Véber insists on the contrast between the young, fresh and luminous body of the woman and the dark figure of the man, whose attitude and expression reveal he lives in an imaginary world, crowded with dolls. He does not look at the woman but at her substitute, object of all his desires and dreams. Véber approaches here a subject that was rather daring at that time, showing a man who seems to reject authorized sexuality and prefer a different and deviant one.
Véber was certainly aware of contemporary researches by neurologists, Freud above all, on hysteria, neurosis and obsessions. Freud's major discoveries were beginning to change the public's perception on mental illnesses. A man with an obsession was to interest Véber, himself a tormented man. Interestingly, the painter and the man with dolls look like each other, both being thin, pale and anxious.
Madness and insanity were frequent subjects in 19th century art and literature : In the 1820s Géricault painted an extraordinary series of « Monomaniacs » ; Delacroix painted, among others, Le Tasse dans la maison des fous and La folie d'Ophélie ; François Auguste Biard showed l'Intérieur d'une maison de fous. Charles-Louis Muller and Tony Robert-Fleury depicted the alienist François Pinel freeing from their chains in the 1790s men and women locked up for mental troubles. At the end of the century, Symbolist artists tried to express their deepest emotions and dreams, often strange and fantastic, sometimes close to madness. In representing a man living in an imaginary world and rejecting reality, Véber is close to the Symbolist ideas.
In the picture, some dolls seem to have a symbolic meaning, which could possibly help discovering the cause of the man's « monomania » and also to find out more about Veber's psyche. What does the doll crowned with laurel symbolize ? Victory, Genius, Immortality ? Why has she surrounded the man's neck with a golden thread ? On the ground a Virgin Mary symbolizes obviously Religion. Hanging on the wall is Athena, Goddess of War but also of Wisdom and Reason. Next to her we can see Death and a doll which could be a judge. Are they all waiting for the man – modern Pygmalion – to take them in his hands and bring them to life ?
Other dolls, faces of which look like masks, remind us of James Ensor. His pictures showing masks, puppets and skeletons were sharp criticisms of his contemporaries' ridicules and of human society (ill. 4). On the far right, a beheaded doll announces the future researches of Hans Bellmer, who endlessly dislocated and recreated dolls.
Man with dolls was exhibited at the Paris salon in 1896. It was the direct inspiration for Jean-Louis Renaud's novel L'homme aux poupées, published by Floury in 1899 and illustrated with 18 drawings by Véber (ill. 1, 2, 3). A hymn to imagination, phantasm and fetichism, the novel tells the story of a man obsessed with dolls. At the end of the novel, the woman who loves him, decides to play the part of an automat (reminding us of Olympia in Offenbach's Contes d'Hoffmann) as it is the only way the man will notice her and love her, thinking she is an automat. In 1903 the novel inspired a pantomim by Henri Bérény and in 1909 it was adapted into a movie, L'homme aux poupées.
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