Sunday, 10 June 2012

Hans Bellmer: The Formless Body and Negative Transgression

Hans Bellmer's Surrealist works from the 1930's are notorious. The doll or Poupée  series, of prepubescent girls in compromising positions and situations speak of a violent and paedophilic desire which has become highly problematic for many contemporary viewers. Analysing Bellmer's work requires a deliberate distancing from reactions of moral outrage at the display of mutilated doll parts of female children. In order to understand how Bellmer's work functions these reactions must be deciphered and interpreted. As Susan Rubin Suleiman suggests, "the contemporary feminist critic must herself participate in a 'double allegiance', be willing to say 'yes but' to earlier works, including work she finds disturbingly misogynist".The practice of the surrealists often involved taking up the familiar to destabilise, dismantle, reconstruct, fetishise and make strange; yet when this is done to the image of young girls' bodies it provokes an unnerving and ethically disturbing effect.

Bellmer's 1935 photograph La Poupée (above) is a visualisation of the methodical acting out of a pathological desires, in order to make fantasy into reality. A brooding chiaroscuro black and white photograph, painted with a sickly yellow sepia tint that gives the woodland setting a queasy atmosphere, the tone of the picture is of a shadowy, lurking illness. Bellmer himself, in long dark coat and boots, stands like a peeping tom behind a tree. The sculpture hangs from a tree, a hybrid creature fashioned from Bellmer's fantasies: like many of his sculptures, La Poupée is without a head (no head means: no mouth to refuse, no eyes to witness), just the anatomy that held some fetishised significance for Bellmer. His constructed figure of fragmented femininity becomes a phallic object, androgynous through the arrangement of female parts. As Rosalind Krauss suggests, "the dreamer produces – although transformed – the very image of what he fears...within this dream space the doll herself is phallic. Sometimes, deprived of arms, but endowed with a kind of limitless pneumatic potential to swell and bulge with smaller protuberances, she seems the very figure of tumescence”. Therefore through the eyes of the phallocentric Bellmer, this formless figure is femininity transformed into a superior phallic body that takes pleasure in its own anatomical swelling, affording Bellmer an encounter that combines menace with identification.

In her book on Bellmer, The Anatomy of Anxiety, Sue Taylor reveals the methodology of these scenarios with the doll: "Bellmer referred to the activities rehearsed in this series as 'games' implying that doll is a willing participant in its own victimisation". It is clear that Bellmer desired the power his surveillance had over the doll: the doll is passive, so who is playing “games” is ambiguous.Our position as spectators mirrors Bellmer's. He stands hidden behind a tree, but we the viewers, regarding the photograph anonymously from a safe distance, are also hidden. In a sense the body of the doll is nearer to us than it is to Bellmer: as it is in the foreground of the picture, we have greater access to it. There is something confrontational about this. It is as though Bellmer is serving up this androgynous/formless creature to us the viewer, in order to get a response. My “yes but” to Bellmer's work lies in the way that being aligned with Bellmer's scopophilia, which is acutely traumatic to the viewer, forces us to reassess our role as spectators and surveyors of bodies in art: we are made complicit in Bellmer's violence by our own exploitive gaze.

The viewer experiences convulsive, destabilising feelings, our position as viewer is comprised and challenged by being witness to Bellmer's ethically problematic sculptures. Yet perhaps Bellmer too felt a convulsive repulsion at his own work, and thus deliberately provoked masochistic "negative pleasure" as a form of catharsis. Hal Foster states that Bellmer: "(is) also devoted to compulsive beauty and convulsive identity, and the difficulties of these ideals may be most apparent in his work i.e., that the psychic shattering (the convulsive identity) of the male subject may depend upon the physical shattering (the compulsive beauty) of the female image, that the ecstasy of the one way come at the cost of the dispersal of the other".

In order then for Bellmer to safely experience a self-shattering, convulsive beauty, he must do violence to the (female) form in order to reassert his subjective mastery over the bodily limits of female-gendered objects. The dolls were small, passive, manipulatable (just like non-art toys): they enabled Bellmer to possess and punish the things he desired, his personifications of fantasies, by placing them in positions and settings that connote violation, threat and observation. Making the dolls enabled Bellmer to transgress against reality, rules of anatomy and legal prohibitions. As objects of formless femininity, the dolls are not themselves capable of transgression: they are the passive props for someone else's transgression.

