Hans Bellmer was born on 13 March 1902 in Kattowitz, Germany. After receiving his baccalauréat in 1921, he left for Kassel to work in a coal mine. Whilst there, he came in contact with the writings of Lenin and Marx; read Zola, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Poe and Wilde; and became familiar with Berlin Dada, discovering the works of Ernst, Arp, Grosz, Dix, Tzara and Klee. This was a formative period, where he would develop a revolutionary and provocative spirit that would define him for the rest of his life. Between 1922 and 1924, his father enrolled him in the Berlin Technische Hochschule to study engineering.
Bellmer acquainted himself with Grosz and Heartfield in Berlin, the former commenting on his drawing ability. In 1924, he began working as a typographer and bookbinder for Malik-Verlag before opening a small advertising firm in Karlshorst, a suburb of Berlin, which he would continue to run until 1934. Bellmer would also work as an illustrator during this period and married Margarete Schnell in 1928. With Hitler coming to power in 1933, Bellmer decided to cease all utilitarian work as a show of defiance. Thus, along with his brother Fritz, an engineer, Margarete and his cousin, Ursula, began working upon a large mechanical doll made of wood, plaster, glue, metal rods, nuts and bolts, called ‘Doll’ (‘Puppe’/‘Poupée’). Bellmer took a number of photographs of the Doll in various poses and stages of construction, ten of which were published with an accompanying text, Die Puppe, in 1934. Eighteen were also published in the Surrealist review, Minotaure (no. 6, Winter 1934). Bellmer would make a second doll in 1935, which he also photographed in various states of dismemberment.
In 1938, Bellmer fled to Paris from Germany, where the disquieting and sexualised nature of his work was welcomed by André Breton and the Surrealists. Paul Eluard would choose fourteen colour photographs of the second Doll and write accompanying poems in prose to be published in Christian Zervos’ Cahiers d’art. In 1939, Bellmer took up painting again, and also produced collages, drawings and gouaches on paper as well as experimenting with automatist techniques such as frottage. After the Second World War, Bellmer remained in Paris. Though he would give up doll-making, he continued to create erotic drawings, etchings, sexually explicit photographs, paintings, and prints of pubescent girls. In 1954, Bellmer met the author and artist Unica Zürn, who became his companion until her suicide in 1970. Bellmer exhibited sporadically throughout his life but was the subject of a travelling solo exhibition, Hans Bellmer: Zeichnungen und Graphik in his native Germany in 1967 (Hanover, Berlin, Munich), and at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in 1970. In 1974, Sidney Janis Gallery held a a solo exhibition of his work in New York. Bellmer died on 24 February 1975.
Bellmer’s work can be found in the following selected international collections: the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Art Institute of Chicago; National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; the Menil Collection, Houston; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA); Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA); the Tate Collection, London.
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