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Morton Bartlett made 15 dolls: three of a boy about 8
Morton Bartlett made 15 dolls: three of a boy about 8, the others of girls from about 8 to 16. (Color plate by Michaela Murphy, from "Family Found: The Lifetime Obsession of Morton Bartlett")
Photo Gallery View Morton Bartlett's doll scenes
Visual Arts

The man who played with dolls

What drove Morton Bartlett to create exquisitely realistic sculptures, dress them, and take pictures of them in evocatively staged scenes is a mystery. Since his death in 1992, though, the Boston-based photographer's figures have been hailed as works of art.

In 1993, Marion Harris, a New York art and antiques dealer, made the discovery of her life: In a booth at the Pier Show, a major antiques fair in New York, she came upon a collection of dolls and doll parts in boxes, along with stacks of old photographs. The material had been removed from a townhouse in Boston's South End after the death of its elderly owner, a man named Morton Bartlett.

Acting on instinct, she bought everything, and when she got it all home she found that what she'd purchased was a group of 15 exquisitely realistic, half-life-size dolls carefully wrapped in old newspapers and stored in custom-made wooden boxes. Three of them represented a boy of about 8 years old, and the rest were figures of girls between the ages of 8 and 16.

There were also expertly tailored clothes for the dolls and hundreds of professional-quality photographs of the dolls in evocatively staged and dramatically lighted situations. In some of the pictures, the female dolls appeared nude, revealing all their anatomically accurate parts.

Since then the dolls have been stars of the outsider-art world, and their creator, Bartlett -- a Harvard University dropout and Boston-based commercial photographer and graphic designer -- has been hailed as a self-taught genius. His photographs are avidly sought by collectors and museums. Says Lee Kogan, a curator at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, "I absolutely would say that he was a great artist. His work is totally compelling, mesmerizing, and seductive."

Now the Julie Saul Gallery in Chelsea, New York, is presenting an illuminating exhibition of Bartlett's works. The artist, who lived from 1903 to 1992, created his 15 extraordinarily lifelike dolls between 1936 and 1963, taking about a year to finish each. He clothed his pretty figures in fashions that he expertly stitched and knitted himself, and he photographed them in vivid narrative scenes. For Bartlett fans, the exhibition is an event of some moment. It features new color prints made from a cache of color slides that were recently discovered by a Los Angeles collector. Previously, Bartlett was thought to have made only black-and-white pictures of his sculptures.

For viewers new to Bartlett, the show is an excellent introduction. Along with 10 color photographs of dolls, it includes three of the original painted plaster sculptures, two girls and a boy. It also presents 13 of the small black-and-white photographs that Bartlett printed himself, and three sharply outlined and delicately shaded pencil drawings that look as if they were copied from children's fashion magazines or clothing catalogs.

One thing that the exhibition does not do is shed new light on exactly who and what kind of man Morton Bartlett was. The common perception, based on his work and sketchy information about his life, has been that he was a deeply eccentric, reclusive, lifelong bachelor who, working in near-total secrecy, sublimated his irregular desires into figurative substitutes for the love objects that he lacked in real life. The truth about him may never be known, but recent interviews with close friends suggest an alternative, less sensational picture.

Born in Chicago, Bartlett was orphaned when he was 8, and he was adopted shortly thereafter by Mr. and Mrs. Warren Goddard Bartlett, a well-to-do couple who lived in Cohasset. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy and studied at Harvard University for two years from 1928 to 1930. After leaving college -- perhaps because of Depression-related financial reverses -- he pursued a variety of business enterprises. He managed a gas station, sold furniture, and manufactured and sold giftware. He served in the US Army during World War II, and after the war he settled into a career as a freelance graphic designer and photographer.

In her 1994 book about the artist, "Family Found: The Lifetime Obsession of Morton Bartlett," Marion Harris theorized that the dolls served as a kind of surrogate family, filling in for the one he lost as a boy. People who have written about Bartlett also regularly invoke the story of Geppetto and Pinocchio: the tale of a lonely puppet-maker who so longed for a son that his wish was finally granted by a sympathetic fairy who turned one of the craftsman's works into a real, living boy. Perhaps most relevant is the story of Pygmalion, the Greek sculptor who carved a woman so realistic that he fell in love with her and, thanks to Venus, she came to life.

