray
Man Ray
Man Ray was an American artist in Paris whose photograms, objects, drawings, and other works played an important role in Dada, Surrealism, modern photography, and avant-garde art at large.
ArtStory: Man Ray
Hannah Höch
Hannah Höch
Hannah Höch
Hannah Hoch was a German-born Dada artist. She and Raoul Hausmann were among the first artists to work in photomontage. Hoch is most famous for her works dating from the Weimar years, most notably 1919's 'Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany,' which critiqued Weimar Germany.
ArtStory: Hannah Höch
André Breton
André Breton
André Breton
André Breton, author of the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, was an influential theorizer of both Dada and Surrealism. Born in France, he emigrated to New York during World War II, where he greatly influenced the Abstract Expressionists.
ArtStory: André Breton
Unica Zurn
Unica Zurn
Unica Zurn
Unica Zürn was a twentieth-century German author and painter, one of the few female Surrealist artists, and a compatriot of such artists as Man Ray, Max Ernst, and in particular Hans Bellmer, whom she collaborated with on a number of projects. Zurn's avant-garde work with anagram poetry, automatic drawing and photomontage all represent important Surrealist works.
Unica Zurn
George Batailles
George Batailles
George Batailles
George Batailles was a French intellectual, famous for works in literature and philosophy, and even in economics, sociology, and anthropology. His creative essays explored eroticism, surrealism and transgression.
George Batailles
Cindy Sherman
Cindy Sherman
Cindy Sherman
Cindy Sherman is an American photographer and film director, best known for her conceptual portraits. Sherman has raised challenging and important questions about the role and representation of women in society, the media and the nature of the creation of art.
ArtStory: Cindy Sherman
Jake and Dinos Chapman
Jake and Dinos Chapman
Jake and Dinos Chapman
The Chapman Brothers spark discussion through the creation of mannequins that are often anatomically and pornographically grotesque. English visual artist who try to shock the public with their works. They horrified many in the art world by buying and defacing valuable prints by Francisco Goya.
Jake and Dinos Chapman
Paul Wunderlich
Paul Wunderlich
Paul Wunderlich
Paul Wunderlich was a German artist, working in paints, sculpture, and graphic design. His most famous works reference mythological scenes in surrealist, and erotic depictions.
Paul Wunderlich
Max Ernst
Max Ernst
Max Ernst
Max Ernst was a German Dadaist and Surrealist whose paintings and collages combine dream-like realism, automatic techniques, and eerie subject matter.
ArtStory: Max Ernst
Contemporary Art
Contemporary Art
Contemporary Art
Contemporary art is a general term that typically refers to any art produced in the present day, but also arguably to art produced since the end of World War II, beginning with Abstract Expressionism. Contemporary art may also refer to the broad canon of "postmodern" artists who came to prominence with such art movements as Pop, Neo-Dada, Land art and Performance art, among many other disciplines that in one form or another abandoned the traditional practices of the single artist in the studio space.
Contemporary Art
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