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Criticism of Society Hans Beller's Dolls Disobedient Body Renaissance Anatomy Hans Bellmer

If you struggled to read the above title, it's okay; you're experiencing the typographic equivalent of Bellmer's doll bodies, which are somatically and sexually illegible. Whereas Claude Cahun blurred sexuality with her androgyny, Bellmer simply preferred to scribble all over it. In his own words he described "The Body (as) comparable to a sentence that invites us to disarticulate it, so that, through a series of endless anagrams, its true contents may be recomposed."

Oh, and the above title is borrowed from Therese Lichtenstein's book Behind Closed Doors: The Art of Hans Bellmer. It reads: Anagrams of Anatomy.

Bellmer may have called his doll bodies anagrammic, but to many they are viewed as pornographic. Sexist, Pedophilic or just plain Savage are also words that have haunted Bellmer's doll work. Or maybe it is better stated as having haunted the viewers of Bellmer's dolls. It's difficult to not be even just a little disturbed by his dolls. They are, after all, adolescent in age and therefore erotically impermissible. But they are also somatically impossible; placing us into a fuzzy area of seeing things we shouldn't see and can't see. The sexual body is liberated and repressed within the imagination of the viewer, who can neither entertain nor escape the thoughts elicited by these deviant dolls.

With Bellmer the body is personal and political.
Charges of pedophilia and pornography are
simplified derogations of Bellmer's dolls which
are, because they are adolescent, disobedient.
This is only a slightly stretched perspective
since, after all, his work was just as likely to
have been a swift political reaction to the rise
of Nazi Germany as it was a solemn personal
reaction to the obeisance imposed by his
tyrannical father. The fear elicited by the
enormous presence and demands
of his father, ensured that illicit
thoughts by young Hans Bellmer
remained secrets of his imagination.
Such childhood secrets later emerged from the dark corners of
his memory, taking the form of pubescent dolls. The clash of violence
and virginity that is found in his decomposed, deconstructed and reconstructed doll poses
are incriminating of a frustrated youth. Incriminating is the ideal word here, since Hans
described himself as "The craftsman who was made into a criminal."
A criminal with an accomplice. Several of them.

The French Surrealists embraced Bellmer's work with a genuine enthusiasm that would encourage him to expand on what he had accomplished with "Die Puppe", his first Doll. Though Bellmer found validation from the surrealists, his ideas for sex-dolls did not find its roots in the movement. Inspiration instead came from the economical and elegant line quality of Dadaist George Grosz. Bellmer mixed linear minimalism with disturbing maximalism to create a sexually confusing body of illustrations. If this was erotic art, what are we to feel of a drawing of a girl, fully nude, tearing open her skin to reveal her intestines?

Critics of "Rose Ouverte la Nuit" (far right) should be reminded of Renaissance anatomy illustrations (left) where "living" subjects also demonstrate their anatomy. Both are a far cry from modern generic nude medical illustrations. Intent, of course, plays a strong role and Bellmer intended for his work to be all together erotic, violent, forbidden and forgiving. Like the Renaissance medical drawings, Bellmer's work was to demonstrate, not surrealism, but hyper-reality.

“the body’s underlying awareness of itself.”

“...anatomical possibilities.”

“the world is a Scandal.”

Hans Bellmer

While Bellmer's illustration quality took its cue from George Grosz, Bellmer's life-size dolls that evolved from his drawings had multiple sources of inspiration. The initial spark came from a story told by wax doll maker, Lotte Pritzel. She told Hans about the painter Oskar Kokoschka, who asked her to build a life size doll that would function as a surrogate for female companionship. This story validated Bellmer's own fantasies for a sex object that would channel both present desires and past memories. Kokoschka's request foreshadowed the opera "The Tales of Hoffmann" where a man unwittingly falls in love with a lifeless doll. Kokoschka's story and the opera were the deciding factors for Hans, whom, as of 1933, began to design erotic, "artificial girls with anatomical possibilities."

These words bring to mind pornographic paraphernalia for sexual experimentation. However, while pornography is hedonistic, Bellmer's dolls have a closer relationship with narcissism; going beyond a blind appetite for sex into sexual self-awareness. Bellmer termed this second skin the "Physical Unconscious," further defining it as "the body's underlying awareness of itself." There is more humanity in his work than we initially expected; especially when we concede that "humanity" is defined not only by our civility, but also by our need for cruelty. Censorship is merely our way of reconciling the two. Similar to Jenny Holzer's "Lustmord", a German word loosely translated to mean "Sex-Murder;" Bellmer's dolls speak of lust, surrender and aggression. As one French critic described, "(Han's doll) looks like a police document after the discovery of a dismembered trunk victim."

No doubt Bellmer would have appreciated seeing his work understood outside of the geographic range of the Surrealist Movement. The quixotic "possibilities" of anatomy explored by Hans Bellmer may have grabbed the attention of the Surrealist movement, but this didn't qualify him as a surrealist. The dolls are simply too real. They embody the private desires of the male and make them public. There is nothing surreal nor mythic about the instinctive and often aggressive desires of the body; especially the male body. This may very well be why Bellmer's work struggles to find mainstream acceptance: he has taken the scandal of illicit desires and entombed them in bodies that no nothing of repression or secrets. As Bellmer himself insisted: "If my work is scandalous, it is because the world is a scandal."