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Surrealism and the Body

See how the Surrealists explored the human form and hidden desires.

Plate from La Poupée

Hans Bellmer
(German, 1902–1975)

1936. Gelatin silver print, 4 5/8 x 3" (11.7 x 7.6 cm)

The female mannequin in this photograph is utterly fragmented. Decapitated and dismembered, the figure has a glass eye placed nowhere near the head, legs splayed, and a tousled wig resting at the juncture between knee, head, and hip. This is one in a series of Hans Bellmer photographs that were published in the Surrealist publication Minotaure in 1934 depicting a female mannequin (La Poupée) in various stages of construction, from wood-and-metal skeleton to the fleshy plaster and papier-mâché shell. A system of ball joints allowed Bellmer to dismantle and reassemble the doll in many combinations. The doll was a lifetime obsession for the artist, who explored similar imagery in his drawings and sculptures.

Bellmer began creating and photographing these disturbing dolls in 1933, the year Adolf Hitler assumed power in Germany. Many have interpreted them as acts of political defiance against the ideals and social norms promoted by the Nazis, and expressions of the personal outrage he felt towards his father, who joined the Nazi party. Bellmer himself stated, “If the origin of my work is scandalous, it is because for me, the world is a scandal.”

An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.

A three-dimensional work of art made by a variety of means, including carving wood, chiseling stone, casting or welding metal, molding clay or wax, or assembling materials.

A work of art made with a pencil, pen, crayon, charcoal, or other implements, often consisting of lines and marks (noun); the act of producing a picture with pencil, pen, crayon, charcoal, or other implements (verb, gerund).

An artistic and literary movement led by French poet André Breton from 1924 through World War II. Drawing on the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud, the Surrealists sought to overthrow what they perceived as the oppressive rationalism of modern society by accessing the sur réalisme (superior reality) of the subconscious. In his 1924 “Surrealist Manifesto,” Breton argued for an uninhibited mode of expression derived from the mind’s involuntary mechanisms, particularly dreams, and called on artists to explore the uncharted depths of the imagination with radical new methods and visual forms. These ranged from abstract “automatic” drawings to hyper-realistic painted scenes inspired by dreams and nightmares to uncanny combinations of materials and objects.

French for “chewed-up paper,” a technique for creating three-dimensional objects, such as sculpture, from pulped or pasted paper and binders such as glue or plaster.

A facial aspect indicating an emotion; also, the means by which an artist communicates ideas and emotions.