Hans Bellmer is one of the most original figures associated with the Surrealist movement. Born in Germany, he came of age during the rise of Nazism. In 1933, reacting to the fascist celebration of the perfect body as an ideal of Aryan supremacy, Bellmer began constructing life-sized female dolls out of papier-mâché and photographing them in grotesque poses with the body contorted, mutilated, and recombined into odd assemblages.
These works are, on the one hand, ideological and political statements, but the photographs also strongly reflect the artist’s fascination with the fantastic or monstrous aspects of ordinary objects and an awareness of the darker side of human sexuality. The works are undeniably disturbing, and while Surrealists considered themselves open-minded and anti-bourgeois, they sometimes found Bellmer’s work too perverse and failed to embrace him as a full compatriot.
The Doll (La poupée), a rare vintage print, recalls Marcel Duchamp’s quintessentially modernist image, Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912. Bellmer’s doll strikes a modest pose—her bow and averted eyes suggest a charming innocence. However, the anatomy is all wrong: the hand gripping the staircase is on the wrong arm, the upper torso looks like buttocks, the leg on the right is missing, and the one on the left is tied off at the knee. As if this weren’t unsettling enough, an eye stares back at us from the navel, making the viewer self-conscious about gazing at the doll’s nakedness. The work exemplifies the simultaneous condition of beauty and horror that permeates Bellmer’s art.