by Sue Taylor
MIT Press, 2000
Review by Andries Gouws on Nov 13th 2001
Sue Taylor's Hans Bellmer: The Anatomy of Anxiety is an
impressive book by any standards. Every page displays intelligence,
erudition and visual acuity. Taylor places individual works against
the backdrop of Bellmer's life and times, as well as the artistic
movements occurring around him, and links Bellmer's visual works
insightfully to what he himself wrote about them.
In its design and execution this book also maintains the high
standards we have come to expect from MIT Press. It is richly
illustrated-though the subtle detail that is crucial to Taylor's
interpretation occasionally cries out for a larger format book.
Bellmer's dark sexual vision is light years removed from Renoir's
sunny nudes, Matisse's decorative odalisques, and the reassuringly
inviolate plenitude of the classical nude from the Greeks till
the XIXth Century. In Bellmer sexual heaven and sexual hell cannot
be disentangled . To his companion of later years, Unica Zürn,
he confided that had he not sublimated his fascination with young
girls by drawing them, he would have "resorted to sexual
As an extender of the sexual imaginary, Hans Bellmer is without
equal among XXth Century artists. To find a kindred extension,
one has to go back more than four centuries, to Hieronymus Bosch.
Both artists created images of sexual obsession, a morphology
of hollows and protrusions in which the spatiality of the workaday
world is replaced by a very different space, and the boundary
between the outside and the inside of the body is violated.
Whatever doubts one may have about Melanie Klein, the evidence
of fairy tales always makes me think: "her ideas cannot simply
be all wrong - for that they just read too much like an
eyewitness account of the precincts from which fairy tales emanate".
Similarly, Bosch and Bellmer add to my conviction that Freud cannot
be all wrong -- Freud seems to give an eyewitness account of the
same territory Bosch and Bellmer depict.
This feeling was reinforced by reading Taylor's book on Bellmer,
even if I have some reservations about her specific psychoanalytic
reading of him. (Strangely enough, Bosch is never mentioned in
Bellmer was a master at creating composite or transitional images,
objects which we find disturbing because they straddle our normal
categories, such as male and female, phallus and (female) body,
human bodies and dolls.
The substitutability of bodily parts, which is essential to Freud's
theory of sexuality, is also found in Schilder's work on the body
schema, which Bellmer knew well: "Every anatomical protrusion
can take the place of another, just as 'every round part
can represent another
every hole can be interchanged
with another.'" (107) In Bellmer oral, vaginal and anal references
are often superimposed.
Basing herself on ideas John Gedo developed in another context,
Taylor "understand[s] Bellmer's resort to pornography, on
one level, as a kind of adaptive strategy, a way to manage anxiety
during periods of extreme psychological tension" (14), she
attempts to demonstrate that the pornographic impulse comes to
the fore every time a severe emotional crisis presents itself
in Bellmer's life.
Taylor's approach is very balanced: she alternatively uses and
challenges the views of her predecessors; insightfully avoids
the dichotomy "either art, or pornography, but not both"
(p. 169-170); and neither condemns nor whitewashes the misogyny
and sexual violence of Bellmer's vision. (She is for instance
not one of those critics who see in his work the ultimate antidote
to Nazi imagery).
Throughout, she displays great erudition and flair in expounding
psychoanalytic ideas and applying them to Bellmer's life and work.
Questioning Joffroy's claim that Bellmer's works present us with
"keys to a total understanding of eroticism," (p. 173);
Taylor rejects "such universalizing language and propose[s]
instead, on a more modest level, that they are clues to a tentative
or partial understanding of the psychic anxieties aroused at particularly
stressful periods in the artist's life." I tend to side with
Joffroy on this one, in the following sense: any comprehensive
view of sexuality will have to remember that the sexual is not
only expressed in Renoir, the classical nude and the standard
pinup, but also in the disquieting art of Bellmer (and Bosch,
for that matter). This extension of the range of imagery to be
accounted for in a comprehensive approach to sexuality would be
analogous to the extension of the concept of sexuality found in
Freud's Three Essays.
Let me continue discussing Bellmer in conjunction with Bosch.
Do their works express universal truths about sexuality, or only
their idiosyncratic vision? Do they express a pre-existing reality,
or create a new one? It seems as if their achievements are both
and neither. No important achievement in the arts or humanities
ever simply expresses a pre-existing reality. But this does not
imply that these achievements at best only inform us about their
author's individual psyche.
In one of Yannis Ritsos's poems we are told that the house's silence,
once the poet has called it a "kneeling" silence, will
henceforth forever be kneeling. Every interpretation is in fact
an intervention which modifies or co-constitutes the oeuvre and
its meanings. No interpretation, however convincing, ever succeeds
in simply becoming transparent, so that it simply states a truth
Bosch's and Bellmer's oeuvres were interventions into the history
of sexuality, and Taylor's book on Bellmer is an intervention
into Bellmer's oeuvre. In each of these cases the representation
simultaneously changes what it represents, however faithfully
it may seem to represent it.
The idea that the iconography of either artist simply expresses
a pre-existing social reality is thus not quite true, but neither
is the idea that they simply invented new forms for or
of sexuality. Each has an utterly personal vision which nevertheless
helps us understand the erotic in general, in a way that transcends
his personal uniqueness. If this is so, a purely biographical
account of the oeuvre of either would miss out on something important.
Now for Bosch such a biographical account is not possible in any
case, as so little is known about his life. In contrast, a diligent
researcher like Taylor can unearth a lot about Bellmer's life.
