The Lingering Influence of Hans Bellmer’s Doll
By Jess Bither
IN THE 1930S German artist Hans Bellmer took hundreds of photographs of his life-sized doll sculpture. The doll is most frequently pictured in an abject state—with missing limbs, or even completely disassembled. Her deformation is repulsive, but it is difficult to look away. Instead we look closer and attempt to discern the doll’s expression. We wonder, “What happened?” Bellmer withholds the moment of action and instead offers only the remnants or suggestions of an encounter, an altercation, or a game. The scenes are often reminiscent of what one might spy through a keyhole, making them ripe for psychoanalytic interpretation. Though even without the framework of theory, the images are absorbing. Whether the doll is shown winding down a staircase like a snake, or presented as an abject, limbless torso, she has a powerful allure. Bellmer went beyond using photography as a tool to document his process of reconfiguring the doll sculpture in various combinations. The medium of photography allowed him to create a fantasy realm. Viewers of the photographs suspend their disbelief as children do, and entertain the notion that the doll is capable of having her own thoughts and feelings. Once engrossed in the uncanny atmosphere of the photographs, viewers may find themselves speculating about whether the doll has agency in their strange, sometimes nightmarish, scenarios.
Over eighty years after Bellmer first published the photographs, their sadomasochistic content is still shocking. The images reward prolonged engagement, and there is potential for a multilayered experience after the shock subsides. In the image on the previous page from the series Die Puppe (first published in German, then later translated to French), the doll reads as more of an inert sculpture rather than an automaton who could potentially spring to life, at least at first glance. Are we meant to embody the point of view of Bellmer, surveying the doll’s various parts before assembly? Is this scene the result of his excitement getting the best of him, and he became eager to dismember the doll, to reveal the inner workings of his creation for the camera? If we let the scene unfold a little longer, there is more to the story.
The hand near the bottom right corner hints at the doll’s awakening. Instead of being limp, the fingers stretch. You can imagine them wriggling, catching viewers off guard like at the end of a horror film, when the monster seems to be dead but inexplicably revives for one last scare. Not only is photographic space a fantastic space in Bellmer’s work, it is also a space of tension and suspense. This is true even in his more straightforward photographs of the doll. For those willing to commit to fantasy, to play along, the doll can morph from an inert work of sculpture into a threatening figure.
The composition of this early image is simple—the doll stands on her own, with her hip jutting outwards. Bellmer did not place any suggestive props nearby. (He did so in other images of the doll, especially in the later series, The Games of the Doll, 1949.) In this case, further enhancement is unnecessary, and the captivating power of the doll alone is enough to compel viewers to play along. This dynamic surfaces in a description from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website accompanying the image, in which the author is eager to situate the doll in an otherworldly narrative. We can see the spell at work:
Bellmer’s obsession with dolls—his endless fabrication, reconstitution, and photographic presentation of the—was an effort to construct objects that would articulate his tormented desires in material form. The bizarre, robotic temptress in this negative print has an eerie electric aura. To love her, one would have to have, as the Surrealist poet Pierre Reverdy wrote, a “short circuit to the heart-system.”
The first part of the passage offers a succinct account of Bellmer’s intent. Then the author is taken in by the doll’s aura, describes her as a “bizarre, robotic temptress”, and conjures a fantasy encounter in which loving the seductive humanoid turns out to be a literally shocking experience. It is easy to see the doll as robotic, particularly in the images that feature the doll with her armature (composed of metal and wood) left uncovered—she appears partially skeletal or mechanical. Bellmer added plaster and papier-mâché “flesh” to other areas of the doll’s armature to temper this effect. However, her hybridity isn’t completely concealed—in many of the images, it is highlighted. Though literally at rest, she is in a constant state of transformation. The doll rebels against being a fixed fetish object and instead occupies polarized categories simultaneously. Alive or dead? Victim or monster? She is in flux, subverting the photographic impulse to render a subject static.
In one image, the doll seems especially restless. Usually, she is pictured alone, but here the artist himself poses alongside his creation. There is potential for a little drama: could the photographic space be emotionally charged, perhaps with uneasy tension between creator and creation? Bellmer leans towards the doll as she looks away. The doll plays the role of the antsy child in a family photograph; she seems to be distracted by something outside of the frame. The beret adds to her sass. Behind the pair is a large drawing detailing the doll’s armature. Bellmer is a ghostly Dr. Frankenstein showing us the progression of his project, from a sketch to a being standing upright. He rendered himself apparitional in the photograph—he is deemphasized, and the doll is the star. Within this image they are linked in that they are both liminal figures, somewhere between real and not real. Bellmer is insubstantial to a degree, the doll—incomplete. She strikes a nearly identical pose to the previous image, and again the plaster and papier-mâché covering is missing from her leg, enunciating that she is a composite being.
The Surrealists were the first artists to be arrested and inspired by the doll’s fluctuation, her “convulsive beauty” (a concept introduced by André Breton in his first Manifesto of Surrealism, 1924). The doll appeared in the Surrealist publication Minotaure not long after Bellmer published his first set of photographs anonymously. The images reawakened an interest in life-sized mannequins amongst artists such as Max Ernst, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, André Masson, and Joan Miró. These artists and others displayed redesigned fashion mannequins at the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in Paris, 1938. That same year, Bellmer left Berlin for Paris and became involved with Surrealist artists and intellectuals. The second wave of interest in Bellmer’s work followed his retrospective in Paris, 1971.
