PRINT March 1991


. . . In the so-called earliest childhood memories we possess not the genuine memory-trace but a later revision of it, a revision which may have been subjected to the influence of a variety of later psychological forces. Thus the “childhood memories” of individuals come in general to acquire the significance of “screen memories”and in doing so offer a remarkable analogy with the childhood memories that a nation preserves in its store of legends and myths.

—Sigmund Freud, “Childhood Memories and Screen Memories,” 1901

A POLYPHONY OF VOICES RISES up from every new history of the past. Who is speaking? What is being spoken? Who is listening, and from what vantage? How do we reconstruct public, personal, or invisible histories? Resurrections and reconstructions of the past are a culture industry all to themselves, and they are matched by a diffuse reactionary nostalgia for the past that often threatens to deafen us to the present. At their worst, historical reconstructions feed the repressive power structures of what Nietzsche termed “monumental” history (where “great” events are lifted out of context and made heroic), or of “antiquarian” history, a history preserved, venerated, and static. At their best, on the other hand, they are engaged in a necessary “critical” attempt to understand both past and present.1

Among the last decade’s proliferation of excavations of history, a striking proportion dealt with one of its most horrific episodes, Nazi Germany’s 12-year Reich, which became the subject of books, documentary and art films, television programs, and exhibitions. One such event is running currently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—“Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany,” a reconstruction of the infamous “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate art) show staged by the Nazis in Munich and elsewhere in 1937. Just a couple of months before the opening of the Los Angeles exhibition, the Isidore Ducasse gallery of New York closed its own show of works with a similar provenance: a collection of pieces by the German Surrealist Hans Bellmer, who was living in Berlin, and was in his early 30s, when Hitler came to power.2 Both exhibitions reveal work ostracized or made marginal by the dominant ideology of their time. But to the extent that the “Entartete Kunst” reconstruction is, in a sense, “curated” to the criteria of the German state in the 1930s, it is a record of public policy and government-approved values as much as of the creativity of that time and place. If the work it contains, like that in the New York exhibition, is an inversion of everything the Nazis desired, the exhibition itself is an illustration of state power, exercised according to principles now utterly discredited. And Bellmer’s art, private, personal, and obscure at the time, in certain ways extends and rebukes the picture provided by “Degenerate Art.” Like the reflections in a perverse mirror, these exhibitions make a sense together that they lose apart.

The “Entartete Kunst” exhibition was initiated when the Goebbels culture ministry empowered Adolf Ziegler, president of the visual-arts chamber (and described by his enemies as the “master of the pubic hair,” on account of his excruciatingly academic nudes), to begin a program of stripping public art collections of Modernist paintings and sculptures made since 1910. Of the 16 thousand works confiscated,650 were shown in “Entartete Kunst.” First in Munich’s Hofgartenarkaden, later in Berlin, Düsseldorf, Hamburg, Leipzig, and other cities, the works were arranged by themes—“An Insult to German womanhood,” for example, or “Madness becomes method.” They were crowded into small, poorly lit rooms, and were hung sometimes without frames, or at strange angles, or were simply set clumsily on the floor. Derogatory labels and wall texts likened them to the art of the insane and of tribal peoples, insulting and damaging comparisons in the context of Nazi Germany. (The 112 artists in question included Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Oskar Kokoschka, Emil Nolde, Paul Klee, and Wassily Kandinsky, to name a few.) The exhibition attracted a record-breaking Munich crowd of over 2,000,000 people between July 19 and November 30, 1937, before traveling on to the other cities on its route.3

Just a day before the opening of “Entartete Kunst” the Nazis opened the “Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung” (Great German art show), in a brand-new nearby exhibition space, the Haus der Deutschen Kunst, designed by Ludwig Troost. This was a collection of government-approved art celebrating the German family, motherhood, youth, and the army; in visual terms it conformed to an amalgam of traditional Western European art styles, particularly a stiff, mechanical, debased classicism. The iconography ranged from Greek myth to Madonna and Child icons, religious triptychs, Bruegel-like peasant genre scenes, and derivations of Northern Renaissance nudes such as Lucas Cranach’s. These comparative exhibitions set up binary oppositions of “healthy” and “degenerate” art, a coupling easily and I believe implicitly extensible to codes of identity and sexuality.4 In categorizing their concepts of the normal and the abnormal, the Nazis were manipulating the myths of identity so as to repress the real complexity of society and culture. In a radical and terrifying way, they were trying to simplify the world.

