Armour Fou

  • Hal Foster


In these pages I want to relate several works of Max Ernst and Hans Bellmer to a psychic apprehension of the body as armour, an apprehension I will consider tentatively in terms of fascism.1 This chapter arises out of a silence following a lecture I heard several years ago, the first theory of surrealist photography read through such Bataillean concepts as the informe and the base.2 Not only are formal conventions and idealist values subverted in these manipulated images by Brassaï and Kertész, Man Ray and Maurice Tabard, Raoul Ubac and Hans Bellmer; so too is the female body, a common ground of this subversion, often deformed, even violently so, in a way that no avantgardist claim can quite justify. The apparent sadism of the photographs raised the spectre of surrealist misogyny, but it also pointed to an adjacent issue no less difficult: are these surrealist transgressions of the body related to actual transgressions of the body during the period from the mutilations of the First World War to the atrocities of the Nazi regime? If so, why are these fantasies visited upon the female body? Do they partake in a putatively fascist imaginary, a peculiarly damaged ego that seeks a sense of corporeal stability in the very act of aggression against other bodies somehow deemed feminine by this subject (Jews, Communists, homosexuals, ‘the masses’)?3


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  1. 2.
    See Rosalind Krauss, ‘Corpus Delicti’, in Rosalind Krauss and Jane Livingston, (eds), L’Amour fou: Photography & Surrealism (New York: Abbeville Press, 1985).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    This is essentially the argument of Klaus Theweleit in Male Fantasies (1977/78), 2 vols, trans. S. Conway, E. Carter, C. Turner (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1987/89). I draw on this provocative, problematic text at several points in this article.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    In this regard literary studies of fascist modernisms are far more advanced than art-historical studies (why this is so is significant in its own right). This literature has grown enormously in recent years; two influential examples in English are Fredric Jameson, Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1979), andGoogle Scholar
  4. Alice Yeager Kaplan, Reproductions of Banality: Fascism, Literature, and French Intellectual Life (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1986). I am aware that even as I question the anti-typical function of fascism I mostly preserve it here.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    See my ‘Exquisite Corpses’ in Lucien Taylor (ed.), Visualizing Theory (New York: Routledge, 1993), andGoogle Scholar
  6. my Compulsive Beauty (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993).Google Scholar
  7. 10.
    Ernst in an interview with Patrick Waldberg, ‘La Partie de Boules: Die Boules-Partie’, in Max Ernst in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten (Hamburg, 1969), p. 35, extracted in Diane Waldman, Max Ernst: A Retrospective (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1991), p. 21.Google Scholar
  8. Ernst in an interview with Patrick Waldberg, ‘La Partie de Boules: Die Boules-Partie’, in Max Ernst in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten (Hamburg, 1969), p. 35, extracted in Diane Waldman, Max Ernst: A Retrospective (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1991), p. 21.Google Scholar
  9. 11.
    Max Ernst, Beyond Painting (New York: Wittenborn & Schultz, 1948), p. 14. This art-treatise-cum-auto-analysis includes several texts, the earliest of which dates from 1927. Needless to say, this framing of the war contrasts sharply with its (proto)fascist celebration.Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    Ernst first read Freud in 1911, though it seems that his psychology courses were largely Wundtian in bias, i.e., sceptical of the Freudian unconscious. Also at this time Ernst became familiar with the Kraepelin classification of mental disorders in his Textbook of Psychiatry (1896). For his use of such material see Elizabeth R. Legge, Max Ernst: The Psychoanalytic Sources (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Press, 1989), pp. 11–6.Google Scholar
  11. 17.
    Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972), trans. R. Hurley, M. Seem, H. Lane (New York: Viking Press, 1977), p. 31. The collages are thus bachelor machines in the sense elaborated in this text as well.Google Scholar
  12. 18.
