A naked doll with long synthetic hair greets the visitor to this inspired exhibition, which explores "the idea of opening up and exposing a living body".
She has the pert proportions of a Barbie, but she is two and half feet tall and endowed with the sickly anatomical correctness of a real femme-enfant, or woman-child, as the Surrealists termed their ideal muse.
The eroticisation of girlishness is both a staple of tabloid culture and a source of intense moral outrage. It has long been a fetish for artists – particularly male artists – seeking to create and/or provoke. Here the allure of the feminine dummy is investigated.
Untitled (Standing Girl) (c.1950-60) is the work of American outsider artist Morton Bartlett, who spent a significant part of his life making these eerie figures in private. His oeuvre was only discovered after his death in 1992.
He has been perceived as a Humbert Humbert with a Neverland complex (he was orphaned aged 8) and hailed as a genius in the Surrealist tradition. Many of his mise-en-scenes possess the same jarring, not-quite-right quality as the work of American conceptual photographer Cindy Sherman.
Following her blockbuster retrospective at MoMA in New York this year, curator Todd Levin has focused on two of Sherman’s series: Sex Pictures (1989-92) and Broken Dolls (1999). Both are exceptional in the sense that Sherman herself is absent from the pictures.
Sherman, 58, has become an icon for assuming an array of uncanny personas, often drawing on feminine archetypes, such as the fading starlet or the Hamptons hostess. Here she substitutes her own image for grotesque arrangements of prosthetic limbs and disembodied genitalia, on the one hand, and sexually mutilated still-lifes of dolls, on the other.
These photographs are graphic, but their horror is contained by a kind of aesthetic deadness. They look like the remains of a game played by a sadistic child. One black and white image shows a doll with its mouth eaten away, besieged by a forest of hands. The Sex Pictures, a response to the AIDS epidemic, show the body hacked up and truncated, compelled into positions of abuse.
Bringing together disparate works from art history, Levin manages to illuminate the rich theme of the doll without descending into kitsch. Hans Bellmer and Georges Bataille are included, while Jacques Offenbach’s The Doll Song, from his opera The Tales of Hoffman, plays dementedly in the background.