Substitute for Love


“The hollow of my hand was still ivory—full of Lolita—full of the feel of her pre-adolescently incurved back, that ivory-smooth, sliding sensation of her skin through the thin frock that I worked up and down while I held her.” That, of course is Humbert Humbert talking about his doomed love. It’s not known if Morton Bartlett ever read Nabokov’s classic, but in his own way he may have lived it. Or at least some part of him did, because it’s also not known how conscious Bartlett was of what he was doing.

Nabokov gave Humbert an excruciating consciousness of his enslavement (“I was a pentapod monster but I loved you. I was despicable and brutal and turpid”) and the ability to render the object of his desire in exquisite detail. From 1935 until around 1965, Bartlett created the object of his desire from scratch: a surrogate family of 15 half-sized, anatomically correct, pubescent girl (and a few boy) dolls. Taking as long as a year to make, each child was meticulously sculpted from clay, cast in plaster, and painted with lifelike features. These figures were then dressed in clothes of his own making, outfitted in wigs, posed in homemade sets, and photographed. This circuitous route to satisfaction tells you how undeniable Bartlett’s cravings were to him. The final products are the dimly lit, ardent, awkward, inexplicable pictures on view here.

Bartlett was born in 1903, orphaned at eight, attended Harvard for two years, and lived alone in Cambridge as a self-employed printing designer. Upon his death in 1992, the figures, drawings, clothing, and around 200 photographs were found in his basement. Except for an autobiographical profile penned for Harvard’s 1957 Anniversary Report, that’s all we know. The last two sentences of Bartlett’s statement, however, suggest both a glimmer of defensive shame and a flicker of Nabokov’s consciousness: “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.”

Bartlett’s “urges” ooze out of his pictures, but that word proper just hangs there. A rare breed of outsider-photographer, he operated so totally out of personal necessity that his work is compelling, however troubling the subject matter. His pictures are a combination of jaunty and hollow, cheerful but utterly artificial. Describing a Bartlett photograph she owns, the artist Laurie Simmons said, “It’s really unusual to find something that’s so sweet and so scary at the same time.” The 19 black-and-white prints at Ricco/Maresca and two actual dolls, one opening her robe to reveal startling gynecological “realness,” locate us in this sweet and scary place.

Bartlett presided over his make-believe family like a kindhearted Geppetto and a predator. The figures’ poses are impish, but the mood is tense. In one photograph, we see an Asian nymphet wearing nothing but a grass skirt and a straw hat, hand on hip, her breasts barely sprouting points. Elsewhere, she’s posed without the skirt, her precisely shaped pudenda visible: Tokyo Rose meets Traci Lords. In another picture, an even younger girl sticks her hand under her dress, grimacing as if she has wet her pants or has been caught touching herself. Another girl child peers beguilingly over her bare shoulder, mouth slightly open, her tongue seductively licking her upper lip.

Bartlett’s cravings may be creepy, but his carving is impeccable. A ballerina’s leg extends flawlessly, the toe arched just so. The bridge of a nose is fashioned as if it were cartilage still in formation. Lips are bee-stung, eyes introspective or anxious, mouths poised in twisted smiles or petulant frowns. Many of his scenes look contrived, as if they popped out of children’s books, movies, or American advertising of the period. We get pert young teenagers dressed in poodle skirts, happy-go-lucky cowgirls in Western getups, students doing homework, peasant girls, young things in sunsuits, little Shirley Temples and Betty Grables. The photo of a sitting miss in shorts and blond pigtails looks uncannily like a Cindy Sherman (who also owns a Bartlett image).

Occasionally, a ray of ambivalence breaks through this mawkishness, and Bartlett’s subconscious reveals itself. You can see it in the picture of a youngster who scolds a contrite cocker spaniel. She sits on the floor, legs akimbo, her underpants just visible. Bartlett’s shame takes the form of the little, reprimanded puppy. Other times, the little girls cast their eyes downward or act guarded, as if Bartlett knew they knew what was going on.

The fetishism, infantilism, mannequins, and set-up photography connect Bartlett to a lot of artists: Henry Darger, Hans Bellmer, Degas, Robert Gober, Charles Ray, Jake & Dinos Chapman, Sally Mann, Jock Sturges, Simmons, and Sherman. As Sherman said, “Bartlett fits right in.” On the other hand, he sticks out.

While I was at the show, a woman told me she found his work “off-putting” and “disturbing.” In the early ’60s, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote, foolishly, of Lolita, “It is not only inhuman; it is anti-human.” Bartlett’s art is off-putting and disturbing, but it is not inhuman. Its all-too-humanness gives his work its power.