Alice through the ages: Exhibition examines Wonderland’s enduring power

A new exhibition at the V&A looks at the many lives of Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s tale

Eve Watling@evewatling
Wednesday 17 March 2021 10:18
<p>Untitled #26 (Override), artist Anna Gaskell, Guggenheim Museum</p>

Untitled #26 (Override), artist Anna Gaskell, Guggenheim Museum

On a “golden afternoon” in 1862, Charles Dodgson rowed the three young daughters of a friend down the sleepy river Isis in Oxford. The sisters began asking Dodgson to tell them a story, and he began to make one up on the spot – one with a heroine called Alice, named after Alice Liddell, his favourite of the sisters. “I had sent my heroine straight down a rabbit-hole ... without the least idea what was to happen afterwards,” he later wrote.

Three years later, Dodgson would publish this story, fleshed out and embellished, under the pen name Lewis Carroll. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was an immediate success; over the 150-plus years since it has never gone out of print, remaining a touchstone of children’s literature. A sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, followed in 1871. The two short books’ imaginative world, confounding dream-logic and arresting imagery have since been reinterpreted countless times by filmmakers, playwrights, artists, fashion designers and musicians.

Alice at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, Illustration for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by John Tenniel, 1865

Photograph of the ‘real’ Alice Liddell, by Julia Margaret Cameron, ‘Pomona’, albumen print, 1872

Quinten Massys. An Old Woman (‘The Ugly Duchess’)

Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser, a new exhibition at the V&A, seeks to explore the extraordinary impact of Dodgson’s creation which, had the Liddell sisters not begged him to write down, could have remained a fleeting story improvised on a hot summer day.

“Alice encourages us all to question, to learn, to explore, and to dream – discovering why she’s an endless source of inspiration for some of the world’s most creative minds has been an extraordinary adventure,” says Kate Bailey, senior curator of theatre and performance at the V&A. The exhibition includes Dodgson’s original manuscript and follows the enormous cultural impact it had across the globe.

Concept art by Mary Blair for Walt Disney’s 1951 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland

Original drawing for Alice in Wonderland of the White Rabbit, 1967

‘Cheshire cat’, psychedelic poster by Joseph McHugh, published by East Totem West, USA, 1967

Salvador Dali, A Mad Tea Party, 1969

Print by Peter Blake from a suite illustrating ‘Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There’, 1970

Alice seems suited for adaptation in almost any artistic medium. Surrealist painters like Salvador Dalí and Yayoi Kusama have drawn from Dodgson’s gleefully warped internal logic to create their own visual Wonderlands. Long before Alice’s Disney makeover, the book was adapted in 1903, a 12-minute wonder packed with early special effects. Fashion designers reference the cast of characters known for their striking outfits – the V&A show features work from Viktor & Rolfs 2016 collection, full of top hats and Victoriana ruffles.

The exhibition also shows how each generation discovers the book anew, and builds their own relationship with it. Alice gained a new wave of admirers in the 1960s, when psychedelics led artists to find new resonance in the strange tale. Today, Alice is sometimes invoked by political protesters, who see a parallel between Alice’s unfair treatment by the book’s adult figures and the capricious demands of cruel governments.

Zenaida Yanowsky as The Red Queen in Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at The Royal Ballet

Viktor&Rolf Haute Couture Autumn Winter 2016 – Vagabonds

Down the Rabbit Hole

Photograph taken during a protest against Jacob Zuma, Cape Town, 7 April 2017

In his introductory poem to Alice, Dodgson left instructions for the reader on how to treat his story:

…with a gentle hand,

Lay it where Childhood’s dreams are twined

In Memory’s mystic band,

Like pilgrim’s withered wreath of flowers

Plucked in far-off land.

It is fitting that Alice disobeys his command – she refuses to lay still, and instead continues to shape-shift and morph, looming larger than life across the ages.

Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser is showing at the V&A from 27 March – 31 December 2021

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