Hans Bellmer

Peg-Top

c.1937–52

On display at Tate Modern

Original title
La Toupie
Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 648 x 648 mm
frame:840 x 840 x 93 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1964
Reference
T00713

Summary

Peg-Top is an oil painting on canvas by the Polish-born German artist Hans Bellmer. A ghost-like figure, painted in gradations of light grey and set against a dark smoky background, fills the centre of the canvas. At the bottom edge of the picture the figure clings with a single bony hand to a spinning top. The top spins upon an irregularly shaped plinth and the figure balances precariously. A thin, wispy body stretches upward to meet two voluminous breasts and a small peg-top head, reminiscent of a praying mantis. This ghostly figure is given a semblance of stability by the presence of a cursory skeleton arm that zigzags down the length of the body.

The painting was made by Bellmer c.1937–52 in Berlin and Paris. It was begun in c.1937, when Bellmer was still living in Berlin, as part of a project for a sculpture that was never realised. In 1938 Bellmer left Germany to escape the Nazi regime and moved to Paris where he joined the French surrealists. Bellmer continued working on the project, making studies in the form of drawings and watercolours and finalising the painting in 1952. He signed and dated the work on the day that he sold it to Marcel Zerbib of Galerie Diderot in Paris in 1956. Peg-Top has also been known incorrectly as Le Père since it was reproduced in an article by Bellmer of this title published in Le Surréalisme, même no.4 in the spring of 1958.

Bellmer was interested in fetishist ideas, drawing out sexual associations between objects and the body. Peg-Top presents a troubling presence. The peg-top symbolises a woman turning (spinning) the heads and hearts of men on her spinning top (la toupee), and was an on-going project for Bellmer. The significance of the spinning top (an object that Bellmer drew often) lies in the fact that when spinning, its visible top half is supported by a lower half that seems to disappear. Historian Weiland Schmied suggests that: ‘This “basis of antithesis” explains how everything visible corresponds to something invisible and absent, which enables it to exist’ (Schmied, ‘The Engineer of Eros’, in Centre Georges Pompidou 2006, p.21).

Bellmer’s best-known works are his constructed dolls or poupées, which he began building in 1933–4, of which The Doll 1936, reconstructed 1965 (Tate T01157) is a later example. Bellmer’s inspiration for the poupées came partly from an opera by Jacques Offenbach (1819–1880), The Tales of Hoffmann, in which the hero falls in love with a mechanical doll. The surrealist journal Minotaure published photographs of Bellmer’s first doll in winter 1934 and the photographs (such as Tate T02305 and T11781) soon became as important as the sculpture itself.

Bellmer compared his sculptures to linguistic manipulations. As he observed: ‘The body can be compared to a sentence that invites you to dismantle it, so that, in the course of an endless series of anagrams, its true contents may take shape’ (quoted in Michael Semff and Anthony Spira, ‘Introduction’, Centre Georges Pompidou 2006, p.12). Bellmer also explored the body in relation to psychic mechanisms and his theory of a physical unconscious. He discussed the boundaries between the psychic and physical worlds in his Petite anatomie de l’inconscient physique ou l’Anatomie de l’image (Little Anatomy of the Physical Unconscious or the Anatomy of the Image), written in 1939 and published in 1957.

The central figure in Peg-Top brings mechanised and biomorphic components together. A moveable constructed object similar to the figure in this painting was photographed in Bellmer’s Berlin studio around 1937. The fragile skeleton arm spinning top remained in his Paris studio for many years (see ‘Chronology’, Centre Georges Pompidou 2006, p.239).

Further reading
Sue Taylor, Hans Bellmer: The Anatomy of Anxiety, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London 2000.
Hal Foster, ‘Violation and Veiling in Surrealist Photography: Woman as Fetish, as Shattered Object, as Phallus’, in Jennifer Mundy (ed.), Surrealism: Desire Unbound, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2001, pp.203–22.
Michael Semff and Anthony Spira (eds.), Hans Bellmer, exhibition catalogue, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 2006.

Beth Williamson
May 2016

Display caption

This image relates to a plan for a sculpture, which Bellmer never completed. The peg-top was intended to symbolise a woman turning the heads and hearts of men. Bellmer was interested in ideas of fetishism, drawing out sexual associations between inert objects and the body. His best-known works were a series of constructed dolls. Bellmer joined the French surrealist group in 1938, having left his native Germany to escape the Nazi regime.

Gallery label, October 2016

Catalogue entry

Hans Bellmer 1902-1975

T00713 La Toupie (Peg-Top) c.1937-52

Inscribed 'Bellmer' b.l. and '1956' b.r.
Oil on canvas, 25 5/8 x 25 5/8 (65 x 65)
Purchased from the Obelisk Gallery through Ewan Phillips (Grant-in-Aid) 1964
Prov: With Galerie Diderot, Paris (purchased from the artist); with Obelisk Gallery, London; Alfred Hecht, London; with Obelisk Gallery, London; Ralph Nash, London; with Obelisk Gallery, London
Exh: Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme, Galerie Daniel Cordier, Paris, December 1959-February 1960 (not in catalogue); Masters of Surrealism: Ernst to Matta, Obelisk Gallery, London, March-April 1961 (2, repr.) as 'Le Père'; Hans Bellmer, Centre National d'Art Contemporain, Paris, November 1971-January 1972 (works not listed, repr.) as 'La Toupie'
Repr: Le Surréalisme, même 4, Spring 1958, p.31 ; Alain Jouffroy, Hans Bellmer (Chicago n.d.), p.24; Simon Wilson, Surrealist Painting (London 1975), pl.48 in colour

Marcel Zerbib of the Galerie Diderot, who had the artist under contract from 1955 to 1958, wrote on 18 October 1965 that 'this picture was first a project made in 1936-37 for a sculpture. This sculpture was never realized, but Bellmer continued working over this project and made several studies for it (drawings and watercolour) which became the final picture three or four years before the signature'. Bellmer signed and dated this work the day he bought it from him and he can remember seeing it lying, dusty, in Bellmer's room as early as 1949.

He confirms that the correct title is 'La Toupie'. The symbolism can be taken as woman turning the heads and hearts of men. It has also sometimes been known, incorrectly, as 'Le Père', a confusion which arose through its having been reproduced to illustrate an article by Bellmer of this title published in Le Surréalisme, même in 1958.

A smaller version in watercolour, probably either the final study or a replica, as it corresponds exactly, was sold at Sotheby's on 11 December 1969, lot 122, repr.; and a variant in oils, the same size, but more stylised and linear, with the forms mainly in outline, was shown in Bellmer's exhibition at the Galerie Wolfgang Ketterer, Munich, in 1967 (95, repr.). Both are also dated 1956.

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.47-8, reproduced p.47


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