The Doll – Hans Bellmer

Not all art is stunningly beautiful. Some is a direct reaction to things that are happening to, or around the artist. Some of these can sit very uncomfortably with the audience, yet they can still appreciate the message that the artist is trying to give.

In the case of Bellmer’s ‘The Doll’, the initial reaction can be quite uneasy. The image is a hand painted black and white photograph in soft yellow and green hues. It shows a disfigured and over sexualised form hung from a tree. This speaks all kinds of volumes, why is she disfigured? What happened to the form for it to be hung from a tree? It’s certainly not high up in my beautiful art thoughts, yet I really appreciate it, maybe because I know a bit about the artist and the time he was working.

Bellmer, created this photography in 1935, and had creating dolls as a direct opposition to fascism. He had previously been a draftsman for his own advertising company, but refused to produce material for the Nazi party. The dolls were directed specifically at the perfect body and race cult which had been emerging. Heavily influenced by Jacques Offenbach’s opera Tales of Hoffmann, where a man falls in love with an automaton, Bellmer started to create his dolls which would then penetrate several of his photographic subjects. The dolls incorporate the use of ball joints which he took the idea from a pair of 16th century dolls in the Kaiser Friedrich museum.

Bellmer produced a book of 10 photographs of ‘The Doll’ in 1934, and while he wasn’t credited for the book, the Nazi party eventually dubbed him a degenerate and he was forced to flee Germany, heading to France, where the surrealist world welcomed him. Here he aided the French resistance by making fake passports. After the war, Bellmer stayed in Paris but stopped making dolls, and moved in to erotic drawing and sexually explicit photography.

Bellmer died in 1975, but his work influenced many things. In film culture, the 2003 film ‘Love Objects’ there are main references to Bellmer’s work, including the protagonists obsessive relationship with a sex doll, and the film ‘Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence’ from 2004 features elements of the erotic dolls, with the director, Mamoru Oshii, referring to Bellmer’s dolls as an inspiration for the film.

So looking back at the picture now, what do you see? Yes, it is still vulgar, the body is still dismembered and the angle of the camera, over sexualises the breasts and genitals, but her face is partially obscured, forcing the audience to take note of the body, which pushes the idea that not everyone has to be body beautiful to be a work of art. This particular picture, does however lead you to believe that some form of torture has taken place, but the hand painting of the photo reminds you that this is merely a representation of brutality rather than an actual depiction.

The point of using a doll, or as he did in other pictures using child’s shoes, puts the audience in mind of corrupted innocence, the sheer fact that these type of dolls did not originate as sexual beings with their clumpy ball joints, says that something has seriously gone astray and that any innocence that the original doll started with has long since been lost.

Some have taken the analysis of this a level deeper and looked at Bellmer’s own mind when creating these photographs, demonstrating a sadistic impulse which is close to self destructive. This could have been a representation of Bellmer’s own fears of fragmentation and disintegration, and could be deemed as the strategic tactic to face ones own fears, by presenting another. Rosalind Krauss has done a few descriptions of Bellmer’s work and follows that train of thought.

For me, this piece is a combination of the freedom of expression which was discovered between the two world wars in Germany, combined with the uprise of the Nazi party and the curbing of art movements such as Dadaism and surrealism. It is a statement against the beliefs of the party and a projection of Bellmer’s own fears of being a dysfunctioning outcast in a changing society. It has the over sexualised immaturity which links his work to people such as Marcel Duchamps and Andre Breton, using grotesque sexuality to shock audiences and force a point to the viewer.

How does ‘The Doll’ make you feel? Why not tell me in the comments?

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