Nobuyoshi Araki – Untitled (1995)

This is almost certainly Araki referencing Hans Bellmer.

I am actually glad to see Bellmer getting some renewed attention. I’m seeing more of his work slide across my dashboard here. Also, @insideflesh did a cool photobook last year inspired by him.

I’ve also mentioned that I think Bellmer is really kind of an important figure given our current globalized socio-political shitstorm. I suggested that it might be a good exhibition notion to do a joint retrospective of his work alongside Ana Mendieta.

The plan is–knock on wood–to dedicate two weeks of posts to using this blog to stage such an exhibition. I can’t say when just yet. It’s slow going as much of the scholarship is heavily coded in Freud’s BS. But I’m about a 1/3 of the way through preliminary research on Bellmer. And then it’ll be on to Mendieta–on whom there is far less scholarly material.

Anyway–something to keep an eye out for down the line.

[←] Hans Bellmer – Bound (1959); [→] Ana Mendieta – Untitled {Guanaroca [First Woman]} (1981)

I have been watching from the sidelines and even occasionally wading into the melee on the topic of the responsibilities of art and makers of art in this time and place.

It’s not that I think it’s an unimportant conversation–it’s crucial. I just don’t really understand why every time we have this conversation, it seems like it’s the first time we’re having it.

I fancy myself a bit of a curatrix–y’all likely see me as a snobby poseur; still, I’ve been thinking about Bellmer in the context of Ana Mendieta and vice versa.

The idea has sort of gotten stuck in my head that not only are they fascinating artists to juxtapose–like I could put together an entire exhibit just on the interplay between their respective deployment of gender symbolism.

However, beyond even that, I think it’s interesting the way they both strove to stand against the prevailing ethos of their time without buying into an either/or arch- dichotomy.

I sort of envision an exhibition that is a joint retrospective of their respective bodies of work presented side by side. Call it something like RESIST! Hegemony.

Alas, I don’t have the clout or gallery connections to do this and I don’t know that there’s enough critical work to back my thesis–although my gut says that there’s plenty, I’m just not yet familiar with it.

Would anyone be interested in potentially seeing such an exhibit even if it’s only ever lives on this blog?

Hans BellmerDe Sade Corselet (1950)

Wieland Schmied aptly states that ‘for Bellmer, the realm of Eros and
its artistic renditions provided the only possible rebellion against a
world careering
[sic] down a false trail by its reliance on rationalism and
. His work and beliefs revolted against an existence that
struggled under the oppression of reason. As he himself explained, “If
the origin of my work is scandalous, it is because, for me, the world is
a scandal”. In a life constrained by prejudices and prohibitions,
erotic experience in the realm of art became an outlet of unconditional
. If Paul Cézanne claimed that art is a harmony parallel to nature,
Bellmer exceeded him with a more radical epigram: art is a revolt
parallel to eroticism
’ (ibid., p. 24). The clean, controlled,
and minutely executed lines constituting the shape of the corset, an
emblem of female subjugation and heavy with erotic associations, almost
hypnotise the viewer through movement and transition. Bellmer departs
from the imagery of a restricting corset, exploring the boundaries of
the theme by contradicting its original function as an object through
its blown-up form. With a Minimalist twist, Bellmer seems to prefigure
the popular Op-Art of the Sixties and sexual undertones in which he
successfully reveals ’the desires of Eros as a parable of creativity’ (ibid.).

–exceprt from the Sotheby’s catalog note on the work [emphasis added]

Hans BellmerStudies for Georges Bataille’s L’histoire de l’oeil (1946)

Beyond a generalized outline and the Freudian psychoanalytic babble about the more unsettling aspects of his work–erotomania, pedophilia, etc.–my gut feeling is that the majority of art historians really get Bellmer all wrong.

It’s a bit too facile to call him a perverted pedophile–I won’t argue that his work doesn’t support these claim but only pursuing it to the point of dismissing him for his proclivities is perhaps cutting of one’s nose to spite one’s face. (Especially when you realize that almost all of his work that incites cries of pedophilia was a response to the cult of the perfect body in Germany circa the 1930s.)

