Ruth Bernhard, Broken Doll, 1938
Hans Bellmer, The Doll, 1935
Fred Stein, [Doll in glass jar], ca. 1935
Cindy Sherman, Untitled #341, 1999
Dolls frequently manage to resist categorical definition because they hover between anthropological artifacts, toys, and avatars. More than just replicas of the human form, dolls mirror the more complex psychological states within the culture, the maker, or even the subject. Perhaps it is this ambiguity and allusiveness that accounts for photographers’ seemingly endless fascination with dolls; the inability to definitively describe their nature becomes not so much a conclusion as a discursive opening.
Although a completely compliant model, the doll and its character cannot be completely subjugated. In photography, the doll instead performs best as a reflective canvas onto which the artist can project his or her desires and fears. The ensuing and unavoidable dialogue with the doll’s character then becomes the essence of the work.
What then is the dialogue suggested by the mangled, distorted, encapsulated, and/or decapitated bodies of the dolls seen in the photographs of Hans Bellmer, Ruth Bernhard, Fred Stein, and Cindy Sherman? Do we simply read the artist as eccentric and or perverted? Or can we account for the artists’ experiences rooted in the time and culture in which they live? How does the work reflect these experiences? Could it be the fear of another world war with the rise of Hitler in the 1930s? Or the relentless fighting in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and the Balkans in the 1990s? Whatever the intentions, the continued and pervasive impulse by artists to represent the human form as grossly deformed and aggressively mangled suggests a provocation beyond the personal interest of the artist and one that speaks largely from a more political agenda. And if the doll in the photograph is reflecting who we are and what we have become, then it’s more than just a frightening glimpse in the mirror.