Pierre Klossowski/Hans Bellmer

While presented as separate exhibitions, these timely surveys of two of the most interesting artists in the orbit of Surrealism (though Pierre Klossowski, unlike Hans Bellmer, was never an official member of the group) complemented each other perfectly. Although the work of both artists is unmistakably specific to the century into which they were born and (differing in this regard from that of Klossowski’s brother, Balthus) absolutely without nostalgia for the art of the old masters, Bellmer and Klossowski were unconcerned with any notion of pictorial modernism.

This is not so much because of their work’s representational basis as because of its shared disregard for anything like aesthetic autonomy: In both cases, art was unabashedly the by-product, even the illustration, of a personal obsession. For this reason, Bellmer and Klossowski, despite all their intellectual sophistication, remained much more like outsider artists or subcultural practitioners than like mainstream modernist artists. And in both cases, of course, the obsession was in the first instance sexual, though for these artists the sexual viewpoint opened up the widest philosophical, even theological horizons.

Or rather, their obsession was with the female, but in two very different guises: Klossowski’s muse is incarnated in the figure of Roberte, the recurrent heroine (based on the artist’s wife, Denise) of his fiction, drawings, and, eventually, sculpture—the mature, rather androgynous woman who, as one commentator puts it, “turns all readers or spectators, whether they wish it or not, into voyeurs, conceptual schoolboys or nephews.” Bellmer’s, contrarily, is embodied in La Poupée, a girlish doll with movable and rearrangeable parts; he built several versions of the doll over the years, photographing them incessantly. In both cases, however, what soon becomes clear is that, contrary to the cliché, the artists’ fantasies of the female had less to do with objectification than with identification. One fantasy is no less perverse than the other, of course. Bellmer’s reaction to the birth of a daughter: “Doriane totally fulfils the dream I’ve always had of being reincarnated as a little girl.”

The specifically visual evidence of this fantasized identification with the female is presented most patently in drawings like Untitled (Self-portrait with Unica), 1961, in which Bellmer’s own eye becomes indistinguishable from the vulva of his lover, of whom he had exclaimed on first meeting, “Here is the doll!” For Klossowski it is only the male who can become a sort of doll or miniature plaything, as in the early Portrait de la femme de l’artiste tapant à la machine (Portrait of the Artist’s Wife Type-Writing), 1956; woman is imperious. His use of pencil, and above all of colored pencils, in drawings of a monumental scale unusual for the medium, shows that his role as the transcriptor of these tableaux remains, in his mind, a childlike one.

Klossowski’s awkward, amateurish manner of drawing, the erudition of his borrowings from the art of the past notwithstanding, exposes his true strength as an artist. Whereas Bellmer, comparable in this regard to Salvador Dalí, possessed an exquisite academic draftsmanship whose dexterity underlies even his photographs and keeps every image under tight control, Klossowski was happy to sign himself “le Maladroit”—perhaps because it is precisely in this proud and decisive clumsiness that what he called “the deep affinity between the artist and the female body he projects” reveals itself, not necessarily as an illusion but as the object of laughter.

Barry Schwabsky