Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser (Exhibition Review)
Victoria and Albert Museum, 27th June - 31st December 2021
Charles Ludwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) occupies a unique place in English literature. An unmarried Oxford Mathematics don, he was the author of several academic treatises on logic and geometry, an inventor of games and puzzles, a pioneer of the new art of photography, and, finally, the creator of two of the most popular children’s books in our culture. A whole industry has grown up around his life and books, and the influence of Alice and the world that he created for her continues to resonate in contemporary society. So any new Alice book or exhibition must naturally be inhibited by what has come before. Dodgson’s life and writings have been examined and analysed by writers and thinkers almost since the books first appeared, and the enigma remains unsolved: just how did such a conservative, reserved, and socially restrained Oxford mathematician come to write such imaginative and influential books? Happily, perhaps, neither catalogue nor exhibition dwells on such an imponderable question; instead, they take an approach that both illuminates the process of the Alice world’s creation, and then acknowledges its continuing influence from the first publication to the present day. Along the way, neither format forgets that the characters and plot are there to be enjoyed and wondered at, and leaves the more bizarre interpretations to those who find them of interest.
The exhibition is a mixture of original documents and photographs, and high-tech displays, which generally work well together. The former include the handwritten version of the first book which Dodgson gave as a gift to Alice Liddell some two years after he first told her the story, and several photographs that he took of her and her sisters when they were young children. Of the tech experiences, the room filling with water is brilliantly achieved, with the sounds of the water combining with a shower of words visually splashing onto the surfaces surrounding the viewer.
The section on film and theatre versions of the stories is quietly surprising, for the simple reason that there have been so many. The first film version was made in 1903, another silent film followed in 1919, and there were more cinema adaptations in the 1930s. Most famously, Disney presented their cartoon version in 1951, which was initially received quite coolly. However, its re-release in the 1970s coincided with the psychedelic era, when the film met with greater interest. A later version by Tim Burton in 2010, with Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, proved so successful that a sequel followed a few years later. The various television versions have always been popular, which seems to prove that Dodgson’s stories are entertaining while also offering artists a framework within which they can develop their own ideas. There are also several other films that use the concept of ‘Alice’ ( a young girl within an illogical or unpredictable environment), most recently Alice In Borderland, in which the leading characters have to undertake increasingly violent tasks determined by the random selection of playing cards.
The early drawings by the first book’s illustrator John Tenniel are delicate and precise, unlike the fairly crude original sketches by the author, and show how well Tenniel understood Dodgson’s intentions. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the final section of the exhibition, which examines the ways in which later artists and book illustrators have taken up the challenge of breathing new life into what have now become old, familiar stories. It can be no surprise to anyone that the Surrealists, in particular, felt an affinity with Alice and her unreal world, populated with creatures who do not obey normal social conventions and behave in irrational and unpredictable ways. André Breton, often regarded as a kind of ‘father’ of Surrealism, was particularly drawn to the books, writing in 1928 about Picasso’s cubism that “the mind talks stubbornly to us of a future continent, and that everyone has the power to accompany an evermore beautiful Alice to Wonderland.”
While Tenniel’s original drawings were faithful to Carroll’s text, the very nature of that text demands a visual representation of an imagined world, and Tenniel responded with consummate skill. However, it is not the case that Tenniel was breaking new ground. For centuries artists have explored the possibilities of depicting imaginary worlds, both temporal and spiritual. An historical line can be drawn all the way back to the nightmare scenes created by Hieronymus Bosch, with plenty of other examples taking us up to the present day. Within our own cultural heritage, one can point to Gillray, Hogarth, and Rowlandson as artists who created worlds in which their imagined characters play their parts, much like Alice in her Wonderland.