    Collaterally, in a few wartime paintings Ernst suggests a mechanizing of landscape, and in a few 1920 collages a metallizing of organic forms. In one such collage, Démonstration hydrométrique à tuer par la température, he evidently refers such deathly processes to entropy, to the second law of thermodynamics. In the same year, 1920, Freud extrapolated from this law in his theory of the death drive in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. For technical and cultural elaborations of such energistic concepts, see Anson Rabinbach, The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue and the Origins of Modernity (New York: Basic Books, 1990). In some ways the Ernst imaging of a military-industrial body plays critically on the fundamental redefinition of the worker detailed brilliantly by Rabinbach.Google Scholar
  13. 19.
    Peter Sloterdijk develops this distinction in his Critique of Cynical Reason, trans. Michael Eldred (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1987). There, in terms appropriate to the Ernst collages, he writes of the ‘kynical irony’ of ‘a bashed ego’ that performs ‘resistance in the form of unresisting accommodation’ (p. 441). In this light one might say that Ernst does to the modernist image in relation to reification what Baudelaire, according to Benjamin, does to the lyric poem in relation to the commodity.Google Scholar
  14. 22.
    See Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), trans. James Strachey (New York: W.W. Norton, 1961), pp. 6–7, 23–7. In a different way Walter Benjamin relates the Communist revolts of the time to the shock of the war: ‘In the nights of annihilation of the last war the frame of mankind was shaken by a feeling that resembled the bliss of the epileptic. And the revolts that followed it were the first attempt of mankind to bring the new body under its control. The power of the proletariat is the measure of its convalescence’. See ‘One-Way Street’ (1928) in Reflections, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), p. 94. Incidentally, this psychic work of the dadaist image would soon be fundamental to the surrealist image, at least as developed by Ernst precisely out of such collages as these. See my Compulsive Beauty. Google Scholar
  15. 28.
    For example, Marie Laurencin had tried to get Ernst a visa, without success. See Uwe Schneede, Max Ernst (London: Thames & Hudson, 1972), p. 21.Google Scholar
  16. as well as his Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race and Madness, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), pp. 217–38.Google Scholar
  17. Then as now the use of ‘schizophrenia’ as a cultural diagnostic bordered on cliché. On its dangers see Jacqueline Rose, ‘Sexuality and Vision: Some Questions’, in Hal Foster (ed.), Vision and Visuality (Seattle, WA: Bay Press, 1988).Google Scholar
  18. 33.
    See Bruno Bettelheim, The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self (New York: The Free Press, 1967), pp. 233–339. Suspect though Bettleheim has become, I use this case history, distant though it is from the Ernst images, for a specific reason. Although machinic images are also found in the Prinzhorn collection, his formalism renders his text rather inattentive to the aspects of ‘the art of the mentally ill’ that interest me here. Moreover, Joey’s representations occasionally resonate with Ernst’s figures, just as Bettelheim’s reading of this autistic child occasionally converges with Theweleit’s account of the (proto)fascist subject.Google Scholar
  19. 34.
    Ibid, pp. 272–83. As we will see, Theweleit detects a related double bind, and a similar fear of ‘mire’, in his (proto)fascist subjects.Google Scholar
  20. 35.
    Ibid, p. 319.Google Scholar
  21. 41.
    See Ernst, ‘Some Data on the Youth of M.E. as told by himself’, in Beyond Painting, pp. 26–9. Also see Werner Spies, Max Ernst, Loplop: The Artist in the Third Person (New York: George Braziller, 1983), pp. 79–80. Alternatively, perhaps, the early work is about the social deformation of the subject, about an inadequate ego construction, while the later work concerns the psychic disruption of the subject, a convulsed ego construction.Google Scholar
  22. 42.
    Bettelheim, Empty Fortress, p. 325. Freud uses the metaphor of a bird’s egg to describe a closed psychological system in ‘Formulations Regarding the Two Principles in Mental Functioning’ (1911), as does Margaret Mahler in On Human Symbiosis and the Vicissitudes of Individuation (New York: International Universities Press, 1970), where her term ‘hatching process’ designates the slow separation from maternal symbiosis.Google Scholar
  23. 45.
