Art or obsession? Controversial photo exhibit opens at Danforth

Chris Bergeron

Controversial photographs of children by Morton Bartlett are displayed for the first time in the Boston area at the Danforth Museum of Art in Framingham.

Virtually unknown as an artist while he was alive, Bartlett fashioned anatomically exact plaster sculptures of naked children, sewed clothes for them and then posed them in haunting - some would say sexualized - photographs for unknown purposes.

The show, ``Morton Bartlett: Family Considered,'' includes three large contemporary color prints of sculpted children dolls, six black-and-white archival reprints and one doll.

Danforth Museum Executive Director Katherine French described the exhibit as ``a small show but a major'' coup for the museum.

``This is the first time they have been shown in the Boston area,'' she said Monday.

The exhibit runs through Oct. 21.

Since Bartlett's work was rediscovered about 15 years ago, art critics and scholars have described him as an ``outsider artist'' of unique talent. And they have speculated on his motives for elaborately constructing, dressing and posing figures of pubescent children.

French believes Bartlett, who was orphaned at 8 and later adopted by a Cohasset couple, was ``a lonely person who created a family.''

Yet others have wondered whether Bartlett, who never married, was expressing unwholesome yearnings through the medium of his distinctive art.

The images displayed at the Danforth are striking for their appearance - half human, half toy-like - and strange mix of infantile innocence and ripening sexuality.

In a color print of a doll titled ``Hula Girl,'' a bare-chested adolescent stands hand on hip with a curious adult gaze. In the color print, ``Boy with fishing rod,'' a gap-toothed boy in shorts poses with the naturalness of a Norman Rockwell adolescent.

Bartlett's dolls are remarkable for their craft and singular appearance.

Yet some may find photos of dolls not in the Danforth show disturbing in their precise representation of adolescent female anatomy.

While the doll sculptures were likely made in the 1940s and 1950s, they were not shown publicly until 1993 in an exhibit organized by Marion Harris, a Connecticut antique dealer who published a catalog ``Family Found: The Lifetime Obsession of Morton Bartlett.''

Harris cites several neighbors and acquaintances who described Bartlett, who lived his adult life in Boston, as extremely private yet cordial, repetitive in his personal routines yet never displaying untoward behavior to children.

Critic Bill Hopkins described Bartlett's work as ``a singular expression of American genius.''

``These sculptures were how he idealized an unattainable world that eluded him. They provide him with an alternative paradise where he was happy and never felt the coldness of indifference or exclusion,'' he wrote.

According to Harris' account and other reminiscences in the catalog, Bartlett lived a sedate, if occasionally reclusive, life. Born in 1909, he attended Boston Phillips Exeter Academy and then Harvard University for two years before withdrawing at the start of the Depression.

In a ``biography'' submitted to his Harvard class for its 25th anniversary, Bartlett reported that he had worked as a freelance advertising photographer, gas station manager, ran a gift business and ended up owning his own catalog-publishing business. During World War II, he served in an engineering unit and was honorably discharged.

In a curious aside in his biography, Bartlett wrote, ``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.''

An accompanying photo of Bartlett in his 20s shows a well-dressed young man, smoking a pipe while he reads. He died in 1992. Apparently he abandoned his ``hobby'' around 1962 after an article was published about him in Yankee magazine.

In Harris' catalog, James Kincaid describes Bartlett's sculptures and photographs as ``a remarkable body of work based on love and loss.''

Gina Barreca compared his work to Lewis Carroll and Edgar Degas, as well as the fairy tale puppet-maker Gepetto who created Pinocchio ``as compensation for his own solitary existence.''

Most scholars and critics in Harris' catalog agree Bartlett's artistic goal was to photograph his doll sculptures in posed scenarios, often clothed but sometimes naked.

Several black-and-white images in the Danforth show, such as ``Two girls in bed,'' are beautiful, poignant and lovingly composed.

French urged visitors to view Bartlett's works as the creations of an original artist and not through the spectrum of contemporary concerns about child exploitation.

This ``small'' show provides a compelling look at an intriguing man and artist. Visitors can rightfully hope for a more extensive look.