The object of desire-La Poupee
In the mid 1930’s Hans Bellmer created a progression of flexible sculptures that he documented in a series of photographs. This collection of images, which was entitled La Poupee, was said to have been the embodiment of his unrequited lust for a young girl. Positioned in a variety of ways La Poupee contains the essence of sensuality and vulnerability, but it also holds the very real nature of sexual violence. By praising such work, was society simply acknowledging the violence of the objectification of one’s desire, or were they supporting it? One must look at the works being created during such an era to truly understand why these subjects were important and accepted.
During the surrealist period many artists explored the darker side of their sexuality through imagery. Edward Munch was one such artist, even ejaculating on his painting of the Madonna.Salvador Dali, on the other hand, displayed his love for one single woman by placing her posterior and face in a number of his paintings. It was said that the eroticism of focusing on one woman was one of the common themes displayed in many works during this period. This in itself, while sounding romantic, can be an unhealthy act. After all, obsession is just another form of dehumanization through objectification and abuse. It is no secret that the majority of artists working at this time were men, and that the art that was produced seemed to be a part of their inner Freud. Andre Breton, with his novel Nadja, even exploited a woman’s madness to answer the question that begins his novel Nadja with “Who am I?”
However, female artists such as Meret Oppenheim with her Object (Luncheon in Fur) were also exploring taboo ideas that were still being deemed subversive by many. One often has to go to extremes to discover the true nature of an idea; perhaps the sexuality of the surrealists was merely a response to the repression of the times?
In producing his series of photographs in an anonymous book, entitled La Poupee, Bellmer seemed to be aware of the brutality in his own work. It was later deemed degenerate by the Nazi Army, namely for its opposition of the Aryan ideal of perfection, forcing him to flee to Paris. In Paris his work was well praised under surrealists such as Breton because of its references to the Femme-Enfant also known as the ideal of dual realities between the feminine and the adolescent. This is only where the story becomes known; perhaps one has to look to the beginning to truly understand why Bellmer’s work seems so violent and alluring at the same time.
A draftsman since 1926, Hans Bellmer first encountered the inspiration for La Poupee as he was entering his thirtieth year. She was a beautiful cousin of his who went by the name of Ursula Naguschewski, and she was said to have been fifteen or sixteen. Not only was she in close relation to him, she was also still considered a child causing her to be unattainable. Nabakov’s Lolita had not yet been written, but the feelings of guilt at the attraction and taboo of a young girl is a familiar story. During this time, Bellmer also attended a performance of Jacques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, in which the protagonist falls in love with an automaton named Olympia.
With the influence of Futurism and the sexuality of the machine, Bellmer also had the distinct influence of his childhood toys. Comparing the lust a grown man might feel to the love of a yielding object, such as a doll, brings to light the fact that while he may have desired his young cousin he did not understand her. As he would have us believe with his creations, she was merely an arrangement of firm limbs, large eyes, and innocence. It was also known that Bellmer was extremely reclusive, mainly working alone away from the interference of others. To deal with his lust he felt the need to explore the formula that held his infatuation, and in his words, “to construct an artificial girl with anatomical possibilities. . . capable of re-creating the heights of passion even to inventing new desires.”
His first attempt at sculpture, La Poupee was definitely such a creation. With a face that held ephemeral beauty and vulnerability she possessed the child-like naiveté and womanly appearance that is often associated with youth. In one version her body is a slender torso accompanied by (but not attached to) two pairs of double-jointed legs that connect at the pelvis, adorned in white socks and mary-janes. In some versions she is completely armless as well. She is capable of being turned upside down, taken apart, open, and unable to defend herself. There is something tragically beautiful in her narrative as it exemplifies the male gaze. The look in her eyes says it all, large and melancholy, knowing in their acceptance of her position.
Was La Poupee truly an act of passion and yearning as Bellmer declared? Passion is fleeting after all, and can lead to contempt, especially if such passion is directed at something elusive. Bellmer further investigated his desire for what was considered inaccessible in his essay “Memories of the Doll Theme” (1934). In his concluding thoughts in this work he became bitter at the unavailability of the young girls he so often describes, and in turn imagines a doll made in their image that is incapable of escaping his grasp and gaze as he “probes with aggressive fingers”. His work not only suggests dominance within the male gaze, but curiosity as well. There is a need in Bellmer’s work to unveil the world of the adolescent female he is objectifying because in her silence she is a mystery to him. The elusiveness that this silence suggests is a mistaken notion, as it evokes such scorn in Bellmer that it leaves him wanting to contain the very essence of purity that it suggests and even exploit it.
In acknowledging his objectification of the nubile form Bellmer seems to have stumbled across something much deeper, the tragedy of being that nubile form. Young women, though beautiful, often seek validation in a variety of ways. Society pushes such an archetype to be complacent and accepting of any affection given to them, even forcing them to play the role of the victim.
In her book, Dilemmas of Desire, Deborah L. Tolman explores the consequences of the way girls are portrayed as the object or the victim of someone else’s desire, but virtually never as someone with acceptable sexual feelings of their own. Tolman describes that girls, as they enter adolescence, “may lose an ability to speak about what they know, see, feel, and experience” as they are pushed to conform to cultural standards. Many experience a “crisis connection” , a feeling of alternate parallels between the self and the being they are objectified as. This is extremely similar to the notions described with the surrealist idea of the Femme-Enfant.
In Tolman’s research she interviewed a number of young girls about their experiences with desire and the consequences it brought about. “While speaking of the power of their embodied feelings, the girls in this sample described the difficulties that their sexual feelings posed, being aware of both the potential for pleasure and the threat of danger that their desire holds for them.” It seems that even more than the ones who would desire her, the archetype of the Femme-Enfant is most aware of the contempt that is often aimed at her for her inability to speak. As Tolman, in reference to an experience related to her by one of her subjects, states “She learned that her own desire may lead to male violence…” Which brings us back to Bellmer’s suggested brutality in response to the young girls he cannot obtain.
To obtain is to suggest a possession more violating to the inner being of a person than simple physical interaction. The very notion of obtainment shows the Femme-Enfant that she is no longer seen as human but as an object. Trapped in between the conscience of a child and the reality that the world forces upon her as her form becomes divided, silence seems to be the only option in preserving the part that is still sacred. By what appears to be pure accident, Bellmer’s La Poupee seems to bring to light the voice of young women in the middle of adolescent sexuality.
For many years La Poupee was a series of work that caused intense hostility for me when I looked at her, but I kept finding myself attracted to her body and its display in Bellmer’s photographs. The touch of color in the black and white film, the sad helplessness of her situation; I realized then that I was angry because I could relate to her in a way that I feel many can, regardless of gender.
What started out as an act of lust and sensual fervor has become a social commentary on the being herself. In the end Bellmer was able to convey the human condition through this piece, which is the reason she draws us back to her again and again. Perhaps society was only beginning to see the truth behind the violence, causing this series to be so acknowledged during its time. It went beyond beauty and the feminine, it is truly about the confusion we all feel when we are coming of age in a world that encourages silence.
“The body resembles a sentence that seems to invite us to dismantle it into its component letters, so that its true meanings may be revealed anew through an endless stream of anagrams.”-Hans Bellmer