Journal of the History of Sexuality 11.4 (2002) 700-702
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Hans Bellmer: The Anatomy of Anxiety. By Sue Taylor. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000. Pp. 296. $42.95 (cloth).
Now that surrealism again rides on a wave of influence, interest in one of its seminal artists, the German photographer Hans Bellmer (1902-75), has been rekindled. Bellmer is best known for his sexually charged doll constructions. These dolls, made of mannequin parts, torsos of flax fiber, masks of plaster and glue, and other fragments, are the subjects of repulsive and yet morbidly riveting photographs. In her recently published book, Hans Bellmer: The Anatomy of Anxiety, Sue Taylor, assistant professor of art history at Portland State University in Oregon, has gathered fresh information on the artist's works and important persons in his life. She managed this by conducting interviews with Thomas Bellmer, the artist's nephew, and a correspondence with Ursula Nagushewski, Hans Bellmer's cousin.
Unlike Peter Webb's biography of Bellmer, Sue Taylor's book is not a defense against the charges of pornography that have been leveled at the artist; rather, it is a more substantial inquiry into the relationship between the tortured content of the artist's psyche and his oeuvre. To this end Taylor analyzes Bellmer's works in chronological order and with commendable thoroughness, placing them in the context of the artist's life events and that of the Zeitgeist of the period.
Stating that "the very nature of Bellmer's apparently compulsive rehearsals renders a psychoanalyst's reading of his work a most productive one," Taylor employs just such a framework to analyze Bellmer's productions, which "constantly depict female bodies raped, sodomized, bound and eviscerated." Although rooted in these themes, from which the artist never veered and which he explored in the most intense and fearless manner, his works are nevertheless imbued by a strange and eerie artistry. [End Page 700]
Whereas previous critics saw in Bellmer's works mere pornography, Taylor sees a close identification of the artist with his works. "His vicious fantasies . . . and destruction of female anatomy constitute a by-product of his own tortured identity," Taylor writes. By a careful and complete study of Bellmer's works, Taylor builds—successfully, in my view—a case to "dismiss the misogynistic implications of his many sinister images" and to attribute to the dolls the projection of Bellmer's alter ego, his feminine self-identification.
The problematics of Bellmer's gender identity became evident early in Bellmer's adult life. In a scene described in the book, at the end of a train trip to Berlin, where he was to attend the Polytechnic Institute, the young man emerged from the compartment "outrageously made up like a girl." To complete his provocative attire, Bellmer wore a bowler hat and carried a Dada pamphlet under his arm. This apparition was designed to shock and humiliate his father. Curiously, despite the central role of the artist's hate for his father—a hate that, notwithstanding "an erotic investment in the mother," Taylor attributes to "repressed homosexual attachment"—the author does not give us insight into the parents' responses to their artist son's emotions.
Taylor's book is divided into three parts. In the first, she describes the construction of Bellmer's dolls. According to Taylor, the creation of the first doll was a family affair. The artist's young wife, Margrete, his brother, and his cousin Ursula all participated. In their vilification of the female body, the dolls were a collective revolt against resented paternal authority and bourgeois values and a defiance of the Nazi ideology dominant at the time, which idolized a strong athletic body. This resulted in Bellmer's inclusion in the list of artists guilty of what the Nazis called "degenerate art" (entharte Kunst).
In the second part of her book, Taylor reviews Bellmer's writings and further explores the meaning of his dolls. She asserts that Bellmer was familiar with Freudian concepts such as repression, condensation, and displacement and used them in his creations. For Taylor, in...