Hans Bellmer’s work was surely omitted from “Entartete Kunst” only through its lack of visibility in ’30s Germany, where the artist lived in what historians have called “inner-immigration.” (He stayed in Berlin because his wife was ill, and went into exile in Paris shortly after her death, in 1938.) Because of the repression of Modernist art and artists in Nazi Germany, Bellmer worked guardedly in his Berlin apartment. Having given up his advertising practice, he depended on financial aid from his mother. (His father is reputed to have become a staunch Nazi.) He also received help of other kinds from his family: assistance in the construction of his work from his brother, and moral support from his wife. Three events contributed to the conception of Bellmer’s best-known series of works, those involving two large jointed dolls that he made himself: attending Max Reinhardt’s staging of the Offenbach opera The Tales of Hoffmann, Bellmer was struck by the appearance of Dr. Coppelius’ artificial daughter, Olympia, from the “Sandman” tale; he received a box of childhood toys from his mother, reviving many old memories and fantasies; and his adolescent cousin, Ursula, with whom he developed an erotic obsession, came with her family to live in a neighboring apartment in his building. In addition, it is surely no coincidence that both the birth of Bellmer’s dolls and Hitler’s rise to power occurred in the same year, 1933.

The first doll, the size of an adolescent girl, was a metal-and-wood armature covered in part with flax fiber and with a plaster shell, and held together by wooden ball-joints. Its limbs, head, and breasts could be moved into a variety of configurations. Though Bellmer seems to have been quite obsessed by the doll, his artwork was not so much the object itself as the photographs he took of it in a series of erotic tableaux, both in domestic interiors and outdoors, and in a sharp chiaroscuro light that shares the mood of macabre melodrama in much German Expressionist film. The doll is seen on a staircase, on an unmade bed, in an attic or a kitchen, leaning against a tree in a seductive pose out of a fashion magazine, or placed as if crucified. It is often naked but for a few accoutrements such as patent-leather shoes, or an exaggeratedly large bow in one of its several different-colored wigs. In many of the poses the doll seems the victim of a sexual attack or other physical abuse; the empathetic spectator is both attracted and repelled. Often Bellmer would hand-tint the photographs in manneristic theatrical tones that reinforce their sinister artifice. Femininity is flaunted as a kind of masquerade, complicating the traditional viewing paradigms of fetishism and voyeurism.5

In 1934, Bellmer published Die Puppe (The doll), a book of ten of these photographs accompanied by his introductory text “Erinnerungen zum Thema Puppe” (Memories of the doll theme). That same year Ursula, who had left to study at the Sorbonne, brought Bellmer’s photographs to the attention of André Breton. In December 1934,18 images were reproduced in the Surrealist periodical Minotaure in a two-page spread entitled “Poupée: Variations sur le montage d’une mineure articulée” (Doll: variations on the assemblage of an articulated minor). From then on, Bellmer enjoyed far more of a following in Paris than in his own city of Berlin, where he deliberately kept a low profile.

Bellmer’s second doll, constructed in 1935–36, had a smoother, more artificial-looking skin than the first, and its limbs, articulated around a central ball-joint, could be detached and reattached in a variety of non-mimetic formations that Bellmer described as “anagrams” of the body.6 One definition of the anagram, according to Webster’s Third, is “to rearrange (the letters of a text) in order to discover a hidden message,” a meaning consonant with Bellmer’s idea of the doll’s various positions as representations of the “physical unconscious.” Many of these arrangements are composed of doubled body halves—a torso with legs at both ends, say, instead of a head and arms—in which one half seems out of control, struggling to break the bonds of bodily containment. The body appears as a site of disharmony and frustration, a prison house of tangled desire locked into an uncomfortable autoeroticism. In one 1935–36 photograph a four-legged doll lies on the floor with her legs kicking in different directions. Gravity pins her body to the ground; she is fighting an external pressure, then, but the struggle seems an internal one as well. It is as though some early trauma were being reenacted across the surface of the body, as in cases of classic hysteria.