Within the exhibition are several fine examples of surrealist works which have clearly taken inspiration from Alice. A bronze by the German artist Max Ernst is quietly disturbing. It is a fragment of a chess board, with a handful of pieces, mostly pawns. A much larger piece, clearly the Queen, is about to be moved by the hand of the King, who sits behind the board. He is more than twice her size, with the head of a bull, towering over the partial chess board. In chess the Queen is the most powerful piece on the board, but it is the position of the King who determines the outcome of the game. Ernst turns this on its head, with the King seemingly in control of the board, moving the Queen where he pleases. The same is true of the Alice narrative. The Queen is constantly asserting her authority with the command “off with their heads,” while the King quietly countermands these orders so that ultimately no-one is harmed. The upside-down world in which Alice finds herself is the perfect vehicle for the Surrealists, whose visual repertoire involved placing opposites together and similarities apart. The exhibition has another Ernst work, Alice in 1941, in which a naked adult Alice is surrounded by a rocky structure that appears to have developed around her. Alice has become entrapped in the nightmare grown-up world, a metaphor which, in 1941, was all too obvious.
It is tempting to claim that the Surrealists were the precursors to the psychedelic experimenters of the 1960s, but the truth is probably more complex. However, given the late sixties urge to explore new worlds of altered consciousness, it was inevitable that the Alice narrative would gain a new audience. The Alice stories were naturally attractive, with their combination of child-like innocence and irrational activity, and Alice’s metamorphoses through the consumption of unknown substances. The books provided the perfect playground in which psychedelic artists could run riot. The Jefferson Airplane song White Rabbit is an obvious result, with its mixture of Alice characters and the suggestion of LSD-influenced visions, but there were other musical ventures, such as Donovan’s variably successful settings of The Walrus and the Carpenter and Jabberwocky on his 1971 album HMS Donovan.
There have been so many different illustrated editions of Alice that it would be difficult to count them all. However, that has not prevented contemporary artists like Peter Blake, Ralph Steadman, and Salvador Dalí from making their own interpretations of the familiar characters. The exhibition has two of the eight illustrations by Peter Blake for a 2006 edition of Alice Through the Looking Glass. The final section of the catalogue, entitled Behind the Scenes, explores how Blake completed these drawings. Not only does this shine a light on the work processes involved, including photographs of the child models, it also shows just how influential the original Tenniel drawings remain. For example, one of Blake’s best illustrations is of the Mad Hatter. Blake makes the comment in the book that he realised that “there’s not a lot you can do with illustrating the Alice books because Tenniel did them so well.” Blake changes the price on the Hatter’s hat to 5/- from Tenniel’s 10/6, and has him squatting on a chair with a ball and chain around his feet, a plain wall behind him, suggesting that he has been imprisoned, presumably in a psychiatric institution. It is significant that Blake refers to the difficulties that any modern artist will experience when coming to the Alice books, for not only must the Tenniel interpretations be contended with, but also those of the many other artists who have attempted the same task.
This naturally leads to the highlight of the catalogue, the beautiful new illustrations by Kristjana S. Williams. These brightly coloured, hallucinatory re-imaginings are a perfect fit for the exhibition, for which they were especially commissioned. They are complex images, full of literary and visual puns and references both to Dodgson’s academic life and to Alice’s adventures. They also have a Where’s Wally? feel to them, since a mirror is hidden in each scene for the viewer to find. Rather than showing something from within the scene, as might be expected, instead each mirror contains a foreshadowing of the picture to come.
Alice and the characters whom she encounters are familiar and yet mysterious. They occupy a kind of parallel world, where animals can speak, playing card soldiers march in strange gardens, games are played with compliant hedgehogs and flamingoes, authority figures issue irrational orders which are then ignored, and the rules of our logical, rational existence are turned upside down. The genius of the books lies in the dichotomy of the polite, inquisitive young girl exploring a world in which our usual social norms do not apply. For artists, this provides a unique opportunity to depict both worlds: the Victorian child’s, and that of our own imagination. It is a potent combination, and it may account for the continuing popularity of Alice and her strange adventures.
The V & A is to be commended for not being drawn into any debate regarding Dodgson’s personality and the many frankly bizarre theories regarding the man, the most extreme being that he was Jack the Ripper. These have been explored elsewhere, and will continue to keep those who enjoy the psychoanalysis of past lives very busy. What the exhibition demonstrates most eloquently, however, is that —for whatever reason— on a sunny Oxford afternoon in 1862, a gentle mathematics professor invented a world which entertained his young audience, and has continued to do so for more than 100 years. The exhibition and catalogue are a celebration of that appeal, and both suggest that the books, and the art work that they have inspired, will give pleasure and enjoyment for generations to come.--Paul Flux