I collect dolls

Morton Bartlett

As mentioned in a previous post, I visited the Hamburger Bahnhof, and whilst there I also saw a collection of elaborately designed, modelled and dressed dolls by American artists Morton Bartlett.

Central works of Bartlett’s collection were 15 semi-life-sized dolls, twelve girls and three boys. Bartlett started making his dolls in the 1930s attempting to make them as life-like as possible. He studied anatomy texts and costume history in depth, he taught himself how to sew and work with clay. It took him up to a year to create each doll. It is said that each head could take as much as 50 hours to model. Bartlett also made various heads for each doll, and he even designed various costumes and wigs in order to stage and photograph the dolls in true life situations – for example a girl in bed reading, a boy at a kitchen table, or a girl scolding a toy dog. His collection was private, never displayed, until after he died.

The collection was discovered in 1993 and seen by me in 2012 in Berlin. This was the last thing I saw in the museum, just as I had reached my art limit, and it was the most disturbing of all (even more disturbing than the big slabs of animal fat).

It was disturbing because of the silence: the dolls had been placed around the room poised in various poses, as if frozen in time. Many of the dolls were very childlike in their features and size and very realistic. Many were slightly prepubescent in their physical development. Some were almost womanly. Was this the work of a very lonely man with paedaphilic tendencies? Did he keep this work a secret because he knew it would be disturbing? Perhaps it disturbed him, disgusted him, yet he felt compelled to keep making more and more of these dolls. It may have been that he thought it safer to channel his socially unacceptable urges into art rather than through actions. Or it might be that his desire to make these dolls had nothing to do with his own sexuality, but was more part of a private study of the trend of the greater sexualisation of children in the twentieth century.

The dolls that were just very odd.


Hamburger Bahnhof: Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin, Ausstellungen / Exhibitions Spring Summer 2012, museum brochure

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