Playthings: The Uncanny Art of Morton Bartlett
For nearly thirty years, Morton Bartlett (United States, 1909–1992) had a secret artistic passion. In 1936, at the age of twenty-seven, he began to create fifteen lifelike dolls, twelve girls and three boys, ranging in age from eight to sixteen. He carved and painted their bodies in exacting detail to imitate live flesh and stitched their intricate costumes by hand. Bartlett then staged the completed dolls on studio sets of his own design and shot them with his Brownie camera. Even close friends were unaware of the vast body of portraits he produced in this private pursuit. Bartlett ceased photographing his dolls in 1963, and it was not until his death in 1992 that they were found, neatly packed and locked away in a cupboard in his Boston brownstone.
The dolls, mute and inanimate, are brought to life through Bartlett’s camera. His costuming and staging imbues the figures with emotional and psychological depth, enlivening them with individual personalities.
In addition to a selection of color photographs of the dolls, this installation features working materials from Bartlett’s personal archive, never before exhibited in a public institution. Borrowed from the collection of Barry Sloane, this material places Bartlett’s doll photographs into dialogue with his commercial and amateur photographic practice.
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Image: Morton Bartlett, Untitled (Girl in Yellow Sunsuit), 1955, printed 2006, dye coupler print, 28 1/4 x 20 in., LACMA, gift of Barry Sloan, ©The Bartlett Project, LLC.
It’s strange that dolls inspire such horror in so many people. They are, after all, designed for the enjoyment and pleasure of young children—the vulnerable and innocent among us who, presumably, we do not desire to terrify in a systematic way. But the fact remains that, despite the best intentions, dolls are, for many people, the stuff that nightmares are made of...