By Daulton Dickey
In the early- and mid-20th century, Surrealism encompassed a variety of media, themes, and artists, many of whom subsequently found a place in the Modern Art canon. Some artists, such as Dalí and Magritte, burned imagery into our collective consciousness. Melting clocks and apples obscuring faces represent the kind of imagery surrealists excelled at producing. Their work unsettled you, disoriented and confused you—and it always left its mark.
But few surrealists matched Hans Bellmer’s ability to confound and disturb. His art simultaneously deconstructed and fetishized the human form, the sum of which stirs a sense of disquiet in the viewer. By perverting the human form, he managed to express his own tortured mind while allowing the viewers to glimpse something inside themselves, something perhaps not altogether pleasant.
Nazism and Degenerate Art
Hans Bellmer lived in Germany during the rise of the Third Reich. He worked for an advertising agency and grew increasingly resistant to fascism and its radicalization of culture. When the party set its sights on the art world, Bellmer left his job to focus on challenging State-sanctioned notions of art and artistic integrity.
For fascism to succeed, it had to wrest control of the culture. As a result, the Nazi party dominated everything from literature to theater. It also expressed strong opinions of visual art and articulated utter disdain for modern art, in essence establishing guidelines for artists in the Reich to follow.
The Nazis viewed art as utilitarian: it celebrated Germany’s past and future triumphs while presenting idealized representations of the human form. Art, to the Nazi party, was histrionic and didactic. Its purpose was to serve the state by inculcating and disseminating the party’s ideology—similar to the Christian dominance of art from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment.
To succeed in controlling art, the party mounted a frontal attack on it. Labeling anything outside its purview as degenerate, the Nazis confiscated any painting or sculpture it deemed offensive to the power, prestige, and superiority of the German people.
To discredit modern artists and their work, the party held an exhibition of “degenerate art,” which traveled the country. This served to mock the artists and the art in a publicly celebrated forum. It ridiculed artists, shamed them, made them and their art fodder for jokes, and triggered distaste in the minds of party loyalists. In short, it was a propaganda campaign designed to discredit modern art and artists.
Bellmer the Iconoclast
Hans Bellmer toyed with erotic art, sometimes bordering on the grotesque. He channeled his sexual perversions as well as his opposition and hostility to the Third Reich into enigmatic and sometimes disturbing imagery.
With his wife, he crafted a series of mannequins—which he called dolls—and created and published a portfolio of photographs with them in various poses and configurations. The results stirred a variety of emotions. They were erotic, grotesque, hypnotic, disturbing, and they exploited or exposed facets of the viewer’s psyche—facets they might intentionally conceal, or of which they’re not even aware.
“The body resembles a sentence that seems to invite us to dismantle it into its component letters,” he once said, “so that its true meanings may be revealed ever anew through an endless stream of anagrams.”
His deconstruction of the human body awakens us to the possibility of different forms. This perversion of form strips away any spiritual or metaphysical underpinnings we might associate with being human. Such associations permeated societies from the ancient Greeks to modern Judeo-Christian civilizations, and Bellmer’s works systematically undermined them.
Bellmer and Sexual Perversion
Bellmer also plays with perversion in a different sense: sexual perversion. By depicting the human body without a head, he dehumanizes it while simultaneously fetishizing it. Slits meant to emulate vaginas are often prominent in his dolls, signifying a heterosexual fetishization—or, more specifically, they signified his sexual fetishes.
Surrealism found its roots in psychoanalysis. In a sense, it aspired to develop a new branch of psychology. It had started as a literary movement before expanding to the visual arts, aiming to unlock the mysteries of the human mind.
The founding surrealists—especially André Breton—took Sigmund Freud’s theories seriously. Breton’s aim was to develop writing techniques, such as automatic writing, to unlock parts of the psyche to which we don’t have conscious access. At its core, surrealism aimed to further the understanding of human psychology through techniques designed to bypass consciousness altogether.
Although modern cognitive science discredited Freud and his work, most western countries viewed him as an intellectual giant a century ago—and many people accepted his “findings” as fact. Almost every mental illness or trauma, he claimed, contained an element of sex or sexuality, much of which dated to early childhood development. Sex was plastic for Freud, malleable, able to manifest itself in thoughts or experiences seemingly unrelated to the act itself.
