Like a child, it took nine months to make the Alma doll: the full-scale, accurately proportioned re-creation of Alma Mahler commissioned in 1918 by the artist Oskar Kokoschka after the dissolution of their turbulent relationship. When it arrived in February 1919, the sight of the thing was so disturbing, kokoschka later recalled to the photographer Brassaï, that his butler promptly suffered a stroke.
The butler’s reaction is not surprising. Made of sawdust sewn inside swanskin, the feathers still attached, the doll is a beastly beauty. In one photograph, she – ‘it’? – sits cross-legged, one arm raised, like a Yeti in meditation; in another, a child’s toy rests in her hand, somehow calling to mind the poor creature of James Whale’s film Frankenstein (1931), pensively clutching a flower. Even when rendered in paintings such as Woman in Blue (1919) – one of approximately 33 works for which kokoschka used the doll as a model – she has a lolloping, ungainly quality that resists the sexualization implied by her (absurdly) bare breasts. In another photo, she is stretched out languidly, resplendent in her monstrosity: simultaneously Leda and the swan.
A century later, when women worldwide have declared that they are #notsurprised by widespread sexual harassment in the art world, it’s hard to think about the Alma doll separately from Mahler’s testimony of Kokoschka’s borderline-abusive behaviour and her own neglected musical aspirations. In 2018, the Alma doll offers itself as a suitable emblem for the whole, shoddy spectrum of Western art history’s imbrication in gender struggle – the silent muse ne plus ultra.
Yet, in a way, this reading silences another woman: Hermine Moos, the doll’s fabricator. Beyond being Mahler’s onetime seamstress, Moos was an exhibiting artist in her own right, and friends with the avant-garde dollmaker Lotte Pritzel. as the scholar Bonnie roos emphasizes, it was Moos – quite independently of her patron – who chose the swanskin that lends the Alma doll its utterly abject quality. In this reading, the Alma doll is as much Moos’s project as it is Kokoschka’s and, as such, can be seen as an artwork that both indulges and frustrates his desire for total sexual control: bringing forth the fantasy of woman as pliant plaything and, by the same stroke, unravelling it.
‘Art’, wrote the artist Mike Kelley (who included an image of the Alma doll in a visual essay compiled to accompany his 1993 exhibition of figurative sculpture, ‘The Uncanny’), ‘is creation in response to lack.’ Walking through ‘Like Life’ at the Met Breuer in New York this year, an exhibition which explored colour and verisimilitude in an amazing array of substitutes for the human body – sculptures, yes, but also waxworks, artists’ dummies, religious icons, death masks – it was difficult to disagree. I wonder if the Alma doll would feel at home in that company. We’ll never know, of course, as, after a party one night, Kokoschka took her into the garden and beheaded her.
Published in frieze, issue 198, October 2018, with the title ‘The Alma Mahler Doll’.