    For Freud shock occurs on the piercing of ‘the protective shield’ (Reizschutz) of the body, an extruded layer of matter said to protect the organism against excessive stimuli. This quasi-physiological model, resurrected in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, resonates with my discussion of the armoured body, perhaps also with the Ernst imaging of an ‘evolution’ of ‘anatomy’ as a ‘hypertrophic trophy’ or ‘bitter perisperm’. Indeed, Nobert Elias took up this model to think the development of a military-industrial body in The Civilizing Process (1939), trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Urizen Books, 1978). Concerned with armouring as a psychic phenomenon, Theweleit is ambivalent about this sociological account. On the one hand, he speaks of ‘the technization of the body’; on the other hand, he argues that ‘it has nothing to do with the development of machine technology’ (Male Fantasies, vol. 2, pp. 202, 162).Google Scholar
  24. 47.
    J. Lacan, ‘The Mirror Stage as formative of the function of the I’, Ecrits, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W.W. Norton, 1977), p. 15.Google Scholar
  25. 58.
    The phrase derives from Ernst Jünger, Der Kampf als inneres Erlebnis (1922).Google Scholar
  26. 61.
    Jünger, ‘Photography and the “Second Consciousness”’, in Christopher Phillips (ed.), Photography in the Modern Era (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989), p. 207. In this text he actually advocates ‘objectification’: deadness recoded as vitality. This is also valued in the fascist modernism of Wyndham Lewis: ‘Deadness is the first condition of art. The armoured hide of the hippopotamus, the shell of the tortoise, feathers and machinery … With the statue its lines and masses are its soul, no restless inflammable ego is imagined for its interior: it has no inside: good art must have no inside: that is capital’: Tarr (London: Calder & Boyars, 1968), pp. 279–80. Jameson glosses this modernism suggestively here: Lewis, he writes, ‘stages something like a search for the ego, for the unifying principle of some autonomous, central subject, at the same time exploring the effects of the systematic dispersal of psychic unity by various historical agencies’ (Wyndham Lewis, p. 97).Google Scholar
  27. 63.
    See Jeffrey Herf, Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture, and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 30, andGoogle Scholar
  28. Anson Rabinbach, ‘The Aesthetics of Production in the Third Reich’, Journal of Contemporary History, 11 (1976), pp. 43–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 65.
    The term is Marinetti’s, as quoted by Walter Benjamin in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), p. 241.Google Scholar
  30. 67.
    For biographical information as well as critical analysis see in particular Peter Webb (with Robert Short), Hans Bellmer (London: Quartet Books 1985). Incidentally, Bellmer had ties to (Berlin) dada; at the Berlin Technical School of Art he met Grosz and Heartfield among others.Google Scholar
  31. 70.
    See Krauss, ‘Corpus Delicti’, p. 86; also see my ‘L’Amour faux’, Art in America (January 1986). Freud briefly discusses such multiplication in relation to the threat of castration in ‘Medusa’s Head’ (1922).Google Scholar
  32. 71.
    Bellmer, Petite Anatomie de l’inconscient physique, ou l’Anatomie de l’image (Paris: Le Terrain Vague, 1957), n.p. This text was mostly written during the Second World War, part of which Bellmer spent interned, along with Ernst, as a German alien in France.Google Scholar
  33. 72.
    Freud, ‘Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes’ (1925), in On Sexuality, ed. Angela Richards (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1977), p. 336.Google Scholar
  34. 73.
    Bellmer was inspired to make the dolls in part by a 1932 Max Reinhardt production of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann. For Freud, who glosses Hoffmann’s ‘The Sandman’ in ‘The Uncanny’ (1919), associations of castration and fetishism cluster around the doll Olympia (or in the operetta Coppelia), but behind her lurks Coppelius, the evil father figure. More generally in Freud, the threat of castration may be posed for the male subject by the female body, but it is only guaranteed, as it were, by the paternal figure.Google Scholar
  35. 75.
    Bellmer, Obliques (Paris: Borderie, 1975), p. 109;Google Scholar
  36. also quoted in Christian Jelinski, Les dessins de Hans Bellmer (Paris: Denoël, 1966), p. 15.Google Scholar
  37. On this ‘shattering’ see the provocative argument in Leo Bersani, (ed.), The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), pp. 29–50.Google Scholar
  38. 76.
