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A version of the Whitechapel Gallery’s retrospective of the work of Hans Bellmer (1902-75) – paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures spanning a career of approximately 40 years – was displayed earlier this year at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. The look and the feel of the show in London are quite different. The show’s staging in Paris felt much more claustrophobic and intense, pent and somewhat emotionally oppressive – Bellmer seemed to be leaning on us.

Instead of passing through a sequence of rectangular spaces divided by false walls – which is what happens at the Whitechapel – much of our progress seemed to be on the curve, with an almost labyrinthine structure of spaces turning and merging into one another. Chronology was fudged. Would we end where we began?

At the Whitechapel, we follow a much more evidently chronological route. There is no doubling back upon ourselves, no feeling that Bellmer’s career may have been some kind of cyclical return to its beginnings. What is more, the lighting in London is significantly different. In Paris, the atmosphere was dim and almost ghoulishly enclosing. Individual pieces were often spot-lit, but around those pools of sudden light, there was often a an indeterminate murk. In London, the lights are always full on.

Which approach is more apposite is an open question. Bellmer was one of the most obsessive of 20th-century artists, one who brooded on the same themes over and over again. He was born in Germany but in the 1930s went to Paris in order to escape from National Socialism. There he was welcomed into the arms of the Surrealist group like a brother, and he has, by and large, been pigeonholed as a Surrealist.

To a certain extent this is justified. His oeuvre is an often horrifying exposure
of what lies behind the appearance of respectability, a sudden eruption of
the dream-world into the everyday, a thoroughgoing anatomisation of the nature of human desire – and the result is that we are often appalled, disgusted and enthralled, almost at the same time. That sounds roughly consistent with what André Breton might have regarded as at least
a part of the nature
and purpose of Surrealism.

One theme in particular engaged Bellmer throughout his life, and he returned to it so often that many of the works here have the same title: the doll. He was obsessed by the idea of the sexualisation of the doll. He created dolls, bit by bit, from papier mâché, wood and plastic and then he joined them together, often in ways that alarm and provoke. He also photographed them in various situations, squeezed into corners or on the dark turns of stairs. They feel menaced and under threat.

Bellmer’s doll-making is sinister and disquieting – he makes the Chapman brothers, with their mutant children, seem mild by comparison. It also feels like a kind of dispassionate scientific investigation of the potential audience response – how far can he push us before we denounce him as immoral?

At root, it is about the sexualisation of the made thing. The dolls are disgusting because they do arouse desire – and yet it feels like a forbidden desire precisely because no human life is in them, and they seem to be bodies in torment. What is more, Bellmer is obsessed by the female doll, and often by the child- or baby-doll – which pushes him even farther in the direction of the morally reprehensible.

And yet it is possible to read his work in a way that makes him look like some kind of a brave – and even proleptic – witness to the horrors of the Aryan myth too, and what the consequences of that vile bit of myth-making proved to be. Perhaps in the work he made in the 1930s he is merely bearing witness to the terrible degradation of the body that Nazism would come to exemplify.

Bellmer is perfectly poised between villain and hero, between pornographer, child abuser and dirty old man, and brave witness to the barbarities of the 20th century. It is a profound ambiguity, but one that adds to the nagging fascination of his work.

‘Hans Bellmer’ is at the Whitechapel Gallery, London E1, until November 19.
Tel 20 7522 7878

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