Octopus Time: Bellmer Painting
Octopus Time: Bellmer Painting
by Herbert Lust
Private W. Supply Gallery, Greenwich CT, 2008
48 pp. Paper, $29 US
Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University
Sarane Alexander's 1978 Rizzoli book on Hans Bellmer first introduced a lot of us to the work of this arresting artist (1902-75). He was a meticulous mid-century draughtsman, to whom H. R. Giger owes much. The meticulous limning of caressable curves and lubricious orifices is a form of lovemaking, linking eye, hand and subject on display. By overlapping the sweeping, fatty extremities, and concavities of the human body, Bellmer’s cut-up and remixed women and men, genitals, mouths, legs and furniture, limning details of sexual memory then reassembled into smooth, sugary, simultaneous and seamless pretty Frankenstein monsters of sex. As in the drawings (crafted with words into comics) of another great obsessive, Robert Crumb, seminal gushers and female orgasms pour forth. Some drawings employ textured and drippy decalcomania, which suggests sticky, dried substances, then drawn upon to depict further couplings or gazes. Richly rendered in pencil, or black chalk with white highlights, imagery of multiple ménages, suckmouths and polysodomies, poops and coprophagia causes one to inevitably ponder Bellmer's personal life. One wonders how he might have contributed to (or, perhaps, forestalled and postponed?) the suicide of his companion Unica Zurn. Another of his lovers, Nora Mitrani, died before turning forty.
Bellmer is often numbered, in broad surveys, among the twentieth-century's photographers, too. The photographs by Bellmer that are most often reproduced are those of the pubescent female-things he called Dolls. The Wexner Center at Ohio State University is presenting a show in 2011 of Bellmer's work, including the weird "Half-Doll", paired with the work of Louise Bourgeois, both of whom worked in Paris in the 1930s but apparently never met. This reviewer had never before seen a Bellmer photograph merely gleaned from observed life that wasn't a construction, like his posed and constructed dolls. In some cases, the prints were further hand-colored or printed in negative. Outside of these sculptural and photographic bodies of work, Bellmer privileges drawing, as I do. I personally tend to think of most photographs as unfinished, requiring the gaze of the draftsperson, the drawing-maker, to complete it. My own drawings and paintings usually begin with a collage of photographs. Perhaps Bellmer used photographs as reference for drawings as well.
The gynecological study on the cover of Octopus Time: Bellmer Painting, though signed by the artist (only to sell for a fast buck?) doesn't feel to me like a completed Bellmer artwork. It feels to me like a reference photo. The artist was probably fascinated by this woman's exposed genitalia and blood-reddened fingers. Or simply been curious—Look what she's doing! Hold that! SNAP! Early on, author Herbert Lust believed this photo showed Nora Mitrani, yet Agnès de la Beaumelle, curator of a 2006 Bellmer retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, compared this woman's anatomy to other photos of Nora and determined, in a feat of gynaecological art historical investigation, that it wasn't her. Lust chooses to name the 1946 photo "I Am God", in the tradition of Courbet's similarly focused 1866 oil painting of gal parts entitled "The Origin of the World".
In his commentary, Herbert Lust compares the image to an octopus, the woman's eight long fingers arrayed above the creature's "head" composed of the rounded pubic region, with its open maw in the center. This inspires the book's title Octopus Time, and the image of the cephalopod recurs in Bellmer's oeuvre, multi-armed lustbuckets shoving peppermint sticks, et cetera, into their mouths. The reviewer reflected on these as Virtual Reality innovator Jaron Lanier praised the capacity, elegance, and “Glory of Cephalopods” on a Wisconsin Public Radio interview in March 2011. (http://www.wpr.org/book/11book.cfm).
Lust contrasts Bellmer's aquatically moist depictions of female anatomy with those of the desiccated Duchamp in his warm and appreciative essay, though does not really create "a new literary genre, a spoof using art history to express a world view...despised by all prominent Duchampians" (Hey! I think I'm a Duchampian!) as Lust claims. Some ways in which the author enters the art historical story are interesting, but his narrative is marred a couple times by irrelevant personal information that might have been better served in back-of-the-book footnotes. One catches that the photograph "I Am God" is no longer Herbert's own, but is listed as a part of the Conrad Lust collection. So who is Conrad Lust? A son? Brother? Grandson? No relation? As Herbert Lust provides personal anecdotes in his commentary, one might expect the work's disposition to be recounted.
The reader can't help put down the engaging publication with a sneaking suspicion Lust wrote the book just so he could put "I Am God" on the cover and enjoy the subsequent controversy, daring publications to show it in their advertising. Bookforum did, which piqued my own interest, and the book, while not essential, does inform a bit on a notable skillful, eccentric, sexy and creepy artist. Beyond its sui generis cover image, it's good to see the Bellmer works on paper from the Conrad Lust and Private W. Supply Gallery collections in Octopus Time: Bellmer Painting. And could Nabokov himself come up with a better name for a Hans Bellmer connoisseur than Mr. Lust?