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alma doll

The doll of dolls: Alma Mahler, or someone near enough?

When people know that one has a certain interest—say, dolls—they will very kindly send one stories that they think correspond to the subject. As a result, I’ve had brought to my attention everything from articles about Upper West Side doll-hoarders to videos about sex-doll fetishists. In their way, these are all engaging, and it would seem churlish to explain that you, in fact, don’t particularly care about puppets or mannequins, or that, while you liked Lars and the Real Girl or Daphne du Maurier’s The Doll perfectly well, it wasn’t out of any sort of niche fascination. 

(In fact, privately I feel that this points to a systemic marginalization of dolls in our society, and that films like Annabelle only contribute to a culture of casual discrimination. Dolls are unfairly maligned as sinister, or as inherently sexual, and while there are certainly a few bad apples—and the fetishistic qualities of any human totem are part of their fascination—I think they get a bad rap. Indeed, following the death of Doll Hospital proprietor Erving Chase, a New York area doll can’t even get adequate medical care. But I digress.) 

The case of the famed Alma Mahler doll, however, is a special one. While it was sort of a sex doll and sort of a mannequin—and as such, not really my area of study—it also had an unimpeachable toy pedigree: in 1918, after the great muse ended her relationship with the artist Oskar Kokoschka, he commissioned a life-size replica of his lost love from the doll-maker Hermine Moos. 

Kokoschka took a strong hand in the doll’s design, sending sketches, measurements, and explicit instructions. Much of the correspondence still survives. E.g.:

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!


I am very curious to see how the stuffing works. On my drawing I have broadly indicated the flat areas, the incipient hollows and wrinkles that are important to me, will the skin—I am really extremely impatient to find out what that will be like and how its texture will vary according to the nature of the part of the body it belongs to—make the whole thing richer, tenderer, more human? Take as your ideal … Rubens’ pictures of his wife, for example the two where she is shown as a young woman with her children. If you are able to carry out this task as I would wish, to deceive me with such magic that when I see it and touch it imagine that I have the woman of my dreams in front of me, then dear Fräulein Moos, I will be eternally indebted to your skills of invention and your womanly sensitivity as you may already have deduced from the discussion we had.

Much has been made of the gender politics implicit in this transaction; not merely the creation of the doll itself, but the fact that Kokoschka used a woman to “birth” her, and he tried to make this other woman complicit in his fetish. It’s unclear exactly what Moos made of this commission, but one does wonder, given Kokoschka’s particular interest in the doll’s skin, what possessed her to instead cover the doll’s body with feathers. (The writer Bonnie Roos speculates that it was a passive-aggressive attempt to thwart his desires.) 

The resulting doll is, to say the least, creepy: an enormous, furry creature that looks like some kind of poorly-rendered idol, it bears as little resemblance to the artist’s sketches as to a real woman. Not shockingly, Kokoschka wasn’t into it. As he wrote to Moos, 

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.

Nevertheless, he tried to make the best of it, posing the doll around his studio and doing more than eighty drawings and paintings of her in different positions and garb, as well as a series of photographs. Although his obsession was clearly sincere, he was also aware of the theatricality of his eccentricity, and played it up. And when he had tired of her, he saw her out in true Expressionist style.

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.

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.