45th Annual Meeting – Photographic Materials Session, May 30, “Bellmer: Complexities of the Doll” by Krista Lough

Ms. Lough’s talk focused on Hans Bellmer’s Doll series of photographs. She gave some interesting background on Bellmer and her professed lifelong love of the artist was evident. As a fellow in photograph conservation at the Art Institute of Chicago, Lough’s work focused on the Art Institute’s newly-acquired doll print, which is a large print. She outlined some interesting discoveries about this print and found some parallels in other collections of Bellmer’s work. Her discussion of handcoloring, overall airbrushing, and mounting of the prints have obvious implications for conservators working with Bellmer photographs.

Hans Bellmer was a German professional working during the rise of the Nazi Party. He left his career in advertising as an act of rebellion in the 1930s because he didn’t want to (even indirectly) benefit the German state. He began a project with his brother to construct and photograph an artificial doll in 1933. Two additional dolls were constructed in 1935 (second doll) and 1937 (the Machine-Gunneress in a State of Grace). The dolls were posed in provocative and intentionally perverse positions and then photographed. The dolls seemed to get more abstract, with multiple sets of breasts, legs, pelvises, and torsos. They were made primarily of tissue paper and glue.

Bellmer made both small format photographs and larger prints. In particular, a set of hand-colored small prints was created for a book “Les Jeux de la Poupee” created with the surrealist poet Paul Éluard. He made some larger prints, about 26 inches square, at this time of the same images. The Art Institute’s print is a large print of an image from this book. In the course of Lough’s study, she found that the larger print did not precisely relate to the copy in the book, implying that he was working from multiple negatives and making specific decisions unique to each print. Lough stressed that he was treating each print as a unique work of art, not trying to replicate the same appearance in all prints of the same image.

The Art Institute’s print had some interesting overpainting, including an overall layer of dark airbrushing that was difficult to see without magnification. This layer appears to have an overall darkening effect on the print. There was also extensive applications of gouache and dyes. When Lough compared this print to other large doll prints, she found no rigid working method that Bellmer applied to all the prints. Again, they appear to have been treated uniquely.

When considering treatment of the Art Institute’s print, Lough encountered some obstacles unique to Bellmer’s working method. The treatment was designed to address issues with grime, losses and chipping in the media. Through extensive testing she found that the print could not be safely surface cleaned. Traditional cleaning solutions such as water/ethanol removed retouching. Ethanol alone caused changes to the surface sheen (perhaps indicating a coating? Samples were taken for testing). Even dry cleaning was ruled out because the abrasive action reduced the topography of the gouache. This meant that the treatment was limited to tear repair.

In summary, Lough emphasized that Bellmer’s Doll photographs should be treated as unique and distinct objects with very real conservation challenges.