New York

Hans Bellmer

Though 63 years have passed since Hans Bellmer created the first of his two disarticulated dolls, or poupées, they remain difficult to describe. “The body,” he wrote, “resembles a sentence which seems to invite us to dismember it into its component letters, so that it will reveal in an endless row of anagrams the reality that it contains.” Photographed in dizzying recombinations and occasionally tinted to heighten an already tense eroticism, the poupées are frozen at a point of intense desire and profound damage—at once fluid and immobile, female and male, suggestive of both disintegration and amorphous growth.

In many of the images, fragments of these doll bodies are arranged on a horizontal surface like the remains of a vicious crime. They are also occasionally shown propped upright or tied to trees, stiffly erect, as though martyred, and in La Poupée, 1938, four wildly foreshortened legs form a twisted crucifix in a hay-strewn attic. Some of these photographs recall the sexual mutilation depicted in certain Weimar-era works by Georg Grosz and Otto Dix, but whereas those images were deliberately chilling and often explicitly violent, Bellmer’s dolls are as unnervingly intimate as they are redolent of death, describing a tenderness that only intensifies with bodily dissolution.

The youthfulness of the poupées—signaled by the hair ribbons, kneesocks, and Mary Janes that also serve to mark the site of transformation as a female body—only renders their violation the more extreme, as Sade, with his predilection for constructing narratives around the abuse of pious young virgins, knew only too well. More pure than prurient, Bellmer admired Sade’s “idea that violence toward the loved one can tell us more about the anatomy of desire than the simple act of love”—like the Marquis, he looked for transcendence in the dissection of desire. As Hal Foster has noted, Bellmer’s dolls betray a masochistic impulse as well as a sadistic one—an “instinct ‘to escape from the outline of the self.’”

In addition to this more familiar work, this show also contained two paintings and a number of pencil drawings as soft and intricate as cobwebs. These included images of woman as gorgon and whore, as well as girls embracing skeletons, faces rising out of brickwork, bones nestled in seas of wavy lines, and, in the tiny, supremely delicate drawing entitled Sade, 1946, machinery that appears to be crushing human flesh.

The most arresting of the later works were the vivid, sexually explicit photographs of two of Bellmer’s lovers, Nora Mitrani and Unica Zürn—the erotic transformations in these images recalling the poupées. Unica, 1958, for example, doesn’t show Zürn's head or limbs, but merely her back and buttocks—rendered pieces of vulnerable, bulging flesh by a starlike network of cord. Zürn, Bellmer’s companion for nearly 18 years and a memorable Surrealist writer whose work and sexual fantasies intersected with his, initially appealed to him because of her resemblance to the second poupée. In The Man of Jasmine, 1974, a hallucinatory text fueled by the anagrams that Bellmer encouraged her to invent, Zürn spoke of lovers “resting in one another as in a sarcophagus.” Though she, like Bellmer, yearned to find in love a deathlike dissolution, a blurring of male and female identities, she also, rather poignantly, at times simply wished she were a man, calling herself “nothing but a chicken looking up at a circling eagle in order to allow its neck to be wrung in hysterical admiration.” Like the poupées, Zidrn was much more to Bellmer than a cipher for death, but the stark finality of her suicide in 1970 underscored the elusiveness of the dolls’ promise to effect a liberatory transformation of the female body—which was for Zürn a prison, for Bellmer an “amorous horizon.”

Kristin M. Jones