To comply with the wishes of his father, an engineer who wanted his son to follow in his profession, Bellmer worked in a coalmine and a steelworks before enrolling in the Technische Hockschule in Berlin, in 1923. However, he soon abandoned his studies to devote himself entirely to his passion for drawing. Bellmer was introduced to this discipline by George Grosz, and worked as a typographer at the Malik publishing house, also creating illustrations and book covers. In 1927, while working as a commercial artist, he married and opened an agency in Berlin-Karlshorst. Various circumstances—the discovery of a box of childhood toys; a performance of Tales of Hoffman directed by Nax Reinhardt—inspired him to create an "artificial girl." In 1933, after ceasing all activity useful to the State as a protest against Nazism, he began to construct "the doll," with the help of his wife, Margarete, his brother and a second cousin, out of an assemblage of broomsticks joined to form a skeleton. He photographed the doll in different poses, formulating a mythology around it that he presented in a self-published book titled Die Puppe. Photographs in the book aroused the enthusiasm of the surrealists, who, in 1935, presented his Doll in Minotaure. Bellmer soon carried his research even further, striving to re-create the female anatomy. In 1937 he made a second Doll featuring a "central ball" around which gravitated the head and limbs. This new creature inspired Paul Éluard to write a series of poems accompanying an album of Bellmer's hand-colored photographs, Les Jeux de la Poupée. After the death of his wife, in 1938, Bellmer left Berlin and settled in Paris. In 1940 he was interned at the Camp des Milles, near Aix-en-Provence, as a German national. Freed in 1941, he threw his passport into a gutter at Castres, sought shelter in Toulouse and married a Frenchwoman, with whom he had two daughters. After separating from his second wife in 1946, he returned to Paris, where he would remain for the rest of his career, appearing often in surrealist publications and exhibitions. Drawings, etchings and gouaches followed in quick succession, all characterized by a poignant eroticism that expressed an erudite conception of the image, which he defined in his book Petite Anatomie de l'inconscient physique ou l'Anatomie de l'image (1957). The dramatic aspect of his inventions was intensified during an affair with the author Unica Zürn. Bellmer illustrated countless books, including Jules César by Joyce Mansour (1958), Madame Edwarda by Georges Bataille (1965), Dialogues by Joë Bousquet (1967) and Heinrich von Kleist's Puppets (1969). His exclusive exhibitions—for instance, at Galerie Daniel Cordier in Paris, in 1963, and at Galerie Wolfgang Ketterer in Munich, in 1967—along with his rare and secretive work, earned him a semi-clandestine reputation. It was not until his retrospective, in December 1971, at the CNAC (Centre National d'Art Contemporain) in Paris that he received a tribute from an official institution. The major exhibition, Bellmer: Anatomie du Désir, which ran from March 1 to May 22, 2006 at the Centre Georges-Pompidou, also traveled to the Graphic Arts Gallery in Munich, where it met with equal success. However, its opening at the Whitechapel Gallery in London provoked a considerable public outcry, which lasted until the offending pieces were withdrawn, so disturbing was the boldness of his subject matter, despite his brilliance and refinement as a draftsman.
Born 1902 in Katowice, Silesia; died 1975 in Paris.
Les Jeux de la poupée, Hand-tinted Photograph, 1949