Bellmer compulsively repeated variations on the theme of the doll throughout his life, and the melancholy, morbid, and morose mood of the photographs reappears in his many paintings, drawings, and collages. Eroticism is an obsession. In some images, for example, male body parts are either contained inside the female body or emerge out of it. In a number of drawings the body of a young girl produces a penis or many penises, or a man’s head inhabits a woman’s body. In the oil painting Céphalopode à deux (Autoportrait avec Unica Zürn) (Double cephalopod [self-portrait with Unica Zürn], 1955), Bellmer’s disembodied head lies inside the buttocks and uterus of his lover. Delicate lace collaged to the canvas covers part of Zürn’s legs and head, and real pearls hang from her garment and form one of her nipples. Bellmer’s face is textured and wrinkled by the folds of a fabric applied to the canvas, as if an adult-as-embryo were hiding in his lover’s womb and peering guardedly through the protective transparency of her skin. But the image also suggests Bellmer’s desire to control Zürn from inside her body. His expression is tense and suspicious, while Unica seems self-involved and distracted.

Art historians generally relate Bellmer’s work to Surrealism, but important as his links with that movement are, they tend to obscure his critical relationship to the Nazi regime. Part of his motivation for giving up his advertising studio was his refusal to do any work that might contribute to the culture of the new totalitarian state. The creation of the dolls, he said, was “the remedy, the compensation for a certain impossibility of living.”’ And the photographs of the dolls, by inverting Nazi representations of a healthy, untroubled youth dedicated to the nation and the family, intervened symbolically with that state’s attempts to construct identity.

An important element of Bellmer’s art is his nostalgia for his adolescence, which he remembered as quite against the grain of the Nazi idea of youth—an idea itself a nostalgic construct that influenced Bellmer in the sense that he reacted strongly against it. What is nostalgia? A longing for a time, place, person, or object that was once familiar and is no longer as meaningful or “present” as it was. Nostalgia is a pause in one’s immediate life in favor of a memory of the past. To the extent that it includes a recognition of the passage of time, and therefore of one’s mortality, it suggests a desire to halt one’s inexorable advance toward death. It is a suspended space, then, a limbo in the present, caught between the desire to return to the past and the knowledge that it is impossible to do so. Yet this yearning and sense of loss are bittersweet, almost pleasurable. Irretrievably lost, the experience remembered becomes unique and precious. And for all the morbidity of nostalgia, the dreamer also has some sense of control: one produces a series of fantasies to suit one’s needs. Yet the dreamer, as in an actual dream, is at the same time passive in the movielike flow of images through the mind. The past is reconstituted as an edited replay offering a purely temporary sense of relief and security, and suppressing one’s unease about the present and the future. Nostalgia may summon a memory of the past as it once actually existed, but may alter the feelings associated with that memory, or may alter the memory itself.

Reactionary nostalgia, like that found in the ’30s and ’40s in Germany, creates cultural identity by mystifying past and present. By looking back uncritically to Greek, medieval, and Renaissance cultures, the Nazis established an illusion of unbroken historical continuity, masking the living contradictions of their present and providing a pedigree for their myths of racial identity and superiority. This was what Jean Baudrillard calls “an evil appearance,” one that “masks and perverts a basic reality. . . .” “When the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning. There is a proliferation of myths of origin and signs of reality; of second-hand truth, objectivity and authenticity. There is an escalation of the true, of the lived experience; a resurrection of the figurative where the object and substance have disappeared.”8

Yet Fredric Jameson has proposed another theoretical model: “If nostalgia as a political motivation is most frequently associated with Fascism, there is no reason why a nostalgia conscious of itself, a lucid and remorseless dissatisfaction with the present on the grounds of some remembered plentitude, cannot furnish as adequate a revolutionary stimulus as any other: the example of [Walter] Benjamin is there to prove it.”9 Nostalgia as a “revolutionary stimulus” must be understood in terms not of a regressive return to the past but of a critical recognition that the past can never be retrieved as an autonomous whole, can never substitute for the present—but can illuminate it. Nostalgia of this kind becomes a working through of what is repressed and a transformation of consciousness and identity.

