Currently reading : Hans Bellmer and his Femme-Enfant
“And the Lord hath smitten him and delivered him into a woman’s hand” Apocrypha: Book of Judith, Chapter 13
An erotic obsession cloaked Hans Bellmer (1902-1975) the German painter, sculptor and photographer. His want for the corruption of innocence was all but matched by the writings of De Sade and Von Sacher-Masoch and in similar vein; his manufacture of sadism also produced a victor and a victim. Inspired by David Ives and Roman Polanski’s invigorating take on ‘Venus in Fur’, similarities can be found in Bellmer’s work in the role play between director/actor and dominated/submissive created in the film. He constructed figures of a haunting fragmented femininity and an anatomical swelling of unfamiliarity. He became the director of his own fantasies, through which the distortion and manipulation of the body was wholly dominated by his hand.
Bellmer’s infamous first collection of images, ‘La Poupee’, reveals to the observer the sensuality and vulnerability of a mutilated form. One single doll; an assemblage of manipulation. He challenged the unconscious fears and desires of man-made physical alterations and brought to attention a sinister attraction for the adolescence. The first set of images is accompanied by a short text ‘Memories of the Doll Theme’, which demonstrates the inner workings of the dolls and their construction. Flowers, linen and mary-jane shoes continue the order of the girl erotic, situating the memory of youth as an integral layer to the experience of viewing. The dismembered body is a sexualised tool, allowing erogenous zones to be multiplied by sight. A masochistic subtext explores both the mastery of his hand and the destructive nature of his wishes. A production of fear in order to protect oneself from what is feared the most, fragmentation and disintegration.
To the eye, the attraction towards a young girl is the same as that of a doll, an object of glazed sexuality. The guilt of attraction personifies itself through an artificial creation of innocence and possibility, a devouring passion for the untouched and a violation of natural order. The potential for possession is a breach of the pure, a physical interaction that preserves the sacred and elevates the human form to an object form. An adolescent sexuality, not yet understood by the desired and desirer. A dark sexual violence permeates the images and they portray an objectified and yearning desire that reflect his authority and his vocation of dominance. They represent Bellmer’s passion and supposedly embody his unrequited lust for a young pubescent girl, his cousin Ursula Naguschewski. It has also been stated that the doll highlights his fascination with Jacques Offenbach’s (1819-1880) final opera The Tales of Hoffmann, in which the hero falls in love with a realistic life-size mechanical doll. Nonetheless, this idolised Femme-Enfant represents a dual reality between the feminine and the adolescent. This to Bellmer and other artists at the time was the ripe and forbidden fruit for consumption.
“When, amid the smell of glue and wet plaster, the essence of all that is impressive would take shape and become a real object to be possessed.”
These materials combine seductively to reveal a position of servitude. Bellmer himself is situated in one of the images, a ghostly figure lost in mechanical lust. Seductively placed, the doll is a disjunctive aesthetic. Embracing the riot of parts and fragments, unmediated variations allows for a juxtaposition of flesh and metal, creating a weaponised pornography. A single feature can define the aberration; armless, half victim and half ordered, a full head of hair. A revolt against rationale.
This convulsive beauty is not a beauty within. It is a violence of and for the limits of our body. An arrangement of limbs and innocence eyes lasciviously mediates between child and voyeur. Bellmer was known to have imagined these ‘little girls’ engaged in perverse games and often made reference to their ‘quivering pink region’, a ‘miraculous garden’ personified by the ‘pleasures of childhood itself’. They could not however be grasped, they could not be taken, they could not be possessed, they could not be his. He had to take revenge, a revenge where he could explore and ‘probe his aggressive fingers’ around the body of his imagination. A re-creation of passion and an invention of new desires. In her silence he is able to construct a tragically beautiful narrative, where she is unable to defend herself. The male gaze embodies the acceptance of her position; her master meets melancholy eyes.
In the autumn of 1935 Bellmer transformed the doll by inserting a moveable ball joint in the centre to connect the body parts. ‘Les Jeux de la Poupee’ (1935-1949) presents another series of photographs, with a harrowing playful undertone. Continuing his take on an ‘anagram of the body’, Bellmer creates a separation from the female form once again, reducing her to a fragment of excess or an un-pleasurable stump. A macabre dance of mutilated sexuality. Reduced to ‘bubbles of flesh’, they are unable to receive pleasure and have become a deconstructed puzzle only he can solve. A pile of limbs and genitalia left at the bottom of stairs or stretched across a chair salivate an imagination of violence. Once again, Bellmer situates himself in one of the images, a peeping tom of lust; a voyeur of the hanging mutilated form and of us. Combined these images evoke a devouring passion of displacement and a fruitful exploration of sexual boundaries. The dolls incarnate his fascination for the corruption of sexual virtue, thus elevating him to the master of his scene. Perhaps unaware of their sexual power, the Femme-Enfant is an object, no longer female, and no longer a child. It preserves the sacred and divides the conscience from sexuality. Silence becomes passion.