The thing I think it’s important to keep in mind is how Bellmer repeatedly situated his work to stand firmly in a position counter to authoritarianism.

I find the Freudian analyses of him and his work even more frustrating–with their insistence on interpreting surrealist images as coded subconscious projections, i.e. Bellmer was a repressed homosexual (at that I have to question whether the person making that claim has ever even really looked at his work in more than a cursory fashion, he’s very much obsessed with female sexuality in a way that no gay man I know is…)

There’s talk of oedipal anxieties and fear of castration–and while both fit into the anti-authoritarian locus of his work, I read things differently. I feel a sort of shared experience with Bellmer–an overarching sadness at AMAB status and a sort of erotomania as the only perceived means of recovering some of the experience of what it might be to experience sexual awakening in a manner suiting your actual gender identity.

I feel like so much of Bellmer’s work is actually more literally anti-authoritarian than most people realize–because it channels a frustration with authoritarianism where your experience is limited by being born into the wrong body.

Further, non-consensual interactions are the bread and butter of both authoritarianism and pedophilia. I don’t know for sure that Bellmer had his head entirely screwed on straight in this regard–but I can’t see that he wouldn’t have been unaware of it. And while the stories of him hiring young girls to pose provocatively for him are unsettling, I’m reasonably sure that the resulting images would most likely be to unsettling to serve as pornographic material and I think that fact is crucial in understanding Bellmer and his work.

On a slightly different note, given the ascendancy of Drumpf in my own country, I think Bellmer is an artist not only due an in depth re-evaluation but who also has a great deal to offer on the subject of how art should strive to fight fascism. (If there are an gallerists reading this: Ana Mendieta is another artist who needs a major retrospective stat.) 

Hans BellmerStudy for Georges Bataille’s L’Histoire de l’oeil (1946)

Bellmer is one of a handful of artists that I don’t really know how to talk about.

I know more people are put off by his sadistic bent and his obsessed penchant for depicting sexualized pubescent female bodies.

I’ll never argue that the vast majority of his work isn’t pornography and I think that to the extent that it includes children, such work is actually unconscionably irresponsible.

The trouble is that the work is of an unusually high quality. Much of it has–rightly, in my mind–earned the distinction of Capital-A Art.

So the question is: does being of an exceptionally high quality give the work a pass when it comes to elements that toe over the line in terms of child pornography?

My background is academic. But–if I may confess something: I’m not a good academic. I have no patience for genuflecting at that Freudian shrine. Yes, the man suggested and subsequently implemented a ‘functional’ framework for quasi-scientific analysis. But the framework was gallingly sexist, heteronormative and largely misguided.

The criticism on Bellmer bends itself into pretzel shapes similar to several of his Dolls, trying to use Freudian notions or Sue Taylor’s ‘feminist’ defense of the artist or Catherine Grant’s Bellmer as ‘queer doubler’ tact.

I can abide pieces of each attempt to justify Bellmer but I can’t really follow them down the garden path to their various conclusions. It’s too much heavy lifting for something that in my mind doesn’t require it.

To my way of seeing, history is Bellmer’s justification. Think of that Picasso quip made when his portrait of Gertrude Stein was criticized because she did not look like her image: she will.

Bellmer’s rage against fascism and the cult of the perfect body do not read as if they’ve dated in 70 years. They very much fit in with the Tumblr erotica vein and with the current emergence of this sort of misplaced hipster nostalgia, these images could have been made a month or two ago. (Note: they’d still stand head and shoulders above similar modern images.)

Ultimately, what I appreciate about Bellmer is that–like Balthus–the mission of his work was to disturb. However, unlike Balthus–who one has the feeling was almost always the smartest person in any room her entered–Bellmer was open and in your face about the considerations underlying the work, while Balthus strenuously avoided any attempt to fuel equivocations about his motivations.