Given Bellmer’s deep alienation from his political, social, and cultural surroundings in Nazi Germany, it is not surprising that his work should be filled with a sense of nostalgic loss. In his introduction to Die Puppe, Bellmer writes, “I can be believed when I say that the gutter under my window will no longer become the Mississippi, that the junk in my old drawer and the stains on the wall-paper are only ironic memories of the excess of energies past. With my inactivity the vague fear set in that this pink region [of childhood memories] was forever beyond me.”10 But what kind of nostalgia does he produce? The photographs of the first doll, often shrouded in gauzy veils and seen against delicate lace, are ritualistic images of death and burial. Yet these dolls appear uncannily animated—far more so than the healthy and vigorous women and men in Nazi-approved art. Although Bellmer’s works are mediated by memories of childhood, the past they recapture is not idealized but ruined. They represent not childhood as a paradise lost but adolescence as a paradise never obtained, and as a time of sorrow and struggle.

It is important to remember the context for Bellmer’s work in the ideological use of adolescence by the Nazis—the images of a strong, hopeful adolescence that were crucial to their attempt to shape identity. Adolescence for the Nazis was not a time of rebellion against authority, or a system of oppositional values, as it had been for many of the earlier youth movements of Weimar Germany and before. The Nazis appropriated the structure of such youth movements to uphold the values of the family and the army. The healthy youth was idealized as the continuation of the Aryan race, and was represented ad nauseam in Nazi art and in the media. At the same time, unhealthy or disabled bodies became the subject of strident taboos. This was part of the function of the “Entartete Kunst” exhibition, now reconsidered in Los Angeles, and of the “Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung”: the separation of “dirty” from “clean” images of the body, and the assignation of negative and positive values on respective sides of the divide.

Thus Bellmer’s morbid images of adolescence became signs (albeit publicly invisible ones) of transgression. His dolls represent the female body in revolt against stereotypes of normalcy, and suggest a violence permeated by passion and broken taboos. In various states of ruin, the dolls are paradoxically in a constant state of transformation: Bellmer writes, “As in a dream, the body can change the centre of gravity of its image. Inspired by a curious spirit of contradiction, it can add to one what it has taken from another: for instance, it can place the leg on top of the arm, the vulva in the armpit, in order to make ‘compressions,’ ‘proofs by analogies,’ ‘ambiguities,’ ‘puns,’ strange anatomical ‘probability calculations.’”11 In Nazi Germany, the dolls, had they been seen, would have been emblems of otherness. Bellmer’s photographs of them acknowledge the yearning to return to the past, but also the impossibility of such a return, and an awareness that the past was already a kind of ruin when it was the present. Placing abuse and deprivation within adolescence—and, disturbingly, allowing for their coexistence with erotic desire—Bellmer’s images subvert Nazi visual and ideological codes of moral purity, and function as metaphors for the physical and psychological violence of fascism: as signs of the return of the repressed.12 They combine a desire to preserve the past and a desire to destroy it. Bellmer’s images symbolically represent the real loss of self-empowerment suffered by modern artists, the insane, socialists, lesbians and gays, all the people who were silenced, brutalized, and murdered under the Nazi regime.

The different kinds of nostalgia engaged by the complex, heterogeneous culture industry of today should not be reduced too easily to clear-cut categories of “reactionary” and “progressive”—the sorts of categories the Nazis exploited in their attempts to manipulate public conceptions of good and bad (“healthy” and “unhealthy”) art. The reconstruction of “Entartete Kunst,” however, is surely a “progressive” event, marking no longing for the past but a critical effort to confront it. An exhibition that was originally a part of a barbarous program of censorship becomes a history lesson illuminating our own time, inviting parallels with our own political conservatism and the beginnings of censorship in the arts. And the issues of nostalgia that Bellmer’s work raises, as well as its concern with masquerade and with sexuality and gender, are pertinent for an examination of our cultural and personal identity.13 There is an eerie sense of connection here. We are reminded that history can repeat itself, not necessarily the second time as farce, but both times as tragedy.