    Bellmer, La Poupée. An illustration in Die Puppe connects this mechanism directly to voyeurism, as does a reference in the text to a ‘conscious gaze plundering their charms’. Paul Foss writes of the second doll: ‘What is this “thing” or composite of things but the gaze pulled to pieces by the eyes, an open combinatory of spatial visions?’: ‘Eyes, Fetishism, and the Gaze’, Art & Text, 20 (1986), p. 37. This remark holds for many of the drawings as well, especially as they tend to disjunctive superimpositions.Google Scholar
  39. 77.
    A third point concerns the nature of the sadomasochistic agreement. The sadist does not destroy his other; his part of the agreement is to preserve him or her: such is one stake at least of his mastery. Thus when Bellmer claims that the desires of his other are also figured in the dolls, we cannot merely dismiss it as an obscene rationalization. On this particular bond of love, see Jessica Benjamin, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and the Problem of Domination (New York: Pantheon, 1988), pp. 51–84.Google Scholar
  40. 78.
    Benjamin, Passagen-Werk (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1982), V, p. 466. Contrast Bellmer: ‘I want to reveal scandalously the interior that will always remain hidden and sensed behind the successive layers of a human structure and its lost unknowns’ (l’Anatomie de l’image).Google Scholar
  41. 79.
    Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), trans. John Cumming (New York: The Seabury Press, 1972), p. 235. ‘Those who extolled the body above all else,’ they add, ‘the gymnasts and scouts, always had the closest affinity with killing, just as the lovers of nature are close to the hunter’. Adorno and Horkheimer also touch upon the masochistic aspect of this sadism.Google Scholar
  42. 81.
    From a 1964 letter to Herta Hausmann quoted in Webb, Hans Bellmer, p. 162.Google Scholar
  43. 82.
    Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, Creativity and Perversion (New York: W.W. Norton, 1984), p. 2. This text includes a brief discussion of Bellmer (pp. 20–2) to which I am indebted. Bellmer: ‘To an extent [the dolls] represented an attempt to reject the horrors of adult life as it was, in favour of a return to the wonders of childhood, but the eroticism was all-important, they became an erotic liberation for me’ (quoted in Webb, Hans Bellmer, p. 34).Google Scholar
  44. 89.
    Bellmer in the exhibition catalogue for ‘Le Surréalisme en 1947’ at the Galerie Maeght, as quoted in Dawn Ades in Dada and Surrealism Reviewed (London: Hayward Gallery, 1978), p. 296 (italics added).Google Scholar
  45. 90.
    This may be one reason why Bellmer is marginal to the literature on surrealism: not because his work is eccentric to it but because its articulation of the sadomasochistic basis of sexuality is all too central. On this basis see Jean Laplanche, Life and Death in Psychoanalysis, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), pp. 85–102, and Bersani, The Freudian Body, pp. 29–50. Laplanche traces three related routes through this tangled terrain depending on which moment in the Freudian corpus is privileged.Google Scholar
  46. 91.
    See Petre Freud, ‘The Economic Problem in Masochism’ (1924). In the work of Kaja Silverman and others, an attention to masculinity has meant a focus on masochism.Google Scholar
  47. 95.
    For example, in ‘Modern Art and Desublimation’ Russell Berman argues that ‘the historical demise of autonomous art contributes to the virulence of social aggression, especially to a recrudescent nationalism’: Modern Culture and Critical Theory (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, 1989), p. 72.Google Scholar
  48. 97.
    There is a parallel reaction against socialist, especially Soviet, avant-gardes. The Cold War hardly ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall which, in modernist studies at least, ushered in a renewed triumphalism. According to this perestroika, Russian constructivism is to be rescued from the Russian revolution, now revealed to be an historical error, and/or trashed as the precedent of Stalinist culture. (The epitome of this latter revisionism is Brois Groys’s The Total Art of Stalin, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.) The avant-gardist romanticism of the old extreme — to heroicize constructivism in easy opposition to Stalinism, or to purify modernism in easy opposition to fascism — is hardly improved by the antimodernist ressentiment of this new extreme.Google Scholar

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© Macmillan Publishers Limited 1995

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  • Hal Foster

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