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Of Robots, Sex Dolls, And Babydolls

Every time I see one of those Svedka vodka commercials with the femobot, which began in 2005, I’m reminded to make this post; this time, I’m going past intention to doing.

While many compare or even accuse the advertising gynoid of being an NS-5 I, Robot (2004) rip-off…

And others, rightly, compare both robots to what came before — Chris Cunningham’s work in Bjork’s All Is Full Of Love video (1997)…

There’s an even earlier work to thank: Hans Bellmer’s Die Puppe (1934).

This is just one in a series of “doll” works by Bellmer, a German Surrealist photographer, sculptor, printmaker, painter and writer, who was undoubtedly influenced by Oskar Kokoschka. Bellmer read Kokoschka’s published letters, which contained correspondence with his beloved Alma Mahler. Mahler was remained elusive, unobtainable in the depths of Kokoschka’s obsessive love; so Kokoschka commissioned a life-sized sex doll of her.

Then there was a viewing of Les Contes d’Hoffmann, the operatic version of Tales Of Hoffmann, in which Hoffmann falls tragically in love with an automaton, drove inspired Bellmer’s works with dolls.

These things rather cemented Bellmer’s own sentiments based on his personal experiences with unrequited love, especially that regarding his frustratingly beautiful teenage cousin, Ursula Naguschewski. But these weren’t the only factors involved.

Feeling isolated in an disapproving and intolerant Nazi environment, his mother’s shipment of childhood toys is said to have affected Bellmer deeply:

As a child he developed fear and hatred for his tyrannical father, who totally dominated his gentle and affectionate mother. He and his younger brother Fritz found refuge from this oppressive family atmosphere in a secret garden decorated with toys and souvenirs and visited by young girls who joined in sexual games.

The diagnosis of tuberculosis and ensuing death of his wife, Margarete Schnell Bellmer, and the stroke that resulted in diminished capacity of this father, only further seemed to drive him to create life-size companions for play. According to Sue Taylor, Department of Art History, The University of Chicago:

Overwhelmed with nostalgia and impossible longing, Bellmer acquired from these incidents a need, in his words, “to construct an artificial girl with anatomical possibilities…capable of re-creating the heights of passion even to inventing new desires.”[1]

Bellmer celebrated his invention of the doll in a delirious essay, “Memories of the Doll Theme” (1934): “It was worth all my obsessive efforts,” he wrote, “when, amid the smell of glue and wet plaster, the essence of all that is impressive would take shape and become a real object to be possessed.”[2] In their explicit sexual implications, the images of “young maidens” he put forth in this essay depart dramatically from the ideal of the innocent femme-enfant. Bellmer imagined little girls engaged in perverse games, playing doctor in the attic; he meditated lasciviously on “their bowed and knock-kneed legs” and “the casual quiver of their pink pleats”; and he despaired “that this pink region,” like the pleasures of childhood itself enjoyed in the maternal plenitude of a “miraculous garden,” was forever beyond him. In closing his essay, Bellmer took revenge on little girls for their unavailability, envisioning the manufacture of the doll in their image, which he probed “with aggressive fingers” and “captured rapaciously by [his] conscious gaze.”

Bellmer published his photographs, anonymously, in book entitled La Poupée (1936).

La Poupée was received well in Paris by surrealists who were, among other things, exploring-exploiting the idea of femme-enfant, the dual notions of femininity and childhood, usually from the prospective of innocence.  Which brings us from robots and sex dolls to the sexualization of children, the infantilization of women, and matters of portraying women as little girls.

In this light, Bellmer’s dolls seem somewhat superficial rather than Art with a capital “a”. It was Bellmer’s need which drove him to make and, by his own admission, use these dolls as physical and emotional surrogates.  Yet in scale and purpose, Bellmer’s dolls differ from the babydoll nightie wearing, teddy bear toting, lollipop sucking, pinups in men’s mags. These dolls were not commercially produced for consumption by or the titillation of the masturbatory masses. And, in contrast to such seemingly-sweet vintage pinups and their props, Bellmer’s works seem darker, more objectifying, colder… Perhaps even violent.

At Volatile Structure, Bellmer’s works are compared to these darker notions — to the realities of female adolescent sexuality:

In her book, Dilemmas of Desire, Deborah L. Tolman explores the consequences of the way girls are portrayed as the object or the victim of someone else’s desire, but virtually never as someone with acceptable sexual feelings of their own. Tolman describes that girls, as they enter adolescence, “may lose an ability to speak about what they know, see, feel, and experience” as they are pushed to conform to cultural standards. Many experience a “crisis connection”, a feeling of alternate parallels between the self and the being they are objectified as.

In Tolman’s research she interviewed a number of young girls about their experiences with desire and the consequences it brought about. “While speaking of the power of their embodied feelings, the girls in this sample described the difficulties that their sexual feelings posed, being aware of both the potential for pleasure and the threat of danger that their desire holds for them.” It seems that even more than the ones who would desire her, the archetype of the Femme-Enfant is most aware of the contempt that is often aimed at her for her inability to speak. As Tolman, in reference to an experience related to her by one of her subjects, states “She learned that her own desire may lead to male violence…” Which brings us back to Bellmer’s suggested brutality in response to the young girls he cannot obtain.

All notions, somewhat, reflected in Baby Doll (1956), a film made in Bellmer’s time.  I wonder if he ever saw it.

In the end, it’s up to the viewer to decide if Hans Bellmer’s dolls are works of art, robots, sex toys, or his own individual therapy…

And there’s no reason his dolls can’t be all of those things. For if in pursuit of satiating his own desires he created things that hurt no one yet have forced us explore these issues of sexuality, culture, and personal desires, we are each better for it.

“The body resembles a sentence that seems to invite us to dismantle it into its component letters, so that its true meanings may be revealed anew through an endless stream of anagrams.” Hans Bellmer

Hans Bellmer photo, Avec Sa Poupée, Pierre Argillet (1956).

Posted in Advertising, Art, Artists, Lingerie, Other Objects, Photographers, Photographs, Sex History.

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  1. Of Robots, Sex Dolls, And Babydolls – Sil... linked to this post on November 12, 2013

    […] Every time I see one of those Svedka vodka commercials with the femobot, which began in 2005, I’m reminded to make this post; this time, I’m going past intention to doing.  […]



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