I timed my trip to Berlin to see the Morton Bartlett exhibit at the Bahnhof museum. (See earlier blog about Morton Bartlett.) Marion Harris organized this major collection to be shown in Berlin. Although I had seen some Bartlett photos at the Outsider Art Fair in NYC a few years ago, I had never see the dolls nor the original photos. The collection is now in various museums around the world, so it was a rare opportunity that I couldn’t miss.
The exhibit alone was worth the trip to Berlin. The exhibit includes many of the original photos that Bartlett took. They are small (about 5 x 7 inches) and framed. It also includes some dolls. I didn’t know what to expect. I have seen many photos of the dolls, and know the story of Bartlett’s creation, but still it was a surprise.
The dolls stand about 3 ft tall. They are an assembly of various body parts – Bartlett made heads, arms, torsos and legs separately, then put them together in various poses for his photographs. For example, the head of a girl might be attached to the body of a doll posed as a dancer, ready to be photographed. The whole purpose of Bartlett’s creation was to photograph the children, doing “normal” things like dancing, talking to a dog, sleeping, and reading.
I now understand how this turned into a life-long project for Bartlett. There are hundreds of body parts. In addition to creating the dolls, Bartlett also made their clothing. As no patterns were found in the collection, it is thought that he also designed the clothes. He taught himself to knit in order to make sweaters. He sewed delicate skirts, dresses, and pinafores. His neighbours (Kahlil Gibran and his wife), recall hearing Bartlett’s sewing machine every evening, but they were not aware of his secret family.
I discovered that dolls make people feel uncomfortable, and this certainly is the case with Bartlett’s work. I don’t quite understand that, but I know it is true. I wondered if there was a gender difference in play. Having spent my childhood playing with dolls and believing they were my children, it was not a stretch for me to accept Bartlett’s obsession.
In addition to this general discomfort, others find the dolls to be the subject of misplaced eroticism. I don’t see that either. The collection touched me as I sensed his longing for a family of his own. It triggers memories of my own longings and losses. I left with a sense of wonder.