The painter Oskar Kokoschka ordered a life-size doll made in the image of Alma Mahler after their affair had ended; he dressed the doll in Parisian fashions and was spotted with her at the opera and parties. The self-taught artist Morton Bartlett, a reclusive Bostonian, kept the dolls he created at home, to play dress-up with and photograph in private. Born in Chicago in 1903, orphaned and adopted at the age of eight, Bartlett left Harvard during the Great Depression and worked in various graphics and design ventures.
He lived alone, but peopled his leisure hours with plaster sculptures of children that he created, using anatomy books and growth charts as guidelines. These little people were somewhat less than half life-size, but startlingly detailed, from eyelashes to pudenda. There are three identical boys, each about eight years old, whom scholars have assumed to be self-portraits. But most are girls, about a dozen of them, from prepubescent to teenage, arrested in the first indefinable bloom of youth. Bartlett arrayed them in wigs, hats, and exquisite hand-sewn and hand-knit clothing that he’d designed, then photographed them in staged tableaux—movie stills featuring his personal galaxy of stars.
Julie Saul Gallery is showing a series of black-and-white vintage photographs from 1955, alongside three of Bartlett’s mannequins and a series of recent color prints that a collector has made from Bartlett’s Kodachrome slides. The small scale of the vintage prints suits the work’s aura of clandestine obsession, but the color pictures are also astonishing. In both, the dolls appear uncannily animated, scary (as real children can sometimes be) in their apparent intensity of appetite and emotion. A crying girl, face smeared with painted “tears,” responds to some schoolroom trauma; a gap-toothed boy in a red knit cap throws his shoulders back and laughs, alarmingly eager. Frilly underwear peeps beneath hems; pert shorts and bobby sox recall the ardor of Lolita’s “protector,” Humbert Humbert, for her little-girl accoutrements. The limits of propriety are hinted at but never quite broached. For when a doll meets a camera—as artists from Hans Bellmer to Dare Wright and Laurie Simmons have shown—fantasies of submission and domination (however covert) are the result.