Hans Bellmer died in 1975, and Peter Webb’s biography of him was published a decade later. In Death, Desire, and the Doll: The Life and Art of Hans Bellmer (originally titled simply Hans Bellmer), Webb compiled material from interviews with the artist. Bellmer added to the intrigue surrounding the doll by providing her with a backstory. It is nearly impossible to research Bellmer’s doll sculpture without encountering reiterations of the same constellation of sources of inspiration: Oskar Kokoschka’s infamous “Alma” doll, recollections of a childhood crush, an opera featuring a dismembered automaton (Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann), the artist receiving a box of childhood toys from his mother... All of this is used as fodder by theorists who frame the doll as a vessel saturated with nostalgia and psychic pain. Part of why Bellmer’s work involving the doll is so unnerving is that it feels intensely personal, and it is easy to become lost in the fog of speculation concerning Bellmer’s psyche. Some theorists have been able to move beyond this and stress that the political climate of 1930s Germany must be considered in order to fully grasp the doll as a subversive work of art. In Therese Lichtenstein’s monograph, Behind Closed Doors: The Art of Hans Bellmer (2001), she argues that the manipulations of the doll were deliberate perversions of the “ideal” human form being promoted by the Nazis.
Over the decades, artists and scholars have recognized the sophistication of Bellmer’s photographs and the questions he pursued through the doll project, which also included written work and drawings that complicate the relationship between Hans Bellmer and his doll. Interestingly, quite a few women artists have revisited and reinterpreted Bellmer’s output. In the 1990s there was a proliferation of sculptures that relate back to the doll not only aesthetically, but thematically as well.
Korean artist Lee Bul’s Cyborgs (1997-2011) have the sleekness of an Apple product, which differentiates them from Bellmer’s dolls that are obviously made from household items (such as a chopped-up broomstick). Although aesthetically refined, the cyborgs are unsettling to look at. Like Bellmer’s doll, they are rarely presented in a complete state. The cyborgs have missing limbs, and all the figures are headless. In the Lee Bul: Crash exhibition (Martin-Gropius-Bau, 2018-19), the cyborgs are displayed suspended from the gallery ceiling; they emanate an ethereal aura as they hover above viewers. The sculptures have a fragile, melancholy quality to them, linking them once more to Bellmer’s doll.
Like Lee Bul’s Cyborgs, British artist Sarah Lucas’s Pauline Bunny (1997) sculptures do not have discernable heads or faces. The sculptures are composed of nylon stockings stuffed with fluff, shaped with wire, and clamped to chairs. Despite the lack of a head or face, Lucas imbued something that is clearly inanimate with personality, and even attitude. In a room full of Pauline Bunny sculptures, one feels as though they have walked into a room full of delinquent students, slouching as they wait out detention. The connection with Bellmer is clear, and he was mentioned in the wall text as an influence at Lucas’s recent retrospective (The New Museum, 2018-19). These works are linked in how viewers receive them. First, they experience an “unheimlich” feeling when they encounter a familiar form rendered strange.
Then the tendency to project human feelings onto a dormant object arises. This pattern of response is familiar to anyone who has become captivated by the doll in Bellmer’s photographs.
The doll has a supernatural allure, one that cultivates an unsettling effect that continues to intrigue scholars and creators. The influence of Bellmer’s photographs reaches beyond the realm of contemporary art. In popular culture, there is no shortage of unsettling human-but-not-quite-human beings beckoning anyone curious enough to come in for a closer look, and some have a striking resemblance to Bellmer’s girlish-yet-monstrous doll sculpture.
Specters of Bellmer’s doll show up in science fiction films and even video games. For example, Bellmer’s second version of the doll (whose torso was replaced by a ball-joint to allow for fluidity in her poses) was a source of inspiration for the character design in the anime film Ghost in the Shell II: Innocence (Mamoru Oshii, 2004). The tagline for the film reads: “When machines learn to feel, who decides what is human?” Clearly, Bellmer’s work resonates with creators who want to engage with our collective anxiety regarding automatons. In the horror video game franchise Silent Hill (1999-2014), a deformed mannequin figure that makes an appearance is almost an exact replica of Bellmer’s doll in another formation (two sets of legs fused together at the torso, forming an “X”, which is quite similar to Sarah Lucas’s Pauline Bunny as well). Players are meant to be both afraid of and afraid for the figure, who is at once frightening and helpless. The only thing that differentiates Bellmer’s doll from the mannequin-monster is the monster’s lack of disarming accessories—a pair of socks and Mary Janes.
It is unsurprising Bellmer would have an influence on filmmakers and creators of interactive media. Bellmer is masterful when it comes to creating a suspenseful atmosphere, a charged space in which viewers suspend their disbelief and imagine what the doll would look like if she were in motion. Bellmer’s later images of the doll, especially those from the series The Games of the Doll, are especially cinematic. They are some of Bellmer’s most haunting and provocative works. In The Games of the Doll, Bellmer is more interested in slowly revealing his subject, making her all the more elusive. In each frame she shows a new side of herself, causing an intense shift in our reaction to her.
Overall, in The Games of the Doll, there is more material for viewers to parse through. In plate twelve, the doll stares right in the direction of the camera, the viewer. Her gaze is penetrating, blank, like that of a predator. Her body is contorted and grotesque; her bulbous mounds of “flesh” are womanly, albeit mutated and exaggerated. In her fragmented state, she conjures memories of a long-forgotten nightmare. Light streams from upstairs, illuminating the pale body of the doll. Her posture suggests coyness. She resembles a disobedient child caught in the act of leaving her room after bedtime. Perhaps she is playing hide-and-seek. But who has caught whom?
Jess Bither lives in Baltimore. She teaches critical theory, writing, and film courses at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Her favorite film is Jack Hill’s Spider Baby (1967).