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Review of "Hans Bellmer"

By Sue Taylor
MIT Press, 2000
Review by Andries Gouws on Nov 13th 2001
Hans BellmerSue Taylor's Hans Bellmer: The Anatomy of Anxiety is an impressive book by any standards. Every page displays intelligence, erudition and visual acuity. Taylor places individual works against the backdrop of Bellmer's life and times, as well as the artistic movements occurring around him, and links Bellmer's visual works insightfully to what he himself wrote about them.

In its design and execution this book also maintains the high standards we have come to expect from MIT Press. It is richly illustrated-though the subtle detail that is crucial to Taylor's interpretation occasionally cries out for a larger format book.

Bellmer's dark sexual vision is light years removed from Renoir's sunny nudes, Matisse's decorative odalisques, and the reassuringly inviolate plenitude of the classical nude from the Greeks till the XIXth Century. In Bellmer sexual heaven and sexual hell cannot be disentangled . To his companion of later years, Unica Zürn, he confided that had he not sublimated his fascination with young girls by drawing them, he would have "resorted to sexual murder" (91).

As an extender of the sexual imaginary, Hans Bellmer is without equal among XXth Century artists. To find a kindred extension, one has to go back more than four centuries, to Hieronymus Bosch.

Both artists created images of sexual obsession, a morphology of hollows and protrusions in which the spatiality of the workaday world is replaced by a very different space, and the boundary between the outside and the inside of the body is violated.

Whatever doubts one may have about Melanie Klein, the evidence of fairy tales always makes me think: "her ideas cannot simply be all wrong - for that they just read too much like an eyewitness account of the precincts from which fairy tales emanate". Similarly, Bosch and Bellmer add to my conviction that Freud cannot be all wrong -- Freud seems to give an eyewitness account of the same territory Bosch and Bellmer depict.

This feeling was reinforced by reading Taylor's book on Bellmer, even if I have some reservations about her specific psychoanalytic reading of him. (Strangely enough, Bosch is never mentioned in the book).

Bellmer was a master at creating composite or transitional images, objects which we find disturbing because they straddle our normal categories, such as male and female, phallus and (female) body, human bodies and dolls.

The substitutability of bodily parts, which is essential to Freud's theory of sexuality, is also found in Schilder's work on the body schema, which Bellmer knew well: "Every anatomical protrusion … can take the place of another, just as 'every round part can represent another … [and] … every hole can be interchanged with another.'" (107) In Bellmer oral, vaginal and anal references are often superimposed.

Basing herself on ideas John Gedo developed in another context, Taylor "understand[s] Bellmer's resort to pornography, on one level, as a kind of adaptive strategy, a way to manage anxiety during periods of extreme psychological tension" (14), she attempts to demonstrate that the pornographic impulse comes to the fore every time a severe emotional crisis presents itself in Bellmer's life.

Taylor's approach is very balanced: she alternatively uses and challenges the views of her predecessors; insightfully avoids the dichotomy "either art, or pornography, but not both" (p. 169-170); and neither condemns nor whitewashes the misogyny and sexual violence of Bellmer's vision. (She is for instance not one of those critics who see in his work the ultimate antidote to Nazi imagery).

Throughout, she displays great erudition and flair in expounding psychoanalytic ideas and applying them to Bellmer's life and work.

Questioning Joffroy's claim that Bellmer's works present us with "keys to a total understanding of eroticism," (p. 173); Taylor rejects "such universalizing language and propose[s] instead, on a more modest level, that they are clues to a tentative or partial understanding of the psychic anxieties aroused at particularly stressful periods in the artist's life." I tend to side with Joffroy on this one, in the following sense: any comprehensive view of sexuality will have to remember that the sexual is not only expressed in Renoir, the classical nude and the standard pinup, but also in the disquieting art of Bellmer (and Bosch, for that matter). This extension of the range of imagery to be accounted for in a comprehensive approach to sexuality would be analogous to the extension of the concept of sexuality found in Freud's Three Essays.

Let me continue discussing Bellmer in conjunction with Bosch. Do their works express universal truths about sexuality, or only their idiosyncratic vision? Do they express a pre-existing reality, or create a new one? It seems as if their achievements are both and neither. No important achievement in the arts or humanities ever simply expresses a pre-existing reality. But this does not imply that these achievements at best only inform us about their author's individual psyche.

In one of Yannis Ritsos's poems we are told that the house's silence, once the poet has called it a "kneeling" silence, will henceforth forever be kneeling. Every interpretation is in fact an intervention which modifies or co-constitutes the oeuvre and its meanings. No interpretation, however convincing, ever succeeds in simply becoming transparent, so that it simply states a truth predating itself.

Bosch's and Bellmer's oeuvres were interventions into the history of sexuality, and Taylor's book on Bellmer is an intervention into Bellmer's oeuvre. In each of these cases the representation simultaneously changes what it represents, however faithfully it may seem to represent it.

