Hans Bellmer

Artvehicle 1/Review

20th September 2006 — 19th November 2006

This is the first comprehensive UK retrospective of Bellmer’s work and contains 150 photographs, drawings, and objects. At its core lies Bellmer’s doll series. With the rise of the Nazi Party in 1933, Bellmer withdrew from any ‘socially useful activity’ that would contribute to the economy of the fascist state. Instead he created a life-sized female doll of papier-mâché and plaster moulded over a wood and metal skeleton, whose body could be assembled like a machine. Bellmer presented his doll acting out sadomasochistic scenarios in a series of black and white photographs. This work was an attack on the promotion of an idealised Aryan race by the Nazis. In one photograph, the blurred and ghostly figure of Bellmer accompanies the doll, who wears a beret, head coyly turned away, her sock falls down her stick leg like an amputee school girl. This artificial being became a fetish object, a repository for repressed desires. Violence is inherent in these brutally cropped images, she lies with legs spread, silent, abused, pathetic. She is an uncanny creature escaped from a fairytale, an anatomical museum, a nightmare. Naked beneath her coat, with the starved body of a prisoner of war or a trafficked woman, she is palpably vulnerable. Cornered against a wall, she looks over her shoulder, with a sexual invitation, bald head rhyming with naked rear.

The second doll, made in 1935, is a chubby exquisite corpse with swivelling ball joints and two pairs of legs. Her tangled body parts form increasingly abstract assemblages.  In one image the doll lies as if fallen from a great height, a jumble of flesh, limbs at sickening angles. In others, her body is a disturbing mess of scrambled spherical body parts: arm sockets, head, breasts, leg joints, buttocks, eye balls, navel, torso, stomach, knees, anus, exaggerated pudenda. All these punning, interchangeable elements are accessorised with signifiers of childhood; blond curls, a coquettish hair bow, white ankle socks and patent shoes. The black and white images are tinted with sickly yellow and pink flesh tones. Two pairs of conjoined legs, wearing socks and shoes, lean against a tree. The doll collapses seductively at the bottom of a staircase, her leg tied together with string. Bellmer said: ‘If the origin of my work is scandalous, it is because, for me, the world is a scandal.

Declared ‘degenerate’ by the Nazi party, Bellmer left for France in 1938. He met the Surrealists and was interred with Max Ernst during war. In his later career Bellmer produced intricate drawings informed by Freud, Charcot and de Sade, whose flouting of social moral norms and opposition to bourgeois world he admired. In the 1950s he photographed the torso of his partner, artist Unica Zürn bound tightly with string, like a joint of meat, an abstract image of the frailty of human flesh. 30 years after his death, Bellmer remains a marginal figure and his work retains its intensity and power to shock. His influence can be traced in much contemporary work, the Chapman Brothers being the most obvious example. Bellmer’s work is displayed alongside uninteresting drawings by Pierre Klossowski, and works by his Surrealist contemporaries, including Claude Cahun, Brassai, Dora Maar, Leonor Fini, Duchamp and Man Ray. These provide an excellent context for Bellmer’s work as he shared the Surrealists’ obsession with Eros, death, the unconscious and the uncanny.


80-82 Whitechapel High Street
London E1 7QX

Wednesday-Sunday, 11am-6pm

Hans Bellmer — Hans Bellmer La Poupée (The Doll) for maquette for 'Les Jeux de la Poupée'
(The Doll's Games), 1938 Courtesy of Whitechapel Art Gallery

Hans Bellmer La Poupée (The Doll) for maquette for 'Les Jeux de la Poupée' (The Doll's Games), 1938 Courtesy of Whitechapel Art Gallery