What of the darker questions about Bartlett? His longtime close friends Jean and Kahlil Gibran of Boston insist that he was neither an antisocial eccentric nor a psychosexual deviant. Moreover, they say he was not a naive outsider artist. (Kahlil, a well-known sculptor, was a cousin of Kahlil Gibran who wrote the famous book of poetry "The Prophet.")

For almost 10 years, from about 1955 to 1964, the Gibrans and Bartlett lived in the same apartment building at 15 Fayette St., where Bartlett produced most of his dolls. When the Gibrans married in 1957, Bartlett was their best man. When their building was sold in 1964 and they had to leave, Bartlett and the Gibrans found new homes near each other in the South End, and they remained close until Bartlett's death.

The Gibrans swear Bartlett was no pedophile. When it came to his romantic life, Kahlil Gibran, who still lives in Boston, says Bartlett dated women.

"Never did we see a young model or child in his studio or anything that would cast aspersions on his character," said Kahlil during a recent telephone interview.

"He photographed Kahlil's sculptures for his catalogs, and he used to come with us to art openings," said Jean Gibran. "He knew all about art and artists -- he couldn't have been an outsider. He was a well-educated, well-rounded man, and there was nothing primitive or strange about him."

As for the dolls, say the Gibrans, they were no secret. "We knew about the dolls. He wanted to get a toy company to manufacture them," said Jean Gibran. "He thought they could become big sellers like the Barbie doll." And what about the dolls' anatomic details? "He was ahead of his time," she said.

In fact, Bartlett had a direct connection to the toy industry, but apparently he never took advantage of it. He designed catalogs for M. Sharf and Co., a major Boston-headquartered toy distributor. In the '50s and '60s, the company was owned and operated by two of Bartlett's former Harvard classmates who were brothers. Fred Sharf, a son of one of the owners and now head of the company (which is under a new name and no longer involved in toys), recalls visiting Bartlett's studio in the '60s to deal with the catalog's production.

"I don't remember ever seeing or hearing anything about dolls," said Sharf, who is himself a major Boston-based collector of folk art. "When his work surfaced in the world of folk art, I was flabbergasted."

Sharf doubts that Bartlett wanted to mass-produce his dolls. "You'd think we would have known about it, since we were in the toy business," he said. "We could have put him in touch with Mattel or Madame Alexander Dolls if he'd asked. But he never did. I think his interest in dolls was strictly his own personal mishigas."

Merging reality, fantasy
Whatever Bartlett's real motivations may have been, what we have is the work he left behind. Bartlett invested a great deal of effort into making his dolls realistic. He used medical growth charts and anatomy books to ensure that his figures were correct in every detail. Yet the dolls are not feats of what would later be called "super realism." They still have the artificial, toylike look of dolls and mannequins. This is a big part of their appeal -- that they can seem so obviously unreal and yet so captivatingly alive at the same time.

One of the sculptures in the Julie Saul exhibition represents a laughing, carefree boy that is thought to be a portrait of the artist himself at about age 8. Wearing green shorts, an off-white tank-top, and a straw hat, he leans back on his arms and dangles his bare feet over the edge of the pedestal as if he were Huckleberry Finn on a raft.

Another shows a girl sitting on the floor and gesturing with a sly, mock-severe expression as though scolding an invisible pet cat or dog. The third figure, a girl of perhaps 12 or 13 years with long, straight red hair, is stunningly beautiful. Standing barefoot with her weight on one leg, she has the graceful, perfectly balanced posture of one of Degas's late bronze sculptures of dancers. Her nascent breasts push out slightly against her mauve jersey, and she gazes pensively downward as though lost in a daydream.

Bartlett did not use photography simply to document his works. He dressed, arranged, and lighted his figures for the camera to enhance their lifelikeness and to suggest narrative situations. The black-and-white images are richly shadowed, and many have a slightly noirish feeling, as if they are stills from a 1940s Hollywood melodrama. In one, a nude smiling teenager has the almost fully developed body of a young woman. In another, she's wearing a floral print skirt and a ruffly white blouse and holds a small bouquet of flowers in one hand.

