Hans Bellmer
Year, Birthplace 1902, Germany
Year, Place of death 1975, France
Hans Bellmer’s childhood was marked by the terror that his tyrannical father inspired in him. In 1920, he was forced to work in a coal mine and a foundry; then, in 1923, he enrolled himself in Berlin’s Technische Hochschule (Technology Institute) to become an engineer. The following year, Bellmer abandoned his studies, read Marx and Lenin, discovered the dadaists and befriended Otto Dix and Georges Grosz. At that point in time, he was working as a typesetter. He became widely known for his virtuosity in drawing. In 1927, he became an industrial advertising draughtsman and opened an agency. His early years were also marked by a particular highlight: a visit to the Unterlinden Musée in Colmar in 1932, where Matthias Grünewald’s altarpiece made a strong impression on him. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Bellmer rebelled against the regime and against his father, inventing a story to make people believe that he was of Jewish origin. And in 1934, in order to demonstrate his rejection of any authority, he used his great talent for craft to design an amazing piece of art entitled Die Puppe [The Doll]. This is a sculpture that represents a young woman dressed only in white socks and flat black shoes; it is nearly life size (1.40 m) and is composed of elements which interact using ball joints. This initiative was undoubtedly the result of reading Oskar Kokoschka’s letters to Hermine Moos, which were published by the Austrian painter (Der Fetisch, 1925), and a theatrical performance of Copélia, from The Tales of Hoffman, staged in 1932, in which a doll is used as a vehicle to express personal obsessions. Bellmer used multiple variations of the doll’s position and recorded them photographically. The provocative doll then became the instrument of a new ambition and new research, a novel reflection on the body. He published a book of photographs of his doll. The Third Reich categorized his work as ‘degenerate art’ but the surrealists in Paris (whom he had met in Paris at the end of 1934) were enthusiastic about the eroticism that emanated from the sculpture, its ‘convulsive beauty’, and the way that Bellmer understood how to unveil the ‘mechanics of desire’ and unmask ‘the unconscious physical’ that dominates us. In 1935, the journal Minotaure published his photographs under the title ‘Variations on the assemblage of an articulated minor’. Appliquée, a poem by Paul Eluard, was illustrated by four of his photographs. A special 1936 issue of Cahiers d'Art, dedicated to the surrealist object, featured him prominently. In 1937, Bellmer developed a second doll – La Mitrailleuse en état de grâce [The Machine Gun(neress) in a State of Grace] – using articulated ball joints. With overwhelming virtuosity, he sketched the different positions of the Doll. In 1938, after the death of his wife, who was hounded by the Nazis, he moved to France keeping company with the surrealists, becoming particularly close to Yves Tanguy and Éluard. He illustrated Une demande en mariage by Gisèle Prassinos and Œillets ciselés en branche by Georges Hugnet. In the journal Messages, Éluard published Jeux vagues la poupée [Vague games, the doll] inspired by his second sculpture. At this time, the war caught up with Bellmer: in September 1939, he was imprisoned in Milles camp, near Aix-en-Provence, for being a German citizen, where he was reunited with his comrades Ferdinand Springer and Max Ernst. He was then taken to Forcalquier prison. He managed to escape but was unable to leave France. He took refuge in Castres and lived in hiding in the Toulouse and Carcassonne region, where he met Joel Bousquet, until the Liberation. When he returned to Paris in 1945, he held an exhibition at the Galerie Luxembourg (with a foreword by Bousquet) and started creating engravings to illustrate L’Histoire de l’oeil by Georges Bataille (under the pseudonym Lord Auch). His Chapeau-Mains [Hand-Hat] was a poster for the Exposition international du surréalisme [International Surrealist Exhibition] at the Galerie Beaux Arts in Paris in 1947. The following years were difficult, despite meetings and collaborations. Once again he illustrated pieces of art by Bataille and also Madame Edwarda (under the pseudonym Pierre Angelique) by René Crevel, Feuilles éparses by Pauline Réage, Histoire d’O, and Louis Aragon’s Irène. He also published Le petit traité de morale [Little Treatise on Morals] inspired by the writings of Sade. Unica Zürn, whom he met in 1953, worked with him. He did not manage to gain recognition and put an end to his financial concerns until the mid-1960s, when his work was the subject of a retrospective in Ulm and attracted the interest of several galleries, including those owned by Daniel Cordier and André-François Petit. His first exhibition at the Condier gallery in 1963 caused a scandal, even though some of his boldest drawings were presented in a space to which access was restricted. His obsessive, violent and subversive work, the composition of which is worthy of the great mannerist artists, explored the mechanisms of eroticism. With great refinement and audacity, his drawings, engravings or (rare) paintings re-transcribe the secret drives, transferences of the senses, and ambivalence of the erotic body. AC