The idea that the iconography of either artist simply expresses a pre-existing social reality is thus not quite true, but neither is the idea that they simply invented new forms for or of sexuality. Each has an utterly personal vision which nevertheless helps us understand the erotic in general, in a way that transcends his personal uniqueness. If this is so, a purely biographical account of the oeuvre of either would miss out on something important. Now for Bosch such a biographical account is not possible in any case, as so little is known about his life. In contrast, a diligent researcher like Taylor can unearth a lot about Bellmer's life. But Taylor never really addresses the question to what extent (psycho)biography can supply the key to an artwork. What is still possible where biography isn't, may be as interesting as, or even more interesting than, (psycho)biography. A psychoanalytic critic who reads Bosch or any other oeuvre that cannot be anchored to its maker's biography is perhaps not really at such a huge disadvantage compared to one reading Bellmer. I therefore suspect that Taylor's emphatically biographical approach makes her miss out on a whole set of important questions and approaches, especially those focusing on the work's reception rather than its genesis.

Though The Anatomy of Anxiety is an extremely intelligent book it seems to be based on the questionable premise that psychoanalysis is a secure body of knowledge that need only be applied, not questioned. There is little to indicate that this is a controversial tradition, and that even within it, Freud's ideas are controversial. And moreover, that even if we do basically buy into Freud, not everything he said need be taken as equally acceptable.

There is something incongruous in Taylor's dutiful deference to psychoanalytic theory, her acceptance that it constitutes a master discourse that can be applied unproblematically. A transgressive oeuvre that submits itself in such a docile way to an authoritative interpretation in terms of an academically safely institutionalized master discourse like this, can hardly be transgressive. A world governed by the word of Freud restores much of the security the world had when it was still governed by the word of God. The more perfectly Bellmer's oeuvre fits psychoanalytic theory, the more it starts reading as an allegory of a transcendent truth, psychoanalysis, and the more this happens, the less transgressive it seems.

True, Taylor makes a lot of intelligent relativizing noises in the "Introduction", emphasizing that she does not pretend that the [particular] psychoanalytic approach chosen is the one right approach required by his work. But once past the introduction, psychoanalysis is hardly relativized at all. Her remarks on the implications of Bellmer's conscious espousal and use of Freudian theory for a Freudian reading of his work are not bad as far as they go, but would have had to go further before they could really address the ultimately vertiginous effects such a circularity must have.

On p. 108 Taylor, uncharacteristically for the book and its genre, admits to being stumped. It seems that she has finally hit upon something that resists her interpretative strategies:

This section of Bellmer's essay is difficult, if not impossible, to grasp, in part because of the enigmatic motifs he employs, but also because he continues to make associations with diverse fields of endeavor, and not only psychiatry.

Do the reasons given for this hermeneutic impenetrability, which apparently occur only in this particular place, not apply to Bellmer's work in general? Could we not argue that his motifs are generally "enigmatic", and that his work generally involves "associations with diverse fields of endeavor"? If so, his work would become generally "difficult, if not impossible, to grasp".

I also have doubts about one of the cornerstones of the book: Taylor's insistence on Bellmer's supposed homo-erotic attachment to his father (behind the conscious façade of the classically aggressive positively Oedipal son). The crucial thing in Bellmer's psychological make-up to me is not this homo-erotic moment, but his female identifications. Taylor recognizes these later in her book, but seems to think that a male identifying with the female must necessarily have a homo-erotic attachment to his father.

Taylor makes the "primal scene" the foundation for an extended interpretation or series of interpretations. The locus classicus for this overused and probably overrated notion, Freud's reading of the Wolf Man case, to me already utterly lacks the conviction of a case study like the Rat Man. Moreover, I cannot see that the prose-poem by Bellmer that Taylor refers to in fact calls for an interpretation in terms of the primal scene.

Too often I find the Freud invoked by Taylor Freud at his least exciting, as he is in the Wolf Man case: meaning completely mastered, because made single (the primal scene), immobile and completely determinate-instead of multiple, mobile and never fully determinable. The danger of such rigidity becomes greater in applied, and therefore necessarily "wild" psychoanalysis-psychoanalytic notions applied in the absence of the ongoing stream of associations of the analysand-than in the clinical situation.

But by and large, my questions to Taylor stem less from a dissatisfaction with the specific interpretations she proffers than from a general conviction that interpretations are never compulsory, never something for which one can argue in an utterly compelling way. This is even clearer when it comes to the interpretation of images: barring conventional pictograms, images never have a meaning as determinate as usually suggested here. What is more, even if Barthes and others were premature in announcing the death of the author, it is still not clear to what extent biography determines the meaning of the work itself.

However, an alternative, more convincing reading of Bellmer's work will more effectively undermine Taylor's reading than the philosophical arguments invoked above.

I have argued that Taylor is too uncritically wed to the interpretative tools she uses. But let me conclude by stressing that her careful, detailed discussions of Bellmer's works make you see them with new eyes. As you dwell on these images in the interstices of her text, you finally discover many things in them that would have gone unnoticed had you just perused the images by themselves. And beyond our re-viewing of Bellmer's oeuvre, her book makes us rethink sexuality, art, and their interrelation by subtly applying a variety of psychoanalytic notions to this oeuvre, and thus bringing them to life.

© 2001 Andries Gouws

Andries Gouws, teaches philosophy at the University of Natal in Durban, South Africa. His Masters thesis and doctoral dissertation both dealt with Freud and philosophy. He is currently completing a book on Freud's theory of sexuality, and has previously published on welfare policy, literary theory and postmodernism. Before studying philosophy in the Netherlands, he attended various art schools in South Africa and Europe. His paintings are available in his own web gallery.