Bellmer and Virtual Assemblages

The disturbing, uncanny works of the German artist Hans Bellmer (1902–1975) include drawings, sculptures, photographs, paintings, and poetic writings. Although the writings, due to their highly enigmatic style, are susceptible to multiple interpretations, they do offer several insights into the overall approach of this controversial artist to his work. Perhaps most significant of all is when Bellmer writes in the first lines of Little Anatomy of the Physical Unconscious, or The Anatomy of the Image that there is one ‘law of birth’ underlying every mode of expression, namely, that of the reflex.[1] So in the context of his analysis of pain and pleasure, especially in terms of how the two are united in every displacement of the former, Bellmer views every bodily expression as a reflexive image of this displaced pain and suffering. The photographs of his dolls from the 1930s portray this kind of displacement by way of interchanging the dolls’ body parts in a multitude of unexpected ways, thereby exposing the myth of pure, rigid, eternally youthful bodies that were prevalent in Nazi art during that time.[2] And this inversion of normalized identity through artificial associations and displacements has remained an influential counter-strategy, as we’ve seen with Cindy Sherman’s use of masks and mannequins in the 1980s, the doll-like sex robots in Mamoru Oshii’s anime film Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence in 2004, and more recently Lisa Bufano’s dance performances that incorporate prosthetic table legs.

Without taking into consideration such processes of inversion, displacement, and substitution, it would be impossible to say what it is about Bellmer’s constructed (and deconstructed) dolls from the 1930s that evokes for us an unnerving sense of the uncanny. In Hal Foster’s discussion of surrealism’s relationship to trauma, the death drive, and the compulsion to repeat, he writes that Bellmer’s poupées (dolls) are charged with the uncanny insofar as they ‘force together apparently polar opposites’.[3] Hence in one 1934 photograph we observe the mask-like face of Bellmer’s first doll, situated atop of a decomposed and disarticulated body, tilted back toward us with a coy, seductive glance – as if it were death itself that aroused our desire to life. The object of desire is therefore simultaneously real and virtual insofar as the embodiment of the other, as well as ourselves, is something that results from a series of displacements that are neither finalised nor self-identical. In this context, the real is associated with an original source of pain, conflict, and excitation, while the virtual is what arises from a projection of that pain to some other part of the body – a leg, a shoulder, a clenched fist, the mask-like face, etc. It may also be projected outward so that another person comes to be seen as both the same and not the same as oneself. So this is why the fragmented, corpselike, fetishised object of desire is uncanny, as it embodies an ongoing set of displacements which makes it what it is and what it is not at the same time: ‘Among other things, it so happens that what proceeds from an object, for example a female foot, is only real if desire does not fatally take it for a foot.’[4]

Bellmer defines the real and the virtual in relation to different parts of the personality that either create an excitation or experience its effect,[5] but he also goes to great lengths to show how these different parts become confused with one another. He thus writes of a ‘reversible axis’ according to which images of limbs, torsos, sexual organs, and heads can be interchanged with one another via endless permutations.[6] In his art, this axis may be represented in a variety of ways: ball joints, marbles, spinning tops, beach balls, bicycle wheels, protuberant bellies, and the like. What is common with each image is how it can become a reversible focal point that continually ‘inspires the production of substitutions or virtualities’.[7] Anticipating the concerns of later post-humanist artists, Bellmer’s focus on these shifting transformations of identity rebels against the concept of the self as a manifestation of an unchanging essence. It is no surprise, then, that Bellmer’s more flexible second doll of the 1930s was photographed in a variety of positions in which it became increasingly difficult to identify a single focal point of excitation – whether an arm, set of legs, broken chair, or the round belly. Along these lines, Therese Lichtenstein observes how ‘the reversibility of body parts displaces the center of gravity from one part of the body to another’.[8] And Bellmer himself explicitly identifies the culminating point of this process as one in which we take the entire individual to be the focal point of excitation, thereby making it even more difficult to distinguish the real from the virtual, the proper from the improper, and so on.[9]

Bellmer’s multiple rearrangements of the doll’s body pose a direct challenge to the homogeneity of a purified, self-enclosed, autonomous form of self-identity. They also expose the fragile nature of what it means to be human in a world governed by open-ended processes of transformation. The sculptures and images of dolls remind us that being human is an ever-changing category involving dynamic transversal relations with all of the outside world. And it’s important to keep in mind the role of death in this challenge to any firm sense of identity. Rosi Braidotti refers to this challenge in terms of the subject becoming what it has always been: ‘a virtual corpse’.[10] This does not represent a nihilistic retreat from life, but rather an affirmation of it in the fullest sense insofar as it is always already bound up with its purported antithesis. In a similar vein, Bellmer brings his reflections to a close in the Little Anatomy of the Physical Unconscious by noting how the self becomes itself by paradoxically becoming the other: ‘For the duration of a spark, the individual and the non-individual become interchangeable and the terror of the mortal limitation of the ego in time and space appears to be annulled. It seems only when everything which is not man combines with him, that he can then be himself.’[11]

— Oklahoma State University, January 2016


[1] Hans Bellmer, Little Anatomy of the Physical Unconscious, or The Anatomy of the Image, trans. Joe Coleman (Waterbury Center, Vermont: Dominion, 2004), p. 5.

[2] Therese Lichtenstein, Behind Closed Doors: The Art of Hans Bellmer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), pp. 155-60.

[3] Hal Foster, Compulsive Beauty (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), p. 102.

[4] Bellmer, p. 47.

[5] Bellmer, p. 19.

[6] Bellmer, p. 13.

[7] Sue Taylor, The Anatomy of Anxiety (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000), p. 127.

[8] Lichtenstein, p. 54.

[9] Bellmer, p. 17.

[10] Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013), p. 136.

[11] Bellmer, p. 66.