Currently on display as the third installment of the ‘Secret Universe’ series at the Hamburger Bahnhof is the unique work of American doll maker Morton Bartlett. The series aims to take a closer look at previously unacknowledged artists and their work, and Morton Bartlett is a prime candidate for this as a master of secrecy; his work discovered only in the year after his death in 1993. The current exhibition is therefore the first ever solo show to document his work, and is intriguing and disturbing all at once.
Walking into the exhibition the hundreds of black and white photographs Barlett took of his creations line the walls, each one staging the dolls in lifelike scenarios. There is something very disturbing about the silent, innocent faces of the dolls juxtaposed with the nubile breasts, nipples erect and visible through the flimsy material of their clothes. Some are startlingly realistic, until you see the faint line of the joint connecting the doll’s head to its neck, or focus too long on its glazed over expression.
The focus on children – predominantly girls, there are 12 girl dolls and only 3 boys – is slightly unnerving, especially when observing the suggestive poses some adopt, legs open wide or splayed out in a gymnastic pose. I can’t help but wonder if the dolls are in fact works of art or merely proof of some darker, twisted obsession – if not, why didn’t he ever share his work with anyone?
Watching the ‘Family Found’ documentary by on Morton’s life also housed in the exhibition challenges these assumptions. The viewer discovers Morton was orphaned age 8 and lived alone without any family his whole adult life. Neighbours describe his unassuming character and I begin to question the motives for his doll world again – was he simply recreating the family he never had? Also poignant is the fact that when he died he left his entire estate to children without families.
Whatever the motive for his secret project, the skill exhibited in the creation of the dolls cannot be denied. On display in the glass cabinets are rows of tiny, painstakingly crafted plaster ears and hands and feet, beautiful yet somewhat macabre.
Also displayed are the doll’s perfect miniature outfits, expertly sewn with complicated patterns and vivid reds and greens, pinafores, underwear and skirts beautifully pleated and pressed. Drawings are also displayed presenting the dolls in yet more life like scenarios laughing and playing, standing for a portrait.
The exhibited dolls stand displayed in illuminated glass cabinets, frozen forever in their life like poses, expressions as still as in their photographs. An amazing glimpse into one lonely individual’s secret universe.
Secret Universe III is on at Hamburger Bahnhof until 14 October 2012.