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The ‘Double’ in Bellmer’s Dolls

The ‘Double’ in Bellmer’s Dolls

Hans Bellmer is a German-born Surrealist artist and writer best known for the dolls he created around the ’30s. Besides the provocative nature of his work, he is considered as one of most controversial artists of the 20th century. His work touches on scopophilia, fetishism and sadomasochism among others; his dolls are penetrated, decaying, or dissecting themselves like a nightmare or a repressed reminiscence of childhood –he clearly expresses the darker, more frightening side of surrealism.

Uncanny Eroticism

His work is also emergent with an uncanny tangible eroticism. As Bellmer explains, “that eroticism relates to a knowledge of evil and the inevitability of death; it is not simply an expression of joyful passion”. [Webb 2006] But the vision is clearly reciprocal: Bataille’s conception of Eros, of a sexuality that is always already tainted by sin and the consciousness of death and that is only possible accompanying the death or absence of God, finds few better visual correlates than in Bellmer. “In essence, the domain of eroticism is the domain of violence, of violation. And violation is what we have with Bellmer.” [Bataille, 1986]  This reminds us of Freud drives’ dualist approach. According to his definitions, Eros and Death both help define one another, in that one is ‘not the other’; the identification of Eros automatically defines an opposite. Eros and Death interact and one can turn into the other, such a flipping of love and hate etc. [Freud, 1915]

Fig.1: Hans Bellmer, La Poupée (L’attente latente), 1949

Fig.1: Hans Bellmer, La Poupée (L’attente latente), 1949

The Death Element

From this perspective, what is uncanny in Bellmer’s dolls is a prominent fear of the dead. Freud mentions the fear of being buried alive by mistake as the most intense exemplar of uncanniness, and this predominantly occurs because one appears to be dead while he is not. [Freud, 1919] All these forms of non-human humanoids recall our fatal human nature and question our identity as human beings, the binaries between the self and the other, masculine and feminine, the beautiful and the grotesque. Like a dead body is revealed as uncanny because it is so familiar but still soulless, the dolls similarly evoke an eerie sensation since they seem to have features that look alive while they are not.

His projects are dominated by bodies that are deformed, limbs which are missing or duplicated, and male and female characteristics melded together to produce androgynous beings. Shared themes like female fantasies, male angst, sexual ambiguity and the search for personal identity that can be found on his dolls, correspond to the concerns of today’s world, where the emancipation of women has undermined the traditional gender roles of both sexes. In 1935, he constructs his new doll version with moveable ball-joints, and an extra torso and pair of arms and legs which could be joined and varied with their double bodyparts. Juxtaposing body and machine, the natural and the artificial, the doll fulfilled Bellmer’s desire to turn the body inside out, to re-order it in the same way an anagram mixes-up a word’s letters to discover new coded patterns. In all of Bellmer’s work, the repetition and scrambling of body parts is intended to show how the obsessive nature of desire transforms perception of the beloved’s body, endlessly replicating it for its own pleasure.

Fig.2: Hans Bellmer, La Poupée, 1939

Fig.2: Hans Bellmer, La Poupée, 1939

The Notion of the Inanimate Element & The Double

Besides the uncanniness that is prompted by the doubt about whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate, and the unconscious emerged fear of amputation there is also the case where the uncanny feeling evokes through a hyper-realistic yet fragmented representation of the human body, Via a transformation of an initial figure to another one, and that is through a metamorphosis, it is created the double of the figure, the other, but still the subject. The uncanny also appears through the loss of traditional bodily and locational references, by the pervasive substitution of the simulated for the ‘real’. [Vidler, 1992]

Thus, there is the uncanniness that can be triggered by a ‘double’ of the human figure. Freud explains about the uncanny that it can also and most importantly be evoked by involuntary repetition but even more by reflection or the doubling of a subject of any sort. Lacan follows and establishes Freud’s point with the “Mirror Stage” theorem. [Alain Miller, 2013] These two sources, appear to be the common denominator of all the uncanny incidents. Sarah Kofman believes that similar with repression, the double mainly supplements a presence instead of merely doubling it, allowing one to read, as in a mirror, the primary distinction, death, castration, and the need of deleting them. [Vidler, 1992] The psychoanalyst Mahmoud Sami-Ali has gone further in explaining Lacan’s notion of the Mirror Stage. He argues that the double is simultaneously an object and a projection of what it represents –the other-, familiar but however strange, the object has no face and its face exists from the point of view of the other”. [Vidler, 1992]

Fig.3: Hans Bellmer, Adjustable Doll Second Version, 1935

Fig.3: Hans Bellmer, Adjustable Doll Second Version, 1935

Hans Bellmer’s surreal, fragmented and doubled dolls, combine the physical interior with the psychic interior and reflect his idea of a physical unconscious. The body becomes the place on which identity can be explored in a way that blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy. According to him, the body is like a phrase that invites us to disjoint it (to pull it apart), so that it can be recomposed through an infinite series of anagrams. [Bellmer, 1962]

 

References:

Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely, The MIT Press, Cam¬bridge, Massachusetts, London, England, 1992

Hans Bellmer, 1962, Johnson B, Photography speaks: 150 photographers on their art, Aperture, New York, 2004

Jacques Alain Miller, Culture/Clinic 1: Applied Lacanian Psychoanalysis, University of Minnesota Press, Saint Paul, 2013

Sigmund Freud, Das Unheimliche, 1919

Sigmund Freud, The Unconscious, 1915

Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, London: International Psycho-Analytical Press, 1920

Sigmund Freud, The ego and the id, New York, W.W. Norton, 1962

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, 1930

Sarah Kofman, Freud and Fiction, Polity Press, 1991

Bataille Georges, Eroticism, Trans, Mary Dalwood. 1986, London: Penguin Books, 2001

Bellmer Hans, Little Anatomy of the Unconscious, or The Anatomy of the Image, Trans. Jon Graham. Dominion, VT: Dominion Publishing, 2004

Memories of the Doll Theme, Trans. Peter Chametzky, Susan Felleman and Jochen Schindler in Therese Lichtenstein. Behind Closed Doors: The Art of Hans Bellmer. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001

Notes on the Subject of the Ball Joint, in Sue Taylor. Hans Bellmer: The Anatomy of Anxiety. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000

Breton André, Second Manifesto of Surrealism, Trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1969

Lacan Jacques, The Signification of the Phallus, Écrits. Trans. Bruce Fink. W. W. New York: Norton & Company, 2006

Webb Peter, The Erotic Arts, London: Secker & Warburg, 1975

Webb Peter with Robert Short, Death, Desire and the Doll: The Life and Art of Hans Bellmer. Los Angeles, CA: Solar Books, 2006

Uncanny Erotics: On Hans Bellmer’s Souvenirs of the Doll, Jeremy Bell http://feralfeminisms.com/uncanny-erotics/

Fig.4: Hans Bellmer

Fig.4: Hans Bellmer

Image References:

Figure 1: Hans Bellmer, La Poupée (L’attente latente), 1949. Retrieved from:
http://visionaireworld.com/blog/luxembourg-dayans-object-desire/

Figure 2: Hans Bellmer, La Poupée, 1939. Retrieved from: http://artgallery.nsw.gov.au/

Figure 3: Hans Bellmer, Adjustable Doll Second Version, 1935. Retrieved from: https://whitecubediaries.wordpress.com/2013/02/21/the-uncanny-where-psychology-meets-art/

Figure 4: Hans Bellmer Photography, Retrieved from: http://orwellwasright.co.uk/2012/12/12/hans-bellmers-twisted-dolls/

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