Have any of you seen the film ‘Lars and the Real Girl’ starring Ryan Gossling? It was a sweet, chaste sort of film considering its casting of a Real Doll as the female lead, and though I enjoyed it I couldn’t help but spend the majority of its length being reminded of the less sweet, less chaste, true life corollary of “Ocsar and the Alma Doll”.
Through my research, the synopsis of this tale goes as follows- In 1911 Viennese artist Oskar Kokoschka meets Alma Mahler, the widow of composer Gustav Mahler. A relationship begins consisting mainly of sex and expressionist painting. Oscar falls obsessionally, possessively, passionately hard. And Alma…not so much.
By 1913 their relationship is strained-
Alma became pregnant and against Oscar’s wishes, has the child aborted. Oscar is crushed. At the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914 he volunteers and serves with the Austrian army. In 1915 he volunteers and serves with the Austrian army. In 1915, while staioned in Russia, Oscar revieves a serious injury via unfriendly bayonet. He returns to find Alma has married an old flame, architect Walter Gropius. Oscar is double- crushed, In 1918 he reacts to all this heartache the way any obessive, expressionist painter would-
Detailed physical descriptions and full-scale drawing in hand, he comissions the doll-maker Hermine Moos to create a life-sized Alma Mahler doll to her exact, anatomically accurate specifications.
“Yesterday I sent a life-size drawing of my beloved and I ask you to copy this most carefully and to transform it into reality. Pay special attention to the dimensions of the head and neck, to the ribcage, the rump and the limbs. And take to heart the contours of body, e.g., the line of the neck to the back, the curve of the belly. Please permit my sense of touch to take pleasure in those places where layers of fat or muscle suddenly give way to a sinewy covering of skin. For the first layer (inside) please use fine, curly horsehair; you must buy an old sofa or something similar; have the horsehair disinfected. Then, over that, a layer of pouches stuffed with down, cottonwool for the seat and breasts. The point of all this for me is an experience which I must be able to embrace! Can the mouth be opened? Are there teeth and a tongue inside? I hope so!”
Hermine Moos with her creation.
The doll takes Hermine Moos 6 months to complete. Oscar is impatient.
“I would die of jealousy if some man were allowed to touch the artificial woman in her nakedness with his hands or glimpse her with his eyes! When shall I be able to hold all this in my hands?.“I was preoccupied with anxious thoughts about the arrival of the doll, for which I had bought Parisian clothes and underwear. I wanted to have done with the Alma Mahler business once and for all, and never again to fall victim to Pandora’s fatal box, which had already brought me so much suffering.”
In February of 1919 the Alma Mahler Doll is delievered.
“In a state of feverish anticipation, like Orpheus calling Eurydice back from the Underworld, I freed the effigy of Alma Mahler from its packing. As I lifted it into the light of day, the image of her I had preserved in my memory stirred into life.”
The doll which he’s hoped would have “natural felling” skin is, in fact made it feathers and, as might be expected, Oscar is disappointed with the results. He explains this in a letter to Hermine Moos-
“I was honestly shocked by your doll which, although I was long prepared for a certain distance from reality, contradicts what I demanded of it and hoped of you in too many ways! The outer shell is a polar-bear pelt, suitable for a shaggy imitation bedside rug rather than the soft and pliable skin of a woman. The result is that I cannot even dress the doll, which you knew was my intention, let alone array her in delicate and precious robes. Even attempting to pull on one stocking would be like asking a French dancing-master to waltz with a polar bear!”
Even so Oscar does his best to make due. He paints and sketches the doll as her once painted Alma. He tasks Hulda with spreading rumours about the doll, which they refer to as “The Silent Woman.”. Stories emerge about his long carriage rides with her and their trips to the opera together.
At a party, organized as the Silent Woman’s introduction to Oscar’s friends, the doll unexpectedly meets her destiny. Oscar explains the events as follows-
“Finally, after I had drawn it and painted it over and over again, I decided to do away with it. It had managed to cure me completely of my Passion. So I gave a big champagne Party with chamber music, during which my maid Hulda exhibited the doll in all its beautiful clothes for the last time. When dawn broke – I was quite drunk, as was everyone else – I beheaded it out in the garden and broke a bottle-of red wine over its head.”
Or so the story goes…
I feel that documentaries on Channel 4 such as “The sex dolls are coming” only contribute to a culture of casual discrimination. Everything from articles about doll-hoarders to videos about sex-doll fetishes in my opinion point to a systemic marginalisation of dolls in our society. Dolls are unfairly maligned as sinister, or inherently sexual.
For me this is why the case of the famed Alma Mahler doll is such a special one. Even in 1918 this guy was well ahead in his thinking..
Fern O’ Carolan