Hans Bellmer
La poopee
1938
silver gelatin print

To describe the work of Hans Bellmer in words is to reduce it to base ideas of violence, sexuality, and the body. Photographs of a naked doll lying in a field, a mutant with four legs and no torso hiding in the kitchen cabinet; a woman bound so that her flesh spills out, a human swastika violating itself, a vagina seeping milk. To add to these descriptions that the images are meticulously composed, fascinating and uncannily beautiful would carry instinctual implications of perversion and utter disrespect for women. However, Bellmer's work has continued to defy these simplifications and shock values, becoming instead a vital reference to contemporary female artists in his radical reinterpretation of the feminine and an annulment of accepted representations of internalized desire.

Bellmer's self-satisfied awareness of the timeless impact of his images drove him to continue producing thousands images of deconstructed female bodies, a determined effort to constantly challenge his viewers' own instinctual realizations of what is and is not authentically affecting. He persistently and successfully portrayed the exterior body to reveal the interior quality of both the subject and the object, a simultaneous reflection of the owner and the recipient of the gaze. Mary Anne Caws writes that Surrealism "wanted to overcome the split between seer and seen, visionary and view: thus, a problematics of the problematic, and how it is received." Bellmer could be seen as widening the divide between spectator and art image, where there is neither connect nor curiosity between the two because of the taboo subject matter. The abject image persists as an intimate coping mechanism for many artists, a manifestation of the self-deprecation that is a universal, yet isolating, element of modernity. The representations in the images of Bellmer and beyond are not only a disfiguration of the natural body; they are an admittance that with the natural female body there exists no possible ideal, no attainable perfection.

Bellmer's recognition of both his own position within his images and the solace he found in his creations depicts a willing escape into the fantasy of these ruined female figures. Bellmer's fascination with the rearticulated dolls signaled a childhood identification that cannot be found in both the women in his life and the models in his work; the contemporary female artist, in self-identifying with this impossibility of perfection, has also taken up alternative selves in representation, a liberation in the lack of fixed character, gender and bodies.

Bellmer's misogynist power over the reinvented body of desire creates sympathy through the awareness of its representation; his role as imagined predator eventually turns into the victim of reality, a defeat of the mind in the face of lived experience. Perhaps this is why we continue to be impressed by Bellmer today; there is a certain courage evident in putting his unedited self to be looked at, exposing himself in much the same way as female artists exploring the constructed feminine identity. Though clear that the physical body need not be present in order to achieve a critical standpoint, it is undeniable that the female representation by a female artist still asserts a great deal of power even decades after the first wave of essentialist Feminist work. The once-vulnerable position of the recipient of the gaze will perpetually be revisited and reinvented by new generations of those who still have much to contribute to a living dialogue.

— Lumi Tan


Alina Szapocznikow
Dessert I (Petit Dessert)
1970-71
polyester resin


Alina Szapocznikow
Dessert II (Coupe de Seins)
1970-71
polyester resin


Alina Szapocznikow
from series Photosculptures
1971
silver gelatin print


Alina Szapocznikow
from series Photosculptures
1971
silver gelatin print


Kelly Nipper
excerpt from Circle Circle
2007
2-channel video projection


Eve Fowler in collaboration with Math Bass
from series Untitled (Gloria Hole)
2008
c-print


Eve Fowler in collaboration with Math Bass
from series Untitled (Gloria Hole)
2008
c-print


Eve Fowler in collaboration with Anna Sew Hoy
from series Two Serious Ladies
2010
photogram


Eve Fowler
Untitled
2005-2008
c-print


Tracy Moffat
from Laudanum Series
1998
photogravure


Tracy Moffat
from Laudanum Series
1998
photogravure


Melanie Bonajo
Jessica
2003
Polaroid

The inaugural issue of After Bellmer presents five female artists whose work parallels and renegotiates themes found in the imagery of Surrealist artist Hans Bellmer, from a contemporary feminist perspective. Infamous for his series of photographs titled La Poupee, Bellmer staged and manipulated dolls into erotic and violent scenes for the camera. As the name After Bellmer suggests, rather than being the objects of sexual desire, artists Eve Fowler, Kelly Nipper, Tracey Moffat, Melanie Bonajo, and Alina Szapocznikow have made themselves the agents of their imagery by constructing, performing, directing and realizing themselves as sexual subjects. The relationship between these
artists' work and Bellmer initiates a dialogue that investigates how Surrealism has been both a source of inspiration and critique for contemporary feminist artists, art historians, and art critics.

Bellmer's fetishistic images of the female body complicate and frustrate the idea of woman as a whole, specific, fixed identity and suggest, rather, that the female figure transgresses these limitations through her multiplicity. His images idealize a female form that is, in every way, imperfect, grotesque, bisexual, and beautiful; while her overt sexuality is the source of her power, it also opens the door to her potential vulnerability— a conflict of female subjectivity that has been widely recognized by feminism. And for all of these reasons, Bellmer's dolls have remained an undeniable force and continued topic of interest in feminist discourse.

These female artists explore the transitive process of becoming sexual subjects at the interface of the private and the public. Alina Szapocznikow's images and sculptures render fetishistic impressions of both female and male body parts, often using her own body as the modeled form. The two-channel video Circle Circle by Kelly Nipper portrays the back of woman in a leotard rolling her hips. By doubling the image and repeating the erotic gesture at different speeds, Nipper frustrates the continuity between theframed bodies. In her series Gloria Hole, Eve Fowler investigates queer sexuality by documenting a performance. Through the "gloria hole", the viewer is only allowed to see parts of the interacting sexualized bodies: orifices, hands and hair. Consequently, the viewer must question her or his own boundaries of self and other, real and fantasy, whole and part, in relation to the desiring subjects.

Tracey Moffat's series Laudanum was inspired from the highly controversial and renowned erotic novel The Story of O. Published in 1954, under the pseudonym Pauline Réage (as known as Anne Desclos and Dominique Aury), the book is a detailed account of a woman's sexual submission out of the deepest love to her partner. The Story of O was banned for years after its initial publication and has been criticized for portraying an emotionally and sexually masochistic female subject. Réage offers insight into a woman's dark sexual fantasies, while also exposing the positive emotional effects that can be experienced from performing sadomasochism. Moffat's visual interpretation of this novel reveals the distinctly female fetishism that was pervasive in the text. Additionally, the images reflect the mutual love that existed between O and her masters even while, or, rather, as a result of, the pain that they
inflicted upon her.

Elements of sadomasochistic structures can also be found in the work of Melanie Bonajo. In her images, nude women are literally bound to domestic items from their environment, assembling them into part of a larger sculptural form. The female body is the site of a conflict between identity and histories—balancing the personal and public,the present and past.

By creating and portraying their own sexual identities, as both viewer and viewed, these artists are the active agents of their self-image, their desires and frustrations. As Sue Suleiman noted in her essay Dialogue and Double Allegiance: Some Contemporary Women Artists and the Historical Avant-Garde: "The Surrealists, as we know, proclaimed their own 'subversive intent' with regard to what they perceived as a morally and philosophically bankrupt, repressive order; the contemporary women artists who trace connections to the Surrealists share some of the latter's aspirations even while criticizing them on other grounds."