photo caption (above) © Max Ernst, The Roaring of the Ferocious Soldiers (Le Mugissement des feroces soldats). 1919
“Indeed, the apparent sadism of the photographs raised the specter 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 World War I 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, homosex- uals, “the masses”)?
To a degree, the critical relation of dada and surrealism to fascism became encrypted for me in the autistic machines of Ernst and the sadomasochistic scenarios of Bellmer. I wanted to frame these works less as historical parentheses of this relation than as ambiguous explorations of the (proto)fascist obsession with the body as armor, and to see this armor as a prosthesis that served to shore up a disrupted body image or to support a ruined ego construction.
Begun in fall 1919, the collages in question were produced from rough proofs that Ernst found at a Cologne printer.’ Each work combines diagrams of mostly mechanical systems with different devices, lines, and symbols to produce schematic figures, the reading of which is often keyed by titular inscriptions.’ Of course, to find meaning in these bizarre images may seem forced, especially as they tend to be read (if at all) as so much dada nonsense. Yet this nonsense is purposeful – not only in its disruption of conventional signification but also in its double imaging of a mechanistic body and a schizophrenic representation.
The titles of two collages, Le Mugissement des firoces soldats and Trophie hypertrophique, point directly to a military-industrial subject. In the first work the mugissement or roaring of the feroces soldats, a phrase which derives from the French national anthem, ironically suggests a loss of speech or reason, a becom- ing other of the “ferocious soldiers” -a trope that would soon be standard in surrealism for a becoming unconscious. However, in the immediate postwar context, this roaring refers to a becoming machine and/or weapon as well. And indeed, the ferocious soldiers, mechanically meshed as they are, evoke nothing so much as a war machine that has become both autonomous and involuted, even internecine.
While Ernst may only allude to (proto)fascism, Bellmer responds directly to Nazism.67 Too young for World War I, he rejected engineering, the profession dictated by his father, for publicity, which he also rejected when the Nazis came to power lest he abet them in any way. It was then that he turned to his poupées – again, as an attack on fascist father and state alike; an attack, however, played out on the compulsively (dis)articulated image of a young female body. How are we to reconcile these two data, the avowed politics and the evident sadism of the dolls?
The poupées thus concern the sadistic as much as the fetishistic, though the two are hardly opposed here. Again, the first doll attests less to an arresting of desire than to its shattering effects, and the second doll is “a series of endless anagrams” that are aggressively manipulated. This sadism is hardly hidden; Bellmer writes openly of his drive to master his “victims,” and to this end the dolls are often posed voyeuristically. In the second poupée, this look masters through the various mises-en-scene of the doll, while in the first poupée it is even made internal to the doll: its interior is filled with miniature panoramas intended “to pluck away the secret thoughts of the little girls.””Involved here, then, is a patriarchal fantasy of control not only over creation but over desire as such.
But exactly what is this desire? And precisely how masterful is it? At least two points call out for consideration. The first concerns the political implications of the apparent sadism of the poupées, and here two related remarks seem useful. The first comes from Benjamin, also in the midst of the fascism of the 1930s: “Exposure of the mechanistic aspects of the organism is a persistent tendency of the sadist. One can say that the sadist sets out to substitute for the human organism the image of machinery.””This formulation is in turn specified by Adorno and Horkheimer toward the end of World War II: “[The Nazis] see the body as a moving mechanism, with joints as its components and flesh to cushion the skeleton. They use the body and its parts as though they were already separated from it.In this light the sadism of the mechanistic dolls might be seen, at least in part, as second-degree–that is, as a reflexive sadism aimed as an expose at the sadism of the fascist father.”
excerpts of Armor Fou, by Hal Foster, in October, Vol. 56, (Spring, 1991), pp. 64-97