You can find recurring themes of sex and sexuality throughout the surrealist movement—thanks in part to their devotion to Freud. You can also find childlike admiration and imagination running through their work, perhaps another nod to the great doctor. Dalí, for example, once claimed that his ambitions were to “reconstruct” his “early adolescent experience.”
While many surrealists incorporated these concepts into their artistic lexicons, most did so playfully—or enigmatically. Or ambiguously. Few turned to the darker side of sexual desire and early childhood development. Hans Bellmer fits squarely in the latter category.
He harbored unhealthy obsessions with teenage girls. Some accuse him of pederasty or at least pederastic desires, and the accusation might have merit. Some also accuse him of sexual deviancy, a degenerate who objectified and fetishized his desires, projecting them onto his dolls and artwork.
His imagery dehumanized females by perverting their forms, transforming them into enigmas—sometimes coldly, sometimes with indifference, sometimes obsessively. For him, it seems as if form equaled desire, and the act of sex itself took a backseat to such perverse desires. Perhaps fantasy, for Hans Bellmer, was more authentic than reality.
Deconstructing the human form to de-emphasize the human condition may have been Bellmer’s homage to the Marquis de Sade. “I admire de Sade very much,” he said, “especially his idea that violence towards the loved one can tell us more about the anatomy of desire than the simple act of love.” What’s more violent than dismembering simulacra of those you love only to reconstitute them as grotesque and implicit expressions of your desires?
If you examine his photography and art, then sexual obsession and a fixation on female sexuality aren’t hard to infer. It’s often explicit.
“Perversion” is a word with many senses. We often use it to denote sexual deviancy, but we can use it to denote breaking or changing rules. Bellmer’s perversion reveled in both senses. As a sexual fetishist, he exhibited dark and perverted sensibilities. And he conveyed them through his art. As a surrealist, it’s possible that he even uncovered some of these sensibilities—or at least the extent of some—through his work, but it’s left to us to determine whether or not he succeeded.
Bellmer’s Effect—Intentional or Otherwise
Hans Bellmer is a complicated artist. He openly defied the Nazis by producing and publishing erotic, grotesque, and obscene art. Such public and hostile opposition to a totalitarian regime is not without its merits. As an artist, he explored sexual fetishes and desires, implied darkness and taboos, and dehumanized women to focus single-mindedly on his obsessions.
His perversions and probable misogyny are reprehensible and indefensible. His admiration of the worst of the Marquis de Sade’s multi-faceted and complex philosophical system also exposes authoritarian tendencies, where the power dynamics skewed toward him and his desires.
He’s not a man to admire or emulate—this point is worth underscoring. Hans Bellmer’s complexities fueled a dark and disturbing oeuvre, the totality of which raises interesting questions for the viewer. Are we more than our human forms?
Jean-Paul Sartre once asserted his philosophy in a pithy saying: “Existence precedes essence.” That is, as humans we’re not predestined to live or behave in certain ways. Our choices and actions alone define us, not some philosophical notion of essence as a thing that transcends existence. If you analyze Bellmer’s work, you might discover a convergence with Sartre’s argument: if you deconstruct us, can you find a sufficient and necessary truth about human beings? Or are we simply meat and bones? Organic machines compelled to fuck so we can propagate our genes?
Bellmer’s most interesting pieces raise philosophical questions concerning spirituality while challenging metaphysical presuppositions—perhaps a result of his association with surrealism. Are we rational actors whose cogito offers us access to our mental states? Or are we meat machines in touch with few of our non-conscious mechanisms? If we explore the dark sides of ourselves, can we unlock truths previously hidden from us—or are perversions always in plain sight yet largely unacknowledged? Although Bellmer is not, in no unequivocal terms, a man to admire, his steadfast devotion to his obsessions and his singular vision provokes questions we should consider—and take seriously.
* All photos under fair use
Daulton Dickey is a pataphysical surrealist currently living in Indiana. He’s the author of Flesh Made World, Still Life with Chattering Teeth, and other books he failed to publicize.