“If the origin of my work is scandalous, it is because for me, the world is a scandal.” It’s 1933, Hitler has just come to power & a man named Hans Bellmer begins his surreal experiment with dolls. He never stopped.
Contains adult content.
The first doll Hans Bellmer produced is long since lost. It’s assemblage can nevertheless be correctly described thanks to approximately two dozen photographs Bellmer took at the time of its construction, in Berlin in 1933. Standing about fifty-six inches tall, the doll consisted of a lovingly modeled torso of flax fiber, glue, and plaster; a mask-like head of the same material with glass eyes and a long, unkempt wig; and a pair of legs made from broomsticks or dowel rods. One of these legs terminated in a wooden, club-like foot; the other was encased in a more naturalistic plaster shell, jointed at the knee and ankle. As the project progressed, Bellmer made a second set of hollow plaster legs, with wooden ball joints for the doll’s hips and knees. There were no arms to the first sculpture, but Bellmer did fashion or find a single wooden hand, which appears among the assortment of doll parts the artist documented in an untitled photograph of 1934, as well as in several photographs of later work.
In 1934 Bellmer produced and privately published his anonymous book in Berlin. The Doll (Die Puppe) contains 10 black-and-white photographs of Bellmer’s first doll arranged in a series of tableaux vivant (living pictures). The book was not credited to him, as he worked in isolation, and his photographs remained almost unknown in Germany.
These handmade dolls with their serial killer body dump display postures and violently fragmented and obscenely splayed body parts and held together mechanically by ball joints allowed for endless permutations of perversity. Control. “I’m deeply disturbed and I really don’t give a fuck,” Hans he seemed to be saying.
Unsurprisingly Bellmer’s work was soon declared as degenerate by the Nazi Party, and he was forced to flee Germany to France in 1938. He landed in Paris, where he lived for the better part of the rest of his life.
Many have interpreted the birth of Han’s dolls as an act of political defiance against the Aryan ideals and social norms promoted by the Nazis, who he openly opposed, perhaps they were in part fuelled with a desire to express the personal outrage he felt towards his father, a fully committed Nazi party member. Bellmer himself stated, “If the origin of my work is scandalous, it is because for me, the world is a scandal.”
Who knows what he was thinking? Many interpret his subversive process as a protest aimed to undermine the myth of anatomical perfection extolled by the Third Reich.
It was madness. Yet there was a method to it, a method that made sense to Bellmer at least. He was deliberately trying to undermine the classically held view of human anatomy by projecting a what he called the “mechanics of desire”. A philosophy which was largely the product of his imagination.
Already acclaimed, enthusiastically embraced and adopted by the Surrealists after a visit to Paul Eluard back in 1935, Bellmer settled down permanently in Paris in 1938 after the death of his wife, to continue his “research” while working as a draftsman and printmaker.
Hans began aiding the French Resistance by making fake passports & was imprisoned in the Camp des Milles prison at Aix-en-Provence, a brick factory camp for German nationals, He was making bricks there between September 1939 until May 1940.
A confused Sigmund Freud described Bellmer’s work as having an “uncanny strangeness” (he’d know) and the Surrealists who had just started focusing on the power of the unconscious were highly influenced by the discovery of Hans Bellmer’s work.
In her book on Bellmer, The Anatomy of Anxiety, Sue Taylor touches on Bellmers methodology for the scenarios with the doll: “Bellmer referred to the activities rehearsed in this series as ‘games’, implying that doll is a willing participant in its own victimisation”. It’s pretty obvious that Bellmer desired the power his surveillance had over the doll: the doll is passive, so who is playing “games” is ambiguous.
Our position as spectators mirrors Bellmer’s. The one with the figure behind the tree. He stands hidden, but we view the photograph anonymously from a safe distance, are also hidden. In a sense the body of the doll is nearer to us than it is to Bellmer: as it is in the foreground of the picture, we have greater access to it. He’s bringing us in. It’s confrontational. Bellmer is serving up his androgynous/formless creatures to us the viewer, in order to get a response.
Hans Bellmer, The Doll Maker, must surely be one of the most wildly contraversial artists of the 1930s. His imagery does fit somehow with Dada & Surrealism & yet the subject matter & messaging is beyond leftfield. For the rest of his career, his life, he stays on track too. He warms to what is most definitely his theme developing variations and progressions. He can draw and paint like a ninja too. He moves away from photography. Perhaps reality, even his reality is too limiting. He pushes further.
