restricted access Chapter 5: The Wounded Hands of Bataille: Hans Bellmer, Bataille, and the Art of Monstrosity
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f i v e The Wounded Hands of Bataille: Hans Bellmer, Bataille, and the Art of Monstrosity ‘‘Just to see’’ Two hands fold into one, a gesture meant to carry man into the great oneness. — m a r t i n h e i d e g g e r Among the artistic depictions of the crucified Christ at Golgotha, Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (1515) remains among the most remarkable for its almost photographic portrayal of divine abjection (figure 2).1 To the right of the crucified Christ, supported by a sympathetic witness,2 is a swooning mother Mary, hands clasped and eyes closed in a faint. To his left is an anachronistically intact and relatively stoical John the Baptist, who, in this scene of hyperbolic agony and grief, ironically appears to be the only person keeping his head. Kneeling at the base of the cross is Magdalene, whose grimace is matched only by that of the crucified himself. It is Christ, of course, whose sufferings are the most profound, and whose near-naked body registers manifold tortures. His feet, apparently deformed by abuse, 124 ................. 16666$ $CH5 10-02-07 14:20:49 PS The Wounded Hands of Bataille 125 Figure 2. Matthias Grünewald (Mathis Nithart Gothart), The Crucifixion, from the Isenheim Altarpiece, c.1512–15 (oil on panel), c.1480–1528, 䉷 Musee d’Unterlinden , Colmar, France/The Bridgeman Art Library. are fastened to the wooden base of the cross by a single enormous spike. From the wounds issue thick, serpentine strands of blood. Christ’s head is crowned with monstrous thorns, and hangs at an impossible angle, with his closed eyes directed toward the ground. The wounds of his body, on the other hand, are open, and so multiple as to be numberless. Most of these lacerations bleed; some still clasp thorns which, broken, remain impaled in his flagellated flesh. The wound in his right side is the most egregious, and bleeds abundantly, from torso to tattered loincloth. The musculature of Christ is sinewy, convulsed, at once rigid and undulant. But Christ’s agony culminates most poignantly in his hands. Conjoined with the horizontal beam of the cross, which bows as if in empathic imitation of the contorted body it supports, each hand is pierced in the palm by a nail driven through the wood. The fingers of the upturned hands are shockingly splayed and almost arachnid in their morbid posture. And ................. 16666$ $CH5 10-02-07 14:21:16 PS 126 Ecce Monstrum though the sky’s blackness, the Marys’ grief, and the corpse-like demeanor of the crucified body indicate that Christ has uttered his last words and offered up his spirit, his crucified hands, as if still dying the death already undergone by the rest of the body, continue to cry out lama sabachthani. Indeed, so pronouncedly tortured (and so prominently positioned) are these hands that it is as if they are disembodied; they take on a life, or death, of their own.3 The uncanny separability of these organs is enhanced because the crucified hands are duplicated in the desperate gesture of Magdalene; though clenched together in supplication, her hands mimic those of Christ—but while her hands embrace each other, his are irreparably sundered. Artist Hans Bellmer viewed Grünewald’s rendition of the passion in 1932, during a vacation in Colmar. The encounter had an undeniable effect upon the young artist; his extreme emotional reaction to the painting was a mixture of horror and fascination that repeatedly emerged in graphic form in his subsequent work. Above all, the portrayal of hands in the famous religious painting seems to have influenced Bellmer, whose own renderings of this body part might be seen as so many meditations on the wounded and contorted appendages of Christ and Magdalene. Indeed, Bellmer appears to be obsessed with evoking damaged, twisted, monstrous hands in a manner that brings to mind Bataille’s virulent insistence on bodily deformation. Bataille and Bellmer not only collaborated in their work, but also partook of a certain intimacy based on their remarkably similar sensibilities. While other critics have addressed the illustrations Bellmer provided for Bataille’s Story of the Eye and Madame Edwarda, the intimacy between the writer and the artist goes further than these collaborations alone suggest.4 Focusing on Bellmer’s other works, I want show that for him, the hand manifests that sinister aspect of the sacred that Bataille evokes...


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