Saturday, January 16, 2010

Hans Bellmer + Hysteria

Today I’m reading about Hans Bellmer and seeing parallels between his photographs and my recent paintings bulging with balls of figures and objects in domestic spaces. Therese Lichtenstein’s writing about Bellmer in a chapter called “The Hysterical Body” in her book Behind Closed Doors easily links Peter Kilborn’s Relos and expatriates’ nomadic tendencies. These commonly reward lifestyles appear normal but are often only seem slightly less frenetic and prone to emotional, animal-like behaviors. From page 108:

Once again, as in so many of Bellmer’s photographs, this body is riven by inner conflict...both trapped and out of control in the claustrophobic space. And once again, this headless hybrid creature (like octopus and a human combined) suggests the condition of hysteria. By portraying the doll as headless and flailing, Bellmer seems to collude with class nineteenth-century stereotypes of hysterics as woman who have lost their minds, who are emotional and animal-like in nature, and who are literally out of control.

Although the interpretations of hysteria and many of its symptoms have changed in various ways from Greek times to the present, and it has affected both men and women, hysteria has been consistently characterized as a female malady. What we call hysteria today is a psychosexual abnormality that manifests itself through an assortment of physical symptoms. The word hysteria derives from the Greek hyster (womb) and was used in ancient Greece to designate a pathology presumed to result from a displaced or “wandering” womb. The Greeks believed that in cases involving an insufficient amount of sexual intercourse or even sexual abstinence, the womb would become uprooted and wanter around the woman’s body, producing negative behavioral side effects. Women who did not conform to the conventional roles assigned in patriarchal culture—namely, wife and fertile mother—were pathologized...

In most Western cultures in the nineteenth century...according to diagnostic science of the period, the female hysteria registered her symptoms across her body through a nonverbal language f gestures that expressed her unconscious anger and rebellion. These passionate physical tremors, like the pent-up energy of an earthquake rocked her otherwise contained and controlled body.

Such antisocial characteristics were first “documented” in photographs taken under the direction of the famous French psychologist Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpetriere clinic between 1875 and 1880...hysterical fits were induced by electrical shock, loud noises, pressure on the ovaries, the use of ether, tying women down, or placing their heads in a brace in order to hold a pose for the long exposure time. The cultural historian Sigrid Schade points out that it is not a coincidence that many nineteenth-century hysterical poses resembled epileptic fits, because after 1870 Charcot place epileptic patients and hysterics in the same ward. Many gestures, especially the “hysterical” arched back, resembled depictions of women possessed by demons or images of exorcism found in earlier medieval and Renaissance paintings. Charcot, who was married to a wealthy widow and wa sa patron of the arts, closely connected to Parisian art circles, collected these works and hung them on the walls of the Salpetriere clinic, where patients had visual access to them.

More about Lichtenstein's book at
A 2006 New York Times article with a painting of Charcot talking about the "disappearance" of hysteria, a fashionable syndrome of the Victorian era...or the changing of its name.