at Alan Koppel, through June 19
From Cindy Sherman's troubling images of damaged dolls to the perennial art-student Barbie project, dolls in contemporary art have come to communicate issues of body image and gender identity. But perhaps because our anything-goes culture tends to reduce attempts at outrage to irony or humor, few have the disturbing, iconic power of Hans Bellmer's dolls, which he constructed himself then photographed in the 1930s. Nineteen of the photos, all titled La poupee, are on view at Alan Koppel, where they demonstrate that great art often creates contradictory meanings.
Bellmer--a leftist who was born in 1902 in Kattowitz (then part of Germany)--quit his advertising work at the start of the Third Reich, saying that no one should support the new regime, and retreated to private art making in his apartment. Because his figures were often distorted or dismembered, the photographs he created could not have been exhibited in Germany under the Nazis, who cultivated kitschy images of healthy people. In fact Bellmer's photos of doll limbs and doll amputees offer a disturbing vision of the true ethos underlying Nazi ideas of "health." Bellmer did promote his work to an extent, sending his images to French surrealists, who published them in journals and books. In 1938 Bellmer fled to France, where he continued to make photographs, drawings, and sculptures focused on the female form; he died there in 1975.
Art historians--and Bellmer himself--have claimed sociological meanings for the "La poupee" series; Therese Lichtenstein suggests that they protest Nazism "by using psychosexual 'control' over the doll as a substitute for the loss of control in [Bellmer's] own life." But the first thing to understand about these photos is that they're fetish images. In one the doll has ribbons in her hair, which are a bit incongrous given that she's nude. Her face is partly hidden behind her breasts; her other parts are similarly bulbous, and the fissures where they've been assembled easily visible. Recalling some of the more perverse comics of R. Crumb, this image seems to say, "give me your body, never mind your humanity." The dolls that have no head make this wish even clearer. In one image, a skirt pulled most of the way down reveals black little-girl shoes and white socks, but attached to the doll's torso is not a head and shoulders but a belly, which leads to another set of legs pointing into the air. This figure is posed in front of a bathroom, the toilet just visible.
Bellmer made over 100 such images between 1934 and 1938, using first one doll and then a second. He created the dolls using a variety of materials; both were close to life-size and constructed in modules that could be mixed and matched--the second doll's parts included four legs, which he sometimes joined at the tops of the thighs. Many of the images, including most of those here, were tinted by hand. In the bulbous nude, the belly button is colored red; in the bathroom image, the skin is delicately highlighted with unnaturally pink flesh tones. The photographic silver remains visible behind Bellmer's hand coloring, and the rarely naturalistic yet lushly sensual colors emphasize the images' fantastic--and photographic--nature. These images at once document how Bellmer's dolls were made, suggest the dream of a living being, and reveal their own artificiality. That's also established by his arrangement of the dolls' modules. One photo shows only a few hard-to-identify body parts, including two spheres with holes, and another depicts two sets of doubled legs draped over a chair, as if in offering to a visitor.
It's been argued that the male sex drive is inherently violent, and I've long felt that many of Picasso's fragmented female figures represent a woman rendered at once pliable and ecstatic by penetration. Bellmer both satisfies his own fantasies and makes such violence explicit, even heightens it through his use of backgrounds. Doubled legs with pink polka dots, less alluring than they are suggestive of disease, hang in a dark doorway. A doll whose left leg is severed sits at the bottom of a stairway; she seems to be waiting for a visitor (or the viewer) to carry her upstairs.
At times Bellmer photographed the dolls outdoors, comparing them to objects in nature: one set of legs placed atop another mirror the twisted branches of a shrub behind them. The comparison of female bodies and plants is old, but this one is disturbing because the picture was clearly taken at night, as if surreptitiously, and the "body" is only a woman's bottom half shown twice. In others the doll appears to be suspended, in one case hanging from a tree in broad daylight like a piece of ripe fruit. Doll parts in another photo look like the contents of a picnic basket--they're arranged on a cloth and tinted in "fruity" colors--red, blue, green, and orange.
It's curious that in an age of scathing feminist critiques of sexist art, Bellmer's photos of mangled dolls representing young girls have largely been treated with respect. That his attitude was lustful is apparent from his own writing. In his essay "Memories of the Doll Theme" (1934), printed in a book with ten of his photos, he said that "certain things in the realm of the maiden have always been desired," but while "girlish legs" have "a certain inviolability," a "solution" could be found in a doll, "a real object to be possessed." Nor were Bellmer's predilections limited to fantasy. In 1958 he took nude photographs of surrealist writer Unica Zurn (later diagnosed with schizophrenia) bound with string; she wrote that by cooperating with him she participated "in the abomination of herself."
What saves Bellmer's images from being mere fetishes is that he understood and made explicit his own destructiveness and the artificiality of his fantasy images. He wrote in "Memories of the Doll Theme" that his figure "despite her limitless submissiveness understood that she was reserved for despair." His photographs' power is matched by their awful hollowness: we feel ourselves in the presence of a powerful fantasy that's all the more vivid for its failure.