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Book Reviews
Hans Bellmer:
The Anatomy of Anxiety
Sue Taylor
The MIT Press, $40.00
ISBN 0-262-20130-5

Review by: Robert Hirsch
From Vol. 2 No. 6

Sue Taylor utilizes over 120 images to discuss Hans Bellmer’s sexually explicit drawings, paintings, and prints in addition to his notorious doll photographs. Taylor probes this German-born surrealist’s anxieties, fantasies, losses, and obsessions that include fetishism, lesbianism, pedophilia, rape, sado-masochism, and even murder, which haunted him and informed his picture making. Taylor investigates these disturbing issues through the lens of Freudian themes from her perspective as a feminist art historian. She views Bellmer’s cruel and painful identification “with the female figures he mistreats in his art” as a result of his own rancorous wishes, guilt and suffering.

Since its beginnings after World War I, surrealists such as Man Ray and Hannah Höch, have used photography as a conduit for free association. Towards this end Bellmer fabricated a doll, the size of an adolescent girl, held together by ball-joints so that its head, breasts, and limbs could be adjusted, and used it to make ambiguously erotic, jarring, and pornographic tableaus. This doll, wearing wigs and scanty attire, was situated in various locations and manifests the strong impression of having been physically abused, eliciting a paradoxical response that jumps back and forth between being repulsive, sympathetic, and sexual.

Later Bellmer made a second doll with a central ball-joint that enabled him to compose anatomically impossible configurations of doubled body halves, such as a torso with legs at both ends, turning the body into a tortured dungeon of disharmony and hopelessness. Bellmer applied unnatural synthetic color schemes to these representations of his interior landscapes to increase their menacing nature and make the terrors of human sexual proclivities visible.

Art that transforms its materials and subjects into something beyond itself can transcend its literal own place, theme, and time to expand our understanding of life. Historically, Bellmer’s doll images can be viewed as subversive symbols of the decaying German societal values under Hitler’s regime. This is because they undermine the nostalgic Nazi vision of the perfect undisturbed Aryan who is faithful to church, family, and nation and sees others as lesser life forms. Today such images can be re-interpreted to reveal how the politicization of religion can inspire the demons in human nature when it is hijacked by clerics who preach radical purity through violence that imposes an intolerant messianic vision of destroying infidels in order to get a foothold into heaven.

The work of surrealists, such as Bellmer, reminds us that enduring art transcends its own time, carries the power to inspire our imaginations, and provokes response by challenging the status quo. RH