I was recently forwarded an article about American photographer Morton Bartlett. I had never heard of Bartlett before, but his sexualized representations of prepubescent children during the first half of the 20th century reminded me of Balthus, who was a contemporary of his. The comparison might be a stretch because Bartlett was not an educated or trained artist. But he is gaining posthumous fame for his half-size polychrome dolls or sculptures of children and the photographs he took of them. The sculptures are intriguing—or, as the article suggests, “uncanny.” Bartlett himself is quoted in recognizing that the purpose of his hobby as a sculptor was “to let out urges that do not find expression in other channels.” There is definitely an air of mystery in that. But the author of the article seems most intrigued by the photographs. Mr. Poundstone says:
My sense is that Bartlett’s vision comes together most completely in the photographs, where he controls pose, lighting, and camera angle. It is the photos that seem especially contemporary.
Poundstone presents three non-mutually exclusive theories that would explain Bartlett’s hobby:
(1) Bartlett was a sublimated pedophile [a person who is attracted, but not abusive of children], like Lewis Carroll and Henry Darger are presumed to have been.
(2) Bartlett, being an orphan, sought to recreate the family he never had. It’s said that the boy dolls resemble him as a child.
(3) Commercial artist Bartlett aspired to be a “serious” artist. The dolls and photos were a personal project he intend to exhibit one day (but didn’t).
It might be interesting to explore the possible crossing points between these theories. What if Bartlett’s experience as an orphan kindled his interest (or love?) for young children? What if he intended to commercialize his work without exposing himself by distancing the public from the dolls (i.e., by selling photographs)? There are very few facts about Bartlett’s purpose for creating and photographing these sculptures. On one hand, he never sold, promoted or exhibited his dolls. In fact, some articles claim that Bartlett kept the sculptures hidden and locked at home. This article, on the other hand, posits that he might have thought they were potential big sellers like the Barbie doll. Looking forward to learning more about Bartlett’s representations of children, and how his photographs (now accessible as works of art) affect our own ideas of children and childhood memories.
“Playthings: The Uncanny Art of Morton Bartlett,” an exhibition that includes Bartlett’s doll photographs (not the dolls themselves), is currently on display at the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art.
— Alexia Raynal, Zeteo Deputy Editor
To read more posts in the fields of children and childhood by Alexia Raynal, visit her ZiR page here. For an exploration of children’s lives between two worlds read Alexia’s article “Children Challenging Borders: The physical and psychological journeys that the children of immigrants make for their families.”