On his death in 1992, at the age of 89, Morton Bartlett, a complete recluse, instructed that his estate, worth $300,000, be 'divided between orphan charities'. He made no mention of the contents of a number of handmade wooden boxes his executors found in the basement of his Boston town house, which are now worth considerably more than that sum. The boxes, it turned out, had been acting as tiny coffins for twelve girls and three boys, ranging from infancy to puberty, made of painted plaster. They'd been lying there undisturbed since 1965.
Bartlett's dolls are half life-size and anatomically accurate. The detailing is astonishing. Each figure has finger- and toenails, nipples and a navel. Those with open mouths reveal two sets of teeth and a three-dimensional tongue. One of the boys has sunburnt cheeks and tan lines beneath his shorts. Only the girls have genitals. Though the dolls share a certain family likeness, which may resemble Bartlett's own appearance as a child, each is a recognizable individual, with a distinctive haircut, facial expression and body pose - one girl licks her lips flirtatiously, another bawls plastic tears. Bartlett laboured over these figures and their accessories for around 30 years, with each doll taking some ten months to complete. He pored over anatomy books, and knitted and embroidered the clothing himself. The wigs came from shops, but he customized them to suit each doll. Alongside the full figures were a number of individual body parts: heads, arms and torsos. Joints allowed Bartlett to remove heads, arms and feet so that he could dress the dolls without risking damage to the fragile plaster. It also meant that the body parts were interchangeable, somewhat like Hans Bellmer's La Poupée.
Had Mike Kelley known of them when he curated 'The Uncanny' for Sonsbeek '93, I doubt he would have passed them up. Kelley's 'harem', as he called it, brought together mannequins, waxworks, automatons, medical dolls, sex dolls, movie stand-ins, religious and ancient statuary, along with recent sculpture and photography that evoked these various sources, by Bruce Nauman, Paul McCarthy, Cindy Sherman, Robert Gober, Jeff Koons, Kiki Smith, Charles Ray, Laurie Simmons and others. Kelley applied Freud's The Uncanny (1919) and Ernst Jentsch's On the Psychology of the Uncanny (1906) to the question of why the attributes of these various figurative objects have been repressed so long in discourses about Western sculpture. The attributes he identifies are naturalistic colour, movement, flesh-like material such as wax, and ready-made elements such as clothing. It is these elements that provoke in the viewer 'doubt as to whether or not a lifeless object may in fact be animate' (Jentsch). Developing this idea, and combining it with Freud's concept of the fetish, Kelley concludes that an uncanny object is a substitute for something once feared or desired that has undergone repression, such as the Oedipal drama or the pagan practice of human sacrifice.
Kelley called his essay 'Playing with Dead Things'. The only article on Morton Bartlett's dolls to be published in his own lifetime appeared in Yankee magazine in 1962, under the mawkish title 'The Sweethearts of Mr Bartlett'. His plaster girls and boys, born of conflicting impulses, occupy both these positions. Bartlett was orphaned at the age of eight and never had children himself. It seems the dolls were substitutes for the family he never had. This reading is credible up to a point, but it doesn't account for the dolls' undeniably erotic undertones. The sexual signs that intrude on Bartlett's otherwise saccharine private universe imply that the dolls played the role of fetishes or substitutes for forbidden desires. Bartlett came close to admitting as much in his entry in the 1957 Harvard University Yearbook (he was an alumnus): 'My hobby is sculpting in plaster. Its purpose is that of all proper hobbies - to let out urges that do not find expression in other channels.'
Around 200 black and white photographs of the dolls were found among the complete figures, the body parts and the neatly folded clothes in those wooden boxes. Some show the dolls posing as if for a fashion plate; the more elaborate images show them engaged in completely believable childish activities in fastidiously contrived environments. In one, a girl with brunette curls in a nightie sits up in bed reading to her younger brother, who has fallen asleep beside her. In another, a girl in a straw hat, sitting on a stool, hand on hip, scolds her teddy bear and toy dog. In an image that could almost be a Sherman or a Simmons a girl in the first throes of puberty, wearing an old-fashioned swimming costume, hovers in front of a beach scene bristling with deckchairs and parasols. The background must have been made by projecting a photographic transparency behind the dolls. Bartlett's skills in set-dressing and lighting were acquired from his years spent working as an advertising photographer. His technical sophistication as a photographer and model-maker mark him out as a striking anomaly in the field of outsider art.
The spare body parts suggest that Bartlett thought of the dolls as vehicles for the photographs, rather than as ends in themselves, much as a prop has no life beyond the film it was made for. In these images the body of the child is substituted twice over, first by the painted plaster, then by the photograph. The dolls' artifice is obscured by the images' lack of colour, their flatness and their small size. Plaster returns to flesh in Bartlett's photographs, which anticipate Hiroshi Sugimoto's black and white prints of waxworks in Madame Tussaud's. The indexical nature of photography further conspires to re-animate these little effigies. 'Photography has something to do with resurrection', wrote Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida (1980). In Bartlett's photographs dead things take on the semblance of life.
First published in Issue 73