Adolescent doll by Martin Bartlett
Dolls have thousands of years of history, I’ll venture to say that for humans dolls are essential. I’ll even go out on a limb to say that one of the oldest objects of art, The Venus of Willendorf (24,000 BC), is a doll. A doll is simply a talisman reminding us of what we feel but cannot see, and a vital tool that speaks for us when we can’t find the words.
I’ve noticed a trend in dolls disguised as high art where the dolls serve as they always have – as a powerful object that reflects the general psyche of a culture at a given time. Hence, I’m thinking, the abundance of dolls at the Venice Biennale this year.
While Ai Weiwei’s little black boxes (in Venice’s church of Sant’ Antonin) containing voyeuristic dioramas of him in various poses during his confinement are essentially dolls, I was more curious about the dolls and puppets in Cindy Sherman’s curatorial debut at the center of the Arsenale. Her show theme is “image”, coming from the Latin imago – which refers to the wax mask the Romans made to preserve the likeness of the recently deceased. She’s included many puppets, and dolls befitting an artist’s interest which has always been about identity, identity shifting and projection of identity.
The artistic director of this year’s biennale, Massimiliano Gioni, also chose to highlight the doll works of Morton Bartlett (1909-1992), which to me seems not in the best taste. Not because of Bartlett’s work, but because he never wanted his work to be seen – the dolls he created were for his own use, and never to be made public. Bartlett has been deceased for years, and I’m sure he’s rolled over in his grave learning that his work is the curator’s special at the Venice Biennale.
Image courtesy Morton Bartlett.
Morton Bartlett’s photographs of his dolls and the actual dolls he handmade are beautifully crafted. There is no questioning his technical proficiency. His work was clearly meant to be kept private, as I believe it probably served, either consciously or not, as his personal therapy to work out his early childhood where he lived in an orphanage till age eight, then to be adopted by wealthy parents. I can only imagine the childhood he would have liked to relive in those eight seminal years – how he made those dolls as a way to heal, a way to explore, and a way to feel things he had no words for.
Unfortunately take the photos and dolls out of context – yes some of them are nude – and you get all kinds of projections about what this was all about. He is far, far, far from a Henry Darger, and 180 degrees from a Hans Bellmar, but throw the work in a group exhibition at the biennale and it’s perched on a precarious ledge of misinterpretation.
While he never made art to exhibit, hence his outsider status, in 1962 an article on his work was published for the first and only time. The article was titled, “The Sweethearts of Mr. Bartlett” in Yankee magazine. Morton was so upset about the reception of his work that he put his dolls away for good, never to be shown again. How is it that years later, here they are – out for all to suspect and admire? I’d love to learn how that went down, and how people remain eager to show, sell and acquire his work given the back story. All I know is that he directed his estate to be divided to orphan charities – in the paperwork there was no mention of the dolls and photographs that were lovingly stashed away for no one to see.
The New York gallery that sells some of his prints from “A group of original color slides discovered by a Californian collector” states on their web site that Marion Harris, art dealer, found and made the work public post humorously in 1993. His work was then featured in the Musee d’art Brut in Lausanne last year, as well as a retrospective of sorts at the Berlin Hamburger Bahnhof. Lastly it was featured in the New Museum show of Rosemary Trockel’s work, likely where the current director of the biennale caught wind of it, or at the least played a part in its showcasing.
Again, the thought of the work being misappropriated and misunderstood fumes me a bit. For anyone assuming the nudes are kinky, may I remind that he made these sculptures from scratch between 1936-1963 – they look VERY human. I would want to document that too (clothed and otherwise) – it’s amazing really. And as for the other images of the dolls that may verge on flirtatious – that’s pretty much it – a flirt. Which as anyone knows is innocent. And if he was indeed trying to replay the childhood that contained so many question marks for him, of course there were sexual aspects to this – it’s not out of the norm at all for children ages 6-16 (which is the age of the dolls) to experiment with gender, sex, etc.
An example of what some viewers might wish Morton’s work was about but isn’t, is Laurie Simmons “Love Doll”. The photographer, who has a career of photographing fantastic doll sequences and dioramas, buys a sex toy doll and takes various photos of her around her home and surrounding area. This doll becomes, in my opinion, a desired state of being – everything the artist would like to be, or has been. She’s been cheeky by buying a sex toy that looks like an Asian female, and tying it into a drawing she did of a Geisha when she was 10. The images are accompanied by a few short sentences to each image – diary entries really about the technical aspects of the work. As you read them and look at the images you see more and more that the doll is her excuse to play, but the playing must always be grounded in the “exposure time” or the paintings of “Fragonard or Gainsborough”. The series shares a history with Helmut Newton’s photos of a blow up sex doll. All in all I find it not fulfilling, not completely honest – kind of like candy for lunch.
The Love Doll/Day 19 (Peter Jensen Boots), 2010, Fuji Matte print, 177.8 x 119.4 cm
ed.5, ©Laurie Simmons
Morton’s work was subtler, and intrinsically personal – not posing as personal and alluding to a relationship of sorts. His work was not meant for others to project their ideas and fantasies on, it simply wasn’t. Dolls serve important roles in bridging the emptiness of separation. Morton was separated from his birth parents, and by extension he separated himself from society. The dolls were his bridge in seeking where he sits in reality, in gender, in place and time.
For imagination and fantasy of dolls in Arty Art, look no further than Cindy Sherman (dismembered dolls), Hans Bellmar (dismembered dolls), Paul McCarthy (gross dolls), Jake and Dinos Chapman (funky dreams dolls), Patricia Piccinini (funky dreams dolls), or Ron Mueck (hyperrealist dolls) to name a very few.
And for an example of the power of projection and suggestion in dolls look no further than the history of Barbie. It is not a coincidence that Ruth Handler found the Lilli doll on vacation in Europe and that it has a contentious status with feminists today. When she saw it, the then American housewife and mother of the 50s gazed at the Lilli doll and thought it would be the perfect doll for her daughter Barbara.
The Lilli doll, as found in the store by Ruth, was marketed to German men. With advertising taglines such as, “Whether more or less naked, Lilli is always discreet,” and a wardrobe consisting of negligees, tiny tops and tight pants, Lilli dolls were essentially sex toys. Do you think Ruth was projecting her own fantasies on the doll – her own hope to be sexual and not so prim? Its plausible. And so the sex toy was transformed to “Barbie” and sold to millions and millions of “girls” forever more, actually bought by parents for girls to be precise.
And as for the general reemergence of the doll in the avant garde look no further to the dearth of creativity and imagination in our general public. Dolls reengage the imagination, tease out potentialities, and stand for the miraculous world of the imagination. Dolls represent our true personalities, which are readily ignored as a consequence of our life’s tempo. They are symbolic. When we play we show our real self. So of course artists are meant to remind us of this, to pull out the subconscious concerns of the zeitgeist. Or maybe people now relate more than ever to dolls because they feel powerless:
“Dolls cannot choose; they can only be chosen; they can not ‘do’; they can only be done by.” – Rumer Godden, “The Dolls’ House”
Personally I hope it’s the former.
More random dolls seen around this month:
Works by Thomas Zipp through the November 23 in Venice at the Arthena Foundation. Thomas Zipp, C.H. #1, 2013, C-Print, 40 x 50 cm, Courtesy the artist & Galerie Guido W. Baudach
Image of David LaChapelle’s Still Life: Cameron Diaz, courtesy the artist and Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris, France