Therese Lichtenstein is a writer who lives in New York. She is currently a visiting lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge.

1. For a discussion of Nietzsche’s three modes of constructing history, see Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, trans. Peter Preuss, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1980.

2. The LACMA exhibition, which had not opened as I was working on this article, runs from 17 February through 12 May. It will travel to the Art Institute of Chicago, where it can be seen from 22 June through 8 September. The exhibition reconstructs seven of the ten original rooms of the “Entartete Kunst” exhibition, and also focuses on music, film, and literature confiscated and banned by the Nazis. A fully illustrated catalogue accompanies the show, with an introduction and essay by the curator, Stephanie Barron, and essays by American and German scholars. The Hans Bellmer exhibition, organized by Fern Malkine for the Isidore Ducasse gallery, New York, was on view from May until 21 December 1990. It was accompanied by an illustrated catalogue.

3. For a discussion of the “Entartete Kunst” exhibition see, for instance, Georg Bussmann, “’Degenerate’ Art —A Look at a Useful Myth,” in German Art in the 20th Century: Painting and Sculpture 1905–1985, exhibition catalogue, London: Royal Academy of Art, and Munich: Prestel Verlag, 1985, pp. 113–24; and Mario-Andreas von Lüttichau, “Entartete Kunst, Munich 1937: A Reconstruction,” in “Degenerate Art”: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany, exhibition catalogue, Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1991, pp. 45–81.

4. The word entartete, usually translated as “degenerate,” is actually a biological term referring to the drastic mutation of a plant or animal that has become unrecognizable as part of its species. The Nazis applied it not only to Modernist art but to Jews, socialists, gays and lesbians, tribal cultures, and the insane— to anyone who appeared to threaten and “pollute” the Aryan body politic of the Nazi state. For a discussion of the word, see Bennie Priddy, “The ‘Entartete Kunst’ Exhibition: Nazi Politics and German Art,” a paper presented at the 74th annual meeting of the College Art Association, New York, February 1986. See also Max Nordau, Degeneration, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1895, and B. A. Morel, Traité des Dégénérescences physiques, inrellectuels et morales de l’Espèce humaine et des Causes qui produisent ces Variétés maladives, Paris: J. B. Bailliere, 1857.

5. For a discussion of female and male spectatorship, see Mary Ann Doane, “Film and the Masquerade: Theorising the Female Spectator,” Screen 23 nos. 3–4, Oxford, September–October 1982, pp. 74–88; and Joan Riviere, “Womanliness as a Masquerade,” in Victor Burgin, James Donald, and Cora Kaplan, eds., Formations of Fantasy, London and New York: Methuen, 1986, pp. 35–44.

6. See Hans Bellmer, La Petite Anatomie de l’image, Paris: Eric Losfeld, 1957, pp. 43–44. Quoted in Peter Webb, Hans Bellmer, London and New York: Quartet Books, 1985, p. 172.

7. Bellmer, letter to Jean Brun, 3 April 1946, reprinted and translated in Webb, p. 41.

8. Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Beitchman, New York: Semiotext Inc., 1983, pp. 11–12.

9. Fredric Jameson, “Walter Benjamin; Or, Nostalgia,” Marxism and Form, Princeton: at the University Press, 1971, pp. 60–82.

10. Bellmer, Die Puppe, Karlsruhe: Th. Eckstein, 1934. Reprinted and translated by Peter Chametzky, Susan Felleman, and Jochen Schindler in Sulfur no. 26, Ypsilanti, Spring 1990, pp. 29–33.

11. Bellmer, Les Jeux de la Poupée, Paris: Editions Premieres, 1949. Reprinted and translated in Webb, p. 67.

12. For a discussion of issues of sadomasochism in Bellmer’s work, see my essay “Hans Bellmer’s Doll: Images of Pleasure, Pain, and Perversion,” Sulfur 26, pp. 54–64.

13. For a discussion of the search for cultural identity through exhibitions that reconstruct the historical avant-gardes see Andreas Huyssen, “The Search for Tradition: Avant-garde and postmodernism in the 1970s,” After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1986, pp. 160–177.

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