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Life-Size Dolls, Ropes and Erotic Photography: Scandalous World of Hans Bellmer

Hans Bellmer The Doll, c. 1934, © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Bodies And Erotic Art

Life-Size Dolls, Ropes and Erotic Photography: Scandalous World of Hans Bellmer

“I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me”, said Terence, Roman playwright sometime in the 2nd century BC. I think that art and what inspired what you will see below, is exactly this: human imperfections, human needs, human dreams, human psyche… It might scandalize some, but the world in the eyes of Hans Bellmer is a scandalous one anyway.

From Mines to Paris

Hans Bellmer, Plate from La Poupée, 1936, MoMa, scandalous world of hans bellmer

Hans Bellmer, Plate from La Poupée, 1936, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Born in 1902 in German Kattowitz (today’s Katowice, Poland), at the age of 20 he held his first exhibition. Having completed highschool, he worked in a mine but under the influence of his father he moved to Berlin to study at the Technische Hochschule which brought him to meet Otto Dix and Georg Grosz. In 1924 he resigned from university to work full-time as a draughtsman and illustrator. Ten years later, he officially withheld from any public activity in an act of protest against Nazi overtake of Germany. In the following years he returned often to his parents’ summer house in Bad Carlsruhe, where he continued working on his projects of life-size dolls began in 1933, photographing them in the garden and in the house interior. In 1934, he published anonymously a book of ten photographs documenting the stages of the doll’s construction called Die Puppe (The Doll) (reprinted in French, as La Poupée, in 1936), while Paul Éluard printed them in the December 1934 issue of the Surrealist journal Minotaure, annotating them with his poems.

Sexual Perversions and Passports

Hans Bellmer, The Doll, c.1936, Tate, scandalous world of hans bellmer

Hans Bellmer, The Doll, c.1936, Tate, London

His dolls clearly opposed the Nazi cult of perfect body, as they were skewed, dismembered and ugly. Bellmer made his first doll inspired by beauty of his young cousin Ursula, but he was also under the strong impact of Jacques Offenbach’s fantasy opera Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann, 1880), in which the hero, in love with an uncannily lifelike automaton, ends up committing suicide. Once called a degenerate artist in 1937, Bellmer didn’t hesitate to move to France, especially that his first wife Margarete died of TB in the same period. In Paris he was embraced by the Surrealists, especially André Breton. During WW2 Bellmer supported the French by producing fake passports and he was subsequently imprisoned in the Camp des Milles prison for German nationals at Aix-en-Provence, where he did brickwork until May 1940. In 1942 he married again (had two daughters) and in 1944 he illustrated a novella Story of the Eye by G. Bataille, which describes sexual perversions of two teenage lovers. After the war, Bellmer stopped making dolls and moved onto photography and painting which both explored themes of sexuality, fetishism, and dreams.

The World Is Scandalous

Hans Bellmer, The Doll, c.1933, National Galleries Scotland, scandalous world of hans bellmer

Hans Bellmer, The Doll, c.1933, National Galleries Scotland


In an interview with Peter Webb, he explained: “I was aware of what I called physical unconsciousness, the body’s underlying awareness of itself. I tried to rearrange the sexual elements of a girl’s body like a sort of plastic anagram. I remember describing it thus: the body is like a sequence that invites us to rearrange it, so that its real meaning comes clear through the series of endless anagrams. I want to reveal what is usually kept hidden – it is no game – I tried to open peoples eyes to new realities: it is as true of the doll photographs as it is of Petit Traite de la Morale. The anagram is the key to my work. This allies me to the Surrealists and I am glad to be considered part of that movement, although I have less concern than some Surrealists with the subconscious, because my works are carefully thought out and controlled. If my work is found to scandalise, that is because for me the world is scandalous.”

Sado-Maso in a Lens

 Hans Bellmer, Unica Tied Up, 1958. Source: https://www.dollwork.org/2014/01/28/unica-zurn-here-is-the-doll/, scandalous world of hans bellmer

Hans Bellmer, Unica Tied Up, 1958. Source: https://www.dollwork.org/2014/01/28/unica-zurn-here-is-the-doll/

In 1953 he met artist and writer Unica Zürn with whom he began to collaborate (and have a romance). Their most famous work is the photographic series Unica Tied Up, in which close-up photographs of female body bound by a tight rope is an artistic exploration of sadomasochistic practices. They were united in life and work until the year of her suicide, 1970.

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Magda, art historian and Italianist, she writes about art because she cannot make it herself. She loves committed and political artists like Ai Weiwei or the Futurists; like Joseph Beuys she believes that art can change us and we can change the world.

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