The Doll is a hand-coloured black-and-white photograph of a partially dismembered life-size doll sculpture. Partly influenced by 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, Hans Bellmer built his first Doll in 1933-4 and a second in 1935, of which this is a photograph.
Bellmer’s first Doll was an articulated construction of wood, plaster, metal rods, nuts and bolts which represented a young girl. A disquieting sculpture, it embodied a number of qualities of the surrealist object: subversive and erotic, sadistic and fetishistic. A German artist bitterly opposed to the Nazi regime, Bellmer moved to Paris in the late 1930s where he was embraced by the surrealist group and was described in the 1938 Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme as a ‘surrealist writer, painter, and builder of large dolls.’ (Quoted in Webb and Short 1985, p.53.)
The artist took a number of photographs of The Doll in various poses and stages of construction, ten of which were published with an accompanying text as Die Puppe in 1934. Eighteen of them were also published in the Surrealist review Minotaure in the same year (no.6, winter 1934). Soon the photographs of the Doll became as important as the sculpture itself: with their narrative function, they opened up new voyeuristic and fetishistic possibilities.
Bellmer completed a second doll sculpture in the autumn of 1935 and photographed it in different stages of dismemberment in over a hundred different scenarios, often shown wearing little white socks and the black patent leather shoes of young girls. The present photograph shows a version of the second Doll with no arms or legs, hanging from a tree. Her torso is actually a second pelvis placed back to front and upside-down on top of the central ball joint, which forms her stomach. The photograph is taken from below in a way that emphasises the doll’s breasts and genitals, while her face is partially obscured. Bellmer presents us with the aftermath of torture or abuse. Delicately hand-coloured in pale hues of yellow and green, the photograph, however, has a theatrical presence, as if to remind the viewer that it is a representation, rather than an act, of sadism.
With his Doll sculptures and photographs Bellmer appropriated and subverted the idea of the child’s toy. An erotic obsession, the Dolls incarnated his fascination for the corruption of innocence and for the writing of De Sade, whom he much admired. Yet, the art historian Hal Foster has written that there was also a masochistic subtext in the Doll photographs: ‘in his sadistic scenes Bellmer leaves behind masochistic traces; in his erotic manipulation of the dolls he explores a sadistic impulse that is also self-destructive. In this way the dolls may go inside sadistic mastery to the point where the subject confronts its greatest fear: its own fragmentation and disintegration.’ (Foster 2001, p.208.) The art historian Rosalind Krauss has also described Bellmer’s use of the Doll imagery as a tactic: ‘To produce the image of what one fears, in order to protect oneself from what one fears – this is the strategic achievement of anxiety, which arms the subject, in advance, against the onslaught of trauma, the blow that takes one by surprise.’ (Krauss 1997, p.196.)