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Hans Bellmer

biography

Katowice (Polonia) 1902 - Parigi (Francia) 1975

Bellmer was born in the city of Kattowitz in 1902, part of the German Empire (now Katowicw, Poland). Up until 1926, he'd been working as a draftsman for his own advertising company. He initiated his doll project to oppose the fascism of the Nazi Party by declaring that he would make no work that would support the new German state. Represented by mutated forms and unconventional poses, his dolls were directed specifically at the cult of the perfect body then prominent in Germany. Bellmer was influenced in his choice of art form by reading the published letters of Oskar Kokoschka (Der Fetisch, 1925). Bellmer's doll project is also said to have been catalysed by a series of events in his personal life. Hans Bellmer takes credit for provoking a physical crisis in his father and brings his own artistic creativity into association with childhood insubordination and resentment toward a severe and humorless paternal authority. Perhaps this is one reason for the nearly universal, unquestioning acceptance in the literature of Bellmer's promotion of his art as a struggle against his father, the police, and ultimately, fascism and the state. Events of his personal life also including meeting a beautiful teenage cousin in 1932 (and perhaps other unattainable beauties), attending a performance of Jacques Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman (in which a man falls tragically in love with an automaton), and receiving a box of his old toys. After these events, he began to actually construct his first dolls. In his works, Bellmer explicitly sexualized the doll as a young girl. The dolls incorporated the principle of "ball joint", which was inspired by a pair of sixteenth-century articulated wooden dolls in the Kaiser Friedrich Museum Sketch for the "Die Puppe" series, 1932. He visited Paris in 1935 and made contacts there, such as Paul Éluard, but returned to Berlin because his wife Margarete was dying of tuberculosis. Bellmer produced the first doll in Berlin in 1933. Long since lost, the assemblage can nevertheless be correctly described thanks to approximately two dozen photographs Bellmer took at the time of its construction. Standing about fifty-six inches tall, the doll consisted of a modeled torso made of flax fiber, glue, and plaster; a mask-like head of the same material with glass eyes and a long, unkempt wig; and a pair of legs made from broomsticks or dowel rods. Bellmer's 1934 anonymous book, The Doll (Die Puppe), produced and published privately in Germany, contains 10 black-and-white photographs of Bellmer's first doll arranged in a series of "tableaux vivants" (living pictures). The book was not credited to him, as he worked in isolation, and his photographs remained almost unknown in Germany. Yet Bellmer's work was eventually declared "degenerate" by the Nazi Party, and he was forced to flee Germany to France in 1938. Bellmer's work was welcomed in the Parisian art culture of the time, especially the Surrealists around André Breton, because of the references to female beauty and the sexualization of the youthful form. His photographs were published in the Surrealist journal Minotaure, 5 December 1934 under the title "Poupée, variations sur le montage d'une mineure articulée" (The Doll, Variations on the Assemblage of an Articulated Minor). He aided the French Resistance during the war by making fake passports. He was imprisoned in the Camp des Milles prison at Aix-en-Provence, a brickworks camp for German nationals, from September 1939 until the end of the Phoney war in May 1940. After the war, Bellmer lived the rest of his life in Paris. Bellmer gave up doll-making and spent the following decades creating erotic drawings, etchings, sexually explicit photographs, paintings, and prints of pubescent girls. In 1954, he met Unica Zürn, who became his companion until her suicide in 1970. He continued working into the 1960s. Of his own work, Bellmer said, "What is at stake here is a totally new unity of form, meaning and feeling: language-images that cannot simply be thought up or written up … They constitute new, multifaceted objects, resembling polyplanes made of mirrors … As if the illogical was relaxation, as if laughter was permitted while thinking, as if error was a way and chance, a proof of eternity.” Bellmer died 24 February 1975 of bladder cancer. He was buried beside Zürn at Père Lachaise Cemetery.