I find it curious that critics are so willing to give Balthus a pass but grin and rub their hands together when it comes to crucifying Bellmer. Yes, Balthus’ work is arguably of greater quality. But there’s something tempestuous, resonant and grotesquely messy to Bellmer. It’s as if Balthus sought to prompt people to ask better questions so that they might receive better answers; while Bellmer was more interested in leading folks to nothing more than being happy with better questions in the face of a world which is incapable of providing anything like what we think of when we think of an answer.

Hans BellmerTitle Unknown (19XX)

Individual perversion and obsession are so inextricably interpenetrative that it’s difficult to judge where the former ends and the latter begins.

Bellmer positions his paraphilias front and center, pulls no punches and generally gives zero fucks about your puny concern fappy ‘moral’ outrage. There is definitely an off-putting integrity to an artist who doesn’t bother to sublimate the fact that he’s fixated on the sexual potential of pubescent female bodies.

(Of note: Bellmer shares this predilection with Balthus. However, unlike Bellmer, Balthus refused to engage conversations regarding the ‘hebephiliac‘ themes in his work. As such, it’s interesting that while Bellmer is the better technician, Balthus’ enjoys wider cultural renown.)

It’s all fucking enormously problematic. And I’m never sure how to address that because there always seem to be some unshakeable truth transcending binary gender identification and either/or sexual orientation which his line work always seems to be struggling to give expression to. As if Bellmer believed in the depth of his soul the grotesque is the veil one must penetrate to truly experience the sacredness of beauty.

Hans BellmerGirl (19XX)

I’ll take Bellmer’s profane drawings over his Venus of Willendorf-esque, kitsch-as-all-fuck Dolls any day of the work (and twice on Sunday).

But this…this has gotten right under my skin to a degree only a handful of things–mostly music–have ever managed.

My instinct is to start by diminishing any personal interest in the hebephilic content. But in so doing, I distance myself from the work; I engage it on my own terms with a near total disregard for context. This strikes me as gallingly disingenuous.

It is fucking absurd to divorce something like this or the majority of Balthus’ oeuvre from a reckoning the relationship between the female experience of puberty and the formation of an individual sexual self. For fuck’s sake, it’s not just a pathological fixation, it’s the goddamn foundation of the work.

I won’t argue that hebephilia is a ‘normal’ sexual orientation; but I refuse to relegate it to abnormality. (Also, what the fuck is ‘normal’ anyway. whatever it is, I am sure it is fucking God-awfully boring.)

I will argue instead that dismissing the inconvenient or the problematic in a work demonstrating such rigorous mastery of craft should be tempered by two considerations:

  1. As a capital-A Artist, there is less duty to notions of social propriety and strictures and more to the abiding by the commandment: homo/mulier sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.
  2. Be mindful of Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion, i.e. to be human is to be subject to consequences.

In her widely acclaimed Bellmer biography The Anatomy of Anxiety, Sue Taylor reports that Bellmer told Unica Zürn that without the valve that drawing young girls offered him, he would’ve almost certainly have “resorted to sexual murder.”

In all likelihood, Bellmer and Balthus as well, while were at it were probably not far off from what Dan Savage terms a gold star [hebephile].  Yet, instead of submitting to an instinctive programmed drive, they sublimated the drive and openly integrated it into their creative efforts.

Maybe I am the only one, but I find something admirable in this. Yes, it certainly makes for unsettling work–something I expect from art is a degree of terrorism. But to me, I prefer the truth to any sort of self-deception. At least, Bellmer and Balthus are out in front with it. There are the Jock Sturges’ of the world who mask who and what they are with an empty sheen of art pretense.

I’ve gotten far afield from this image–which to be clear, I fucking love. It’s partly something about the clean lightness of the lines, partly the surrealist globular floating secretions that could be either vaginal or seminal. (If the latter, then there would be a rather strong correspondence with this.)

More than all that, it reminds me of what it felt like to feel both curiosity and shame about my own body. But to have curiosity always win out and the liquid feeling of pleasure and shame that always descended in slow, powerful waves after. As well as the Freudian gender ambiguity. I am just stunned by this because it so effortlessly captures a feeling that resonates with my own memories of sexual awakening.