The abstracted figure (left) of Bellmer's Die Puppe (Rumpf)  is so far removed from the formal characteristics of human anatomical structure that it instead becomes (initially) an object of pure aesthetic pleasure. The perfectly round globes of buttocks and bellies and the polished surface of reflective sculptured metal, invite a 'haptic vision' that caresses. The eye moves along over the sculpture's curves and searches in-between the folds and ripples of flesh, gliding along the curves and dips and swells. It cannot be denied that the phenomenological experience of looking at this sculpture is extremely sensual, yet the viewer also cannot escape what the tactile forms of this sculpture are representing.

The truncated, smoothed-off stumps of children's chubby thighs, that appear more like round buttocks, balance precariously on a wooden plinth; the round stomach is connected to another set of fleshy hips and mutilated legs. The only parts of this sculpture that are clear depictions of normative human anatomy are the belly and the two vaginas; this strikingly marks the figure sexually. Through his own fetishistic delectation Bellmer breaches the integrity of the body's whole, instead piecing a hybrid creature together from his favourite parts like a surrealist Dr Frankenstein. Yet this creature is not made to live: it it made to be an object of desire and degradation. By playing with the formless body in his work, Bellmer transgresses the ethical imperative of not doing harm to the subject depicted, a female child’s body. His construction is also a form of destruction of what is morally acceptable. For the surrealists who valued making one's dreams reality, this was a positive display of transgression against society's constraints over artistic, sexual and political expression; Bellmer's expressions of paedophilic desires and violent fantasies were thus in a sense given an alibi for their existence, as he too was tapping into his unconscious, making his dreams reality.

Today’s society (or today's art historian) tries to hold artists ethically accountable for their work, as we think more conceptually of what it is we are looking at and what meanings are available. In the case of Die Puppe we are not just looking at an art object: it is as a highly-sexualised sculpture of mutating formlessness that expresses the child's body as on display and available that is shocking, yet this fusion of the aesthetically beautiful with the morally abhorrent, makes one ask the question: does the beautiful excuse the unacceptable meanings? I believe this is very difficult to take or pardon for a contemporary audience: like the informe itself, Bellmer's work refuses moral categorisation - the best we can do is a “yes, but”.

The meaning behind Bellmer's work is highly contentious. Those critics who have read Bellmer's art alongside his biography (see Hal Foster's Compulsive Beauty: 1993) have pardoned the literal violence done to the bodies of the dolls by preferring to read it as a metaphorical violence against Nazi images of idealised femininity. But, as Rudolf Kuenzli points out in Surrealism and Misogyny, "These are not just “bodies”; these are always female figures." Kuenzli continues: "faced with the female figure, the male surrealists fears castration, fears the dissolution of his own ego. In order to overcome his fears, he fetishises the female figure, he deforms, disfigures, manipulates her; he literally manhandles her in order to reestablish his own ego, and not his own informe."

The photograph left, features Bellmer's lover, the German artist and writer Unica Zürn (1916-1970) as model/victim. Her body is distorted by wire that criss-crosses her now constricted flesh, making it ripple and bulge, so that her body appears ugly and unfamiliar. This can be seen as Bellmer asserting his dominance over the body of his lover, manipulating her flesh to prove his superiority. If though we think of this uncanny body as being a projection of Bellmer's desire, then it can be seen conceptually to follow the psychoanalyst Theodor Reik's proposition that, “when the body is consciously felt as ugly, and the phantasy of the display as disgusting, this feeling itself becomes characteristic or the masochistic pleasure and contributes essentially to sexual excitement.”. Whichever position is taken, as masochist or sadist, it is clear that violence to and the shattering of the body is something that arouses Bellmer.

The point of the formless/Informe is not to dictate how the abjection and abstraction of the body be handled. What it does is allow the artist is to give free rein to desire, to fashion images of the body that fit their fantasies of bodily alterity, and so to experience a different version of bodily existence. The formless figure makes visible the strain placed on the self by unconscious fears and desires, by projecting them outside onto the body. This inversion of the interior into the exterior can liberate us by making manifest what we fear and desire as something visible and therefore known and understood, but in violently shattering the integrity of the body's limits it also runs the risk that what is shattered is an ethical respect for humanity. To treat the body as formless, as full of the possibilities of a liminality of gender and sexuality, is liberating; but when this  formlessness is projected onto a real body, as in the case of the photograph of Unica Zürn, the depiction of the fantastical can become an exhibition of atrocity. Therefore even with the formless, some boundaries can only be breached at our own risk.

Illustrations:

Hans Bellmer, La Poupée, 1935
Hans Bellmer, Die Puppe (Rumpf), 1935
Hans Bellmer, Front cover for Surrealism, Meme 4 Spring, 1958

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