Bellmer gave up doll-making after the war but carried on in that same field, the one that existed only in his mind and he ploughed his spectacularly singular furrow until the end. In the following decades he oozed out copious erotic drawings, etchings, sexually explicit photographs, paintings, and prints.
In 1953 Hans’s life, and to some extent his art, became intertwined with that of the woman tied up in the picture above. The photograph is of Bellmer’s lover, the German artist and writer Unica Zürn (1916-1970). For this artwork, Hans bound her with wire making her ripple and bulge, so that her body appears ugly and unfamiliar. This manipulating of her flesh has to be Bellmer asserting his dominance over the body of his lover to prove his superiority.
Accounts differ as to exactly where Zürn met Hans. It was either at an exhibition of his work at either the Maison de France or at Berlin’s Galerie Springer. We do know when they met. It was in 1953 Not long afterward, she moved with him to Paris, becoming his partner and model, most famously in a the series of photographs that Bellmer took of her bound tightly with rope and wire (above). One of the “Unica Tied Up” works was exhibited in Bellmer’s 1959 exhibit “Doll,” and at times he seemed to conflate Zürn with the dolls of his obsession
It has to be said. Whether Bellmer was masochist or a sadist, it’s clear that violence to and control of the female body is something that arouses Bellmer. Bellmer’s stated intention was to transform the body into a landscape, altering the contours and creating additional “breasts” of flesh along the stomach. This fetishization of the female form is well documented among surrealists and Bellmer is known for comparing his fragmentation of the body with the fragmentation of a sentence.
In Paris, Zürn began experimenting with automatic drawing and anagrams, pursuits Bellmer had a longstanding interest in and encouraged her to pursue. The pair became a kind of Parisian Surrealis power couple and between 1956-1964 Zürn had four solo exhibitions of her drawings and her work was included in the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme. The pair frequented the city’s surrealist and hung out in artistic circles, becoming acquainted with the likes of Andre Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Man Ray etc. Basically everybody who was anybody in the arts in Paris.
In her childhood, Zürn developed a strong belief and connection to a perfect male fantasy persona she called The Jasmin Man. Her 1971, novella, “The Jasmine Man” was about him. When she met Bellmer in 1953, she saw in him something of The Jasmin Man. This romantic perfect man figure drove her decision making process when forming relationships. When, in 1957 Zürn was introduced to the highly idiosyncratic Belgian-born poet, writer, and painter, Henri Michaux she felt she recognised The Jasmin Man in him & fell deeply in love with him instantly.She joined him in several of his experiments with mescaline. These drug experiences likely precipitated the first of her many mental crises.
In 1960 Zürn had a severe psychotic episode in which she found herself spellbound and hypnotised by Michaux. He appeared before her and ordered her to do things. She was eventually hospitalized, and after this she would be in and out of psychiatric hospitals for the rest of her life, suffering from dissociative states and depression. It’s now thought that she was schizophrenic and that was indeed the initial diagnosis by the staff doctors at Karl-Bonhoeffer-Heilstätten during her first hospitalization. It’s also been suggested that rather than schizophrenia she may have suffered from bipolar disorder with psychotic features. She wasn’t a well woman & had likely been carrying her particular form of psychosis with her for quite some time.
“They made a strange couple,, both always wore black, and Unica usually walked rather stiffly, a few paces behind Bellmer, his head balding but with long hair at the back so that one could picture them as Dr Coppelius and his doll Olympia.”
Peter Webb, Death, Desire and the Doll, the Life and Art of Hans Bellmer.
In 1969 Hans Bellmer had a stroke which left him paralyzed. The following year he told Zürn that on his doctors’ advice, he could no longer “be responsible for her”. Around six months later, in October 1970, Zürn committed suicide by leaping from the window of the Paris apartment she had formerly shared with Bellmer, while on a five-day leave from a mental hospital. At just 54, Zürn was dead & buried in Paris’ Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Bellmer died of bladder cancer 5 years later on 24 February 1975. He was buried next to Zürn at Père Lachaise in a tomb marked “Bellmer – Zürn.”
Of his own work, Bellmer once said:“What is at stake here is a totally new unity of form, meaning and feeling: language-images that cannot simply be thought up or written up … They constitute new, multifaceted objects, resembling polyplanes made of mirrors … As if the illogical was relaxation, as if laughter was permitted while thinking, as if error was a way and chance, a proof of eternity.”
Sources: “The Chimerical Creatures of Unica Zürn”, Paris Review, April 4, 2018, Death, Desire and the Doll, the Life and Art of Hans Bellmer; Peter Webb,, The Anatomy of Anxiety; Sue Taylor, Christies, Sotherbys & Wiki.