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).
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.