But Taylor never really addresses the question to what extent
(psycho)biography can supply the key to an artwork. What
is still possible where biography isn't, may be as interesting
as, or even more interesting than, (psycho)biography. A
psychoanalytic critic who reads Bosch or any other oeuvre that
cannot be anchored to its maker's biography is perhaps not really
at such a huge disadvantage compared to one reading Bellmer. I
therefore suspect that Taylor's emphatically biographical approach
makes her miss out on a whole set of important questions and approaches,
especially those focusing on the work's reception rather than
Though The Anatomy of Anxiety is an extremely intelligent
book it seems to be based on the questionable premise that psychoanalysis
is a secure body of knowledge that need only be applied, not questioned.
There is little to indicate that this is a controversial tradition,
and that even within it, Freud's ideas are controversial. And
moreover, that even if we do basically buy into Freud, not everything
he said need be taken as equally acceptable.
There is something incongruous in Taylor's dutiful deference to
psychoanalytic theory, her acceptance that it constitutes a master
discourse that can be applied unproblematically. A transgressive
oeuvre that submits itself in such a docile way to an authoritative
interpretation in terms of an academically safely institutionalized
master discourse like this, can hardly be transgressive. A world
governed by the word of Freud restores much of the security the
world had when it was still governed by the word of God. The more
perfectly Bellmer's oeuvre fits psychoanalytic theory, the more
it starts reading as an allegory of a transcendent truth, psychoanalysis,
and the more this happens, the less transgressive it seems.
True, Taylor makes a lot of intelligent relativizing noises in
the "Introduction", emphasizing that she does not pretend
that the [particular] psychoanalytic approach chosen is the
one right approach required by his work. But once past the introduction,
psychoanalysis is hardly relativized at all. Her remarks on the
implications of Bellmer's conscious espousal and use of Freudian
theory for a Freudian reading of his work are not bad as far as
they go, but would have had to go further before they could really
address the ultimately vertiginous effects such a circularity
On p. 108 Taylor, uncharacteristically for the book and its genre,
admits to being stumped. It seems that she has finally hit upon
something that resists her interpretative strategies:
This section of Bellmer's essay is difficult, if not impossible,
to grasp, in part because of the enigmatic motifs he employs,
but also because he continues to make associations with diverse
fields of endeavor, and not only psychiatry.
Do the reasons given for this hermeneutic impenetrability, which
apparently occur only in this particular place, not apply
to Bellmer's work in general? Could we not argue that his motifs
are generally "enigmatic", and that his work
generally involves "associations with diverse fields
of endeavor"? If so, his work would become generally
"difficult, if not impossible, to grasp".
I also have doubts about one of the cornerstones of the book:
Taylor's insistence on Bellmer's supposed homo-erotic attachment
to his father (behind the conscious façade of the classically
aggressive positively Oedipal son). The crucial thing in Bellmer's
psychological make-up to me is not this homo-erotic moment, but
his female identifications. Taylor recognizes these later in her
book, but seems to think that a male identifying with the female
must necessarily have a homo-erotic attachment to his father.
Taylor makes the "primal scene" the foundation for an
extended interpretation or series of interpretations. The locus
classicus for this overused and probably overrated notion,
Freud's reading of the Wolf Man case, to me already utterly lacks
the conviction of a case study like the Rat Man. Moreover, I cannot
see that the prose-poem by Bellmer that Taylor refers to in fact
calls for an interpretation in terms of the primal scene.
Too often I find the Freud invoked by Taylor Freud at his least
exciting, as he is in the Wolf Man case: meaning completely mastered,
because made single (the primal scene), immobile and completely
determinate-instead of multiple, mobile and never fully determinable.
The danger of such rigidity becomes greater in applied, and therefore
necessarily "wild" psychoanalysis-psychoanalytic notions
applied in the absence of the ongoing stream of associations of
the analysand-than in the clinical situation.
But by and large, my questions to Taylor stem less from a dissatisfaction
with the specific interpretations she proffers than
from a general conviction that interpretations are never compulsory,
never something for which one can argue in an utterly compelling
way. This is even clearer when it comes to the interpretation
of images: barring conventional pictograms, images never have
a meaning as determinate as usually suggested here. What is more,
even if Barthes and others were premature in announcing the death
of the author, it is still not clear to what extent biography
determines the meaning of the work itself.
However, an alternative, more convincing reading of Bellmer's
work will more effectively undermine Taylor's reading than the
philosophical arguments invoked above.
I have argued that Taylor is too uncritically wed to the interpretative
tools she uses. But let me conclude by stressing that her careful,
detailed discussions of Bellmer's works make you see them with
new eyes. As you dwell on these images in the interstices of her
text, you finally discover many things in them that would have
gone unnoticed had you just perused the images by themselves.
And beyond our re-viewing of Bellmer's oeuvre, her book makes
us rethink sexuality, art, and their interrelation by subtly applying
a variety of psychoanalytic notions to this oeuvre, and thus bringing
them to life.
© 2001 Andries Gouws
Andries Gouws, teaches philosophy at the University of Natal in
Durban, South Africa. His Masters thesis and doctoral dissertation
both dealt with Freud and philosophy. He is currently completing
a book on Freud's theory of sexuality, and has previously published
on welfare policy, literary theory and postmodernism. Before studying
philosophy in the Netherlands, he attended various art schools
in South Africa and Europe. His paintings are available in his
own web gallery.