The newly found color pictures have the bright and colorful look of movies from the '50s. In one, a blond girl in a white straw hat turns her head and licks her lips with a protruding tongue -- a gesture that seems at once seductive and childish. A wallpaper print of an ancient building in the background suggests she's a tourist on holiday. Another girl, young enough to be completely flat-chested, poses topless in a grass hula skirt. "Girl Crying" shows a girl of perhaps 6 years holding one hand to her cheek; she has a look of almost comical distress on her tear-stained face.

Some writers have theorized that Bartlett was more interested in the photographs than the sculptures -- that the sculptures were props in the creation of cinematic characters and storytelling. Marion Harris says that Bartlett carried photographs of the dolls around with him as if they were pictures of his children. "I think fantasy and reality overlapped for him," she said.

If what the Gibrans say is true, the photographs also could have served as promotional tools -- images showing how effectively Bartlett's creations would lend themselves to children's imaginations. In any event, the dolls and the photographs together form a whole, visionary fantasy that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Arresting and unsettling
In a brief autobiography Bartlett wrote for Harvard's class of 1932 25th anniversary report -- quoted in full in Harris's book -- Bartlett mentioned, "My hobby is sculpting in plaster. Its purpose is that of all proper hobbies -- to let out urges that do not find expression in other channels."

He didn't specify exactly what urges he had in mind, but one naturally wonders, was he managing forbidden desires by sublimating them into his art? Was he a real-life version of Nabokov's Humbert Humbert, creating his own artificial Lolitas? Or was he externalizing a part of his own psyche -- opening himself up to and setting free his own inner, feminine child? Such a theory might explain the tenderness, delicacy, modesty, playfulness, and bittersweet moodiness of his art.

There also arises the inevitable comparison to such artists as Lewis Carroll -- who made suspiciously loving photographs of Alice Liddell, his inspiration for the protagonist of Alice in Wonderland -- and Henry Darger, the Chicago outsider artist whose epic narrative paintings focused on often naked young girls subjected to all kinds of bloodily explicit violence.

That Bartlett's dolls and photographs are erotic cannot be denied. It is part of what makes them so arresting and unsettling. They project childish innocence, but in Bartlett's hands innocence becomes a kind of tease. Note the glimpses of underwear and lacy petticoats in many of the photographs. Looking at these dolls is like seeing through the eyes of a pedophile.

In 1962, an article about Bartlett and his dolls appeared in Yankee magazine. Oblivious to any erotic overtones, "The Sweethearts of Mr. Bartlett" presented a two-page group portrait of nine dolls and some images of the artist at work.

The writer, Michael A. Tatistcheff, told how Bartlett got started: "He began one day in 1936 when he absent-mindedly picked up a ball of clay and massaged and worked it into a lovely head. Fascinated by the possibilities of sculpture, and intrigued with his own handiwork, Mr. Bartlett took to dollmaking the way a mathematician takes to a challenging equation -- studying, learning ways and means to get desired results, striving for perfection."

It was the one and only time Bartlett ever received publicity for his work during his lifetime. Within three years after the article appeared, he'd stored his dolls away, and as far as anyone knows he never made another during the last 30 years of his life. Why he stopped so abruptly is a mystery. Was he embarrassed by the attention? Did he feel he'd been "outed"? Did the publicity scare him? Or had he simply come to the end of his creative inspiration? Was he just tired of the work of making dolls?

Jean Gibran says she thinks Bartlett finally came to the conclusion that he was not going to find a market for his idea, and he quit. It might also be relevant that his retirement from doll-making coincided with his 1964 move from Fayette Street to the South End. Perhaps the move helped close the doll chapter in his life.

Unless there comes to light some new material such as letters, a diary, or an abandoned novel, we'll probably never know what Bartlett himself thought he was doing or what his deepest desires were. What we do know is that he created some beautiful, mysterious, and unnerving works of art -- objects and images that continue to tease and beguile with Sphinx-like allure.

Ken Johnson can be reached at kejohnson@globe.com.

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