Thursday, November 11, 2010


Dollface, now exhibiting at the Museum of Childhood, is a study on the many ways of showing. The display of a dozen photographs of nine different dolls extends beyond the museum’s mostly unseen doll collection — portraits of the dolls, taken by Craig Deane, are the memories of childhood, the reflections of societal projection and the representatives of systemic ordering.

Of the 8000 dolls that are catalogued in the museum’s basement, Deane selected a handful to bring to life through large-scale portraiture. Looking out to the audience from metre-tall photographs, the dolls are now larger, living versions of themselves; breathtaking specimens of play and perception. By photographing the dolls from an upward angle, Deane seems to have captured the objects in real moments, suggesting that the role of child and toy, once hierarchical, is now an egalitarian one. Long separated from the children who played with them and now unearthed from the storage toy box, the little wax-faced and porcelain things become mysteriously fleshy and human-like, making innocent, surprised eye-contact that grazes the edge of sinister.

Concerned with how people represent themselves over time, the exhibition displays portraits of dolls that were made over 150 years. Though the photographs are not shown chronologically, the limited selection of portraits makes the historical transformation of Dollface obvious. Withdrawn, sad-eyed girls of the 1800s perk into all smiles and red lips by 1930.

The exhibition encourages comparisons and urges viewers to consider past and current relationships with life-like toys. An ebony-painted porcelain face called Cosmopolitan Doll, made in 1930, is the first portrait in the series. Paired next to an identically sized photo of a peach-colored doll, their features are strikingly similar. Despite the fact that they were made 20 years apart (one in Germany and the other in England), they have the same kewpie curled crown of molded hair and both, surprisingly, have brown eyes instead of blue. Encased within a round bubble of a face, they have the classic features of 20th Century babydolls and foreshadow the remarkably unchanged face of American Girl dolls. The only difference is that Cosmpolitan Doll is painted dark brown and the other is clearly Caucasian. Both have unnaturally womanly red lips. Though painted a similar shade of red to the white doll’s, Cosmopolitan’s mouth is unfaithful to her actual lip line, suggesting the impossibility, even on porcelain, of a cupid’s bow as flawless as the one on the lips of the pale-faced twin to the right.

Deane writes that “cataloguing and storing objects is just as fascinating as the objects themselves.” Each photograph is titled by the doll’s museum reference number and store location. By including the reference number with the portrait, Deane toys with the idea of the unaffected organization of emotional attachment. Besides year and place, very little information is attached each doll, and with titles such as “T.186-1931BGML05172,” it is only natural to start making categorizations based on the information at hand.

By building a time-conscious narrative from the museum collection, Dollface shows a portion of the V&A toy box numerically as well as a social history of self-perception and projection through play. Although there is much to show, the exhibition lacks transparency regarding Deane’s choice of dolls. With an inexplicably limited selection of portraits, the exhibition lends itself to more questions than answers. If all except two portraits are white, what does that say about the museum’s overall collection? What dolls remain as history’s playthings? What — or whom— are we playing with?

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