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Fit to Be Tied

In the chilling ravished-doll images of Nazi-era German photographer Hans Bellmer, hints of defiance in the face of totalitarianism.

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Imagine, today, a male artist exhibiting photographs of a naked, lifelike female doll that he has tied up, dismembered, and twisted into erotically disturbing poses. His captive princess, her flesh swollen and misshapen, appears barely alive or recently dead. The artist takes exquisite pains -- and pleasure -- with her body, as if he were a sexual predator who must document his handiwork before it's lost to posterity. He carefully arranges and rearranges the pieces of her broken form, sometimes prettily hand-tinting the photographic remains. Might not a little rouge illuminate the deathly pale aspect of a twisted thigh or enrich the revelatory spread of leg? A contemporary artist like Cindy Sherman could get away with this kind of work, because when made by a woman, such imagery is read as an ironic commentary upon patriarchal society. But a male artist? He would be ostracized by the puritans on both the right and the left -- by the feminists patrolling the sexual borders of contemporary life and by the politicos peddling decency.

Unless, that is, the male artist was born in 1902. Hans Bellmer (1902-75) made photographs of dolls that are among the most disquieting images in twentieth-century art. For interesting reasons, however, the level of anxiety over the exhibition now at the International Center of Photography on Sixth Avenue does not seem especially high. Organized by Therese Lichtenstein, Behind Closed Doors: The Art of Hans Bellmer turns Bellmer into a kind of historical art hero. In the thirties, Bellmer fled Nazi Germany, where the Fascists were attacking "degenerate art," and as a result, this connoisseur of erotically broken adolescent girls can be regarded as something more than a sublime monster; he becomes an artist of conscience who resisted the Nazis' indecent demand for decency. He can also be viewed as a deft social critic. In the thirties, when Bellmer made most of his doll photographs, the Nazis were imposing a squeaky-clean stereotype of femininity upon the German population. Bellmer bravely insisted upon the difficult and messy passions that the Nazis suppressed. And, of course, he can now be celebrated as remarkably prescient. His art seems perfectly tailored for today's academic talk about "gender roles," "taboos," and "the female body."

All that may be true, but it's also important not to tame this particular artist. It was the French Surrealists who first championed Bellmer after he settled in Paris in the thirties, for they recognized in him something that they were not. The Surrealists might dream of magnificently outlandish crimes, but they were actually just café artists who made witty, safely calculated erotica. Bellmer really meant it. He wasn't simply playing with those dolls or sporting with the bourgeoisie or making comments about cultural stereotypes. Something about his art suggests that he lived just a whisker away from murder. He never made any interesting work apart from those girls. In order to create his photographs, he actually built two dolls himself. (One is on display in the show.) The body of the second doll, while lifelike, has exaggerated sexual characteristics and could be contorted, tied up, and broken apart in whatever way Bellmer wanted. The photographs appear full of the artist's own touch, in a way that's both feverish and chilling.

The compositions are, oddly enough, almost tidy. They display the sort of heightened fuss and control typical of a man likely to fly apart at any moment. Bellmer made his doll photographs during a totalitarian period that, as Lichtenstein suggests, both feared and idealized the machine -- and was full of futuristic notions about robots and impersonal, mechanical men. Bellmer, however, also saw the mayhem that lay within the mannequin. His dolls of the thirties -- seemingly pulled and torn and made ragged by passions both inside and outside of themselves -- become a kind of intimate battlefield. They are not inhuman, but too human.

Behind Closed Doors: The Art of Hans Bellmer
At the International Center of Photography; through 6/10.


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