Postscript to Morton Bartlett

Some readers do not share my view of Bartlett and thankfully they let me know. They raise an important issue: to them, Bartlett clearly crossed the line from obsessive artist to child pornographer. I understand their argument when I view the work through their eyes. Interpretation of his work truly lies with the beholder. But once presented with the opposite view, can we ever see the works in the same light again?

I turned to Lyle Rexer’s book, How to Look at Outsider Art, and find that he acknowledges the erotic nature of the photographs, but argues for their acceptance. He says at page 115:

[Bartlett] would not be the first to have fashioned such intense images of desire, or invested them with a kind of life. The dream and peril of Pygmalion haunt Bartlett’s Barbies, and it is impossible now to view the works separate from prurience regardless of the artist’s insistence that they were a “hobby.” The power of the works lies in their parallel refusal to transgress, as Henry Darger does, or to cloak desire in whimsy, as many self-taught artists do.

At the deepest level, Bartlett’s work is not about violation but contemplation. We surmise this because he took carefully composed photographs of his creations. Again, Bartlett was not the first to couple dolls, desire, and photography. Apart from Cindy Sherman’s work of the 1990s, the best-known example is that of German Hans Bellmer, who created several articulated “figures” in the 1930s and photographed them incessantly.  Bellmer enacted scenes with his dolls, rearranging their parts in a full-scale assault on the female body and, overtly, on the Nazi ideology of  physical perfection. Photography in this case was pornographic witness of various acts of desecration.

Undeniably erotic, Bartlett’s photos intend and achieve something Bellmer avoided – poignancy. They also reveal the power of the camera, by its fidelity to the subject, to bestow life. In three dimensions, the dolls are, finally, just dolls, near automata. But in front of the camera, they first become posed and captured individuals and then memorial, erotic remembrances. They take their place almost seamlessly among the vast archive of the once-but-no-longer-alive captured in photographs, and in death they gain a convincing vitality they do not have as objects. The double intuition of the nature of dolls and photography is Bartlett’s complex achievement.

I know I’ve got readers who have contrary views on Bartlett’s work. Let me know where you stand.