Creative Life News Blog

The Uncanny Doll

Dolls, manikins, puppets, masks, and the like are fascinating in their suggestiveness. They often appear in artistic productions that engage imaginative-real distinctions. We know their power for children who actively pretend and role-play features of their not-yet adult world. But what is their attraction for adults? It goes beyond sentimental recollections and into the uncanny.

photos of old dolls from Toy Museum, London






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Dolls, manikins, puppets




















Dolls of all sorts can be admired for their physical qualities such as human look-alikeness, cuteness, or sensory feel. But they also can serve as magnets for our personal projections and projective identifications. That's what leads us into in Uncanny territory. We attribute psychological qualities to these imaginatively animated-objects, which can be good and/or bad: innocent, needy, kind, cunning, mischievous, malevolent. We're then privy to whatever associations arise from our projections, and these can be bewildering.

Psychology of the Uncanny

The sense of the uncanny was a topic that interested Sigmund Freud, who described it in 1919 as strangeness come to life in the familiar. It applies to both life and art, taking a variety of forms to which individuals are differently susceptible. When we experience the uncanny, it unsettles us. That’s not a bad thing. Like other experiences that awaken us to our immediate world, the uncanny tends to rouse us from sleepwalking through reality. But it also taps into an ambivalence. The familiar object, which we typically take for granted, now generates something evasively secret, unfamiliar, or repressed. We enter disquieting territory, rousing us from the stupor of taking for granted the familiar and suggesting there's more to be known. Some of us enter such territory more easily and more willingly than others, expanding our imaginative scope. Some see irony, humour, surreal pleasures. But you never know for sure.


Especially so when dolls and puppets have human-like appearance with moveable heads and limbs. We face a rather primal uncertainty over whether such things are, real or representational, alive or inanimate, subjects or just objects. Psychologically, they call our established adult categories into question. No wonder some adults are uncomfortable with dolls and similar "in-betweens." To quote a science fiction author (Ellen Datlow), "Dolls, perhaps more than any other object demonstrate just how thin the line between love and fear, comfort and horror, can be "


Art and the Uncanny

Other forms of art, especially figurative art, can pull us into our imaginations and evoke associations, memories, and inchoate feelings. Some clearly pleasant, others perhaps not quite understood or resolved. Like transitional objects, dolls are more than they appear to be, full of projections and evocations. Their uncanny quality can feel somewhat surprising, even frightening to some. All the while, the dolls themselves remain indifferent. Often appealing, attractive, mysterious, or eerie, they remain poised elsewhere. Yet they have caught us in our imaginations.


Dolls, puppets, and masks often appear in artistic works-- given that art, itself, engages imaginative-real connections. You've perhaps experienced uncanny associations when looking at different works of art that have drawn you in. Many artists appreciate the uncanny quality of dolls and their ilk, working with them as content in their paintings, music (Tales of Hoffman), and media productions. Think of Cindy Sherman who deliberately exploits and pushes the doll-human interface to exceptionally vivid heights. So do historic and contemporary media, as in the horror-genre but also in appealing films like Lars and the Real Girl and the expanding depictions of android-human interaction across many varieties of experience.


I've incorporated dolls into my figurative artwork -- as tangible objects in early assemblage works, but more often as depictions in narrative paintings, shown here.You can see how my poorly photographed source (Pollock's Toy Museum) was rendered into a finished portrait of The Kewpie Family at Home.

imaginative realism painting of Kewpie Doll family by Janet Strayer
The Kewpie Family painting by Janet Strayer (see actual dolls used as source below)

photo of vintage Kewpie dolls

Personally, I prefer painting from poor photos rather than good ones, which impedes me from trying to copying them and helps free more imaginative treatments. I've never displayed The Kewpie Family painting in an exhibit, and I'll explain why.


Here's the story. I once exhibited another story-painting, called Howdy's Girl, based upon a doll-puppet. It focuses on a very amiable cowboy-puppet, Howdy Doody, from a TV show I loved watching when very young. I especially liked the show because it had puppets and people interacting on stage, not separated behind a partition. That fit well with my active imagination. As an adult, I envisioned this painting as my story of how I'd looked up to Howdy as a child and then, ironically, pictured him looking to a doll-like adult female version of this child.

imaginative realism painting of Howdy Doody by Janet Strayer
Howdy painting by Janet Strayer

When I showed this painting in a public exhibit, I overheard someone walk away from it angrily muttering with some disgust "that doesn't even belong in a garage sale!" Ouch. Was it that bad a painting? Even so, what could have caused the anger? Why not simply just walk on? She hadn't bothered to look at the other paintings, but exited the gallery. Putting on my psychologist's hat, I thought this was very likely one of those projective incidents stimulated by a doll/puppet. Yes, and I also then learned of a horror movie using a look-alike Howdy character. But that wasn't my story at all. Still, every painting reflects what others see in it. And that can be disturbing, even if unintended, especially if it invokes the uncanny.


My first solo show was a series of monochromes called Child Out of Time (Garlands, shown here). The exhibit invoked an uncanny experience in the gallery director, who reported dreaming about these images of timeless children for days. The dreams took her places she did and did not want to go. You can click here for a video experience of some of these works.

award-winning digital painting of young girl by Janet Strayer
Garlands, digital painting by Janet Strayer

Personally, I have little attachment to actual dolls. One exception: Columbina, a small rubber doll in a navy blue corduroy outfit with beret that accompanied me as an immigrant toddler on my voyage to America. But, like others with a high curiosity quotient, I'm open to the psychological dimensions that dolls and similar objects can channel. I like that they can animate our world and that we can imaginatively partake of “theirs”. Artists like Cindy Sherman may even choose to depict human portraits as doll-like self-presentations while simultaneously venturing behind the pose. Imagination is the key, and is itself a transitional realm, an in-between place, beyond the real but improvising from it. And the limits of imagination, as Einstein said, are unlimited.

May you delight in your own experiences of the uncanny.


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