Miriam Al Jamil goes down the rabbit hole at the V&A’s latest exhibition, Alice: Curioser and Curioser, and discovers how Lewis Carroll’s books inspired generations of artists, designers, illustrators and film-makers.
To reach the exhibition at the V&A we pass down the stairs, or indeed down a rabbit hole, to a collection of multimedia experiences unlike any I can remember there in past years. We are told that the appeal of Lewis Carroll’s books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871), is ‘enduring and universal as each new generation ventures into wonderland’, and that through the translations (into 170 languages) the books are ‘part of our collective imagination’. It is worth considering exactly how universally influential the books have been, given their roots within Western traditions and a specific English cultural moment. As they become less embedded within these references over time, do they develop into more broadly accessible ideas? Each visitor will bring their own memories of the books or films but it is unlikely that the range of connections and bizarre interpretations on offer will have been anticipated. It is somewhat disorientating – but then that was the effect of the original books, albeit on a less technicolour scale. Beginning in the traditional format of low lighting and display cases, each room progresses through different formulations towards a multi-sensory kinetic experience of psychedelic colour and sound; one where mirrors obstruct and assail the visitor, and walls and floor merge in a vertiginous flow of colour and text. In an attempt to appeal to all ages and backgrounds, the exhibition risks a bewildering and disconnected overall effect, shifting shape and masquerading in different forms.
Though large labels designed to engage children first appear at child-friendly height, it soon becomes rather more challenging to locate the prompts and ‘rabbit’ silhouettes that point the way. In fact, for an exhibition that centres on a series of children’s books, a child-centred focus gradually mutates into one largely accessible only to adults. I would even go so far as to say, an adult awareness of cultural memory and signifiers is necessary to appreciate the displays. How many children now read the Alice books? The narrative originally incorporated many allusions only available to adults in the same way that Charles Kingsley‘s The Water Babies (1863) did. Kingsley’s book is a political, social and religious critique in support of Darwin’s theories, and, like Carroll’s works, is ostensibly a children’s book but categorisation as such is barely justified. Current children’s books offer a range of stories and illustrations which are at least as surreal and generally more accessible for a contemporary child’s imaginative engagement. But the exhibition reveals how Alice has informed and shaped unexpected, even disturbing aspects of our experience and that of artists, designers, film-makers and writers, and continues to provide inspiration for thinkers and scientists in our ‘ever-expanding creative universe’. We uncover layers of interpretation from the palimpsest of the original Victorian novels, which the exhibition presents as a uniquely rich and timeless source of creative potential.
The exhibition opens with evocations of ‘The Golden Afternoon’, the summer’s day in 1862 when Oxford lecturer Charles Dodgson, later using the pen name Lewis Carroll, rowed a boat up the Thames to Godstow for a picnic. On board were the three young daughters of his neighbour, the Dean of Christ Church. One of these was Alice Liddell, the subject of the stories with which he entertained the children along the way, and she asked him to write them for her as a keepsake. The exhibition catalogue briefly refers to the circumstances of Carroll’s relationship with her: ‘Today, Carroll’s close friendship with Liddell would be scrutinised but in Victorian times it was not viewed as inappropriate for a man to befriend a young girl’ (p.11). Twenty years later, in 1885, after Alice had married Reginald Hargreaves, one of Carroll’s pupils, Carroll wrote to her, ‘My mental picture is as vivid as ever, of one who was, through so many years, my ideal child-friend… I have had scores of child-friends since your time, but they have been quite a different thing’ (S.D. Collingwood, The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll, London, 1898, p.237). It would be impossible now to stage an exhibition of Eric Gill’s work, for example, without serious consideration of his personal life. Recent biographers have analysed Carroll’s proclivities and generally come to few definite conclusions. Although questions about his penchant for young girls remain unanswered, through the psychological underpinning of many aspects of his novels which the exhibition explores, darker possibilities emerge.
However, the new Victorian interest in childhood as a stage of life, along with rapid developments in science, technology and the expansion of educational provision, are emphasised in the first room as background context for the Alice books. Paintings, photographs and objects represent Carroll’s artistic and literary circles, which included actress Ellen Terry and several Pre-Raphaelite artists. A skilful selection of objects evoke elements of the wonderland world: the dodo skeleton, engineering and surveying equipment that measured angles and perspectives, a kaleidoscope that shifted perception and reality, as well as a clock and magnificent teapot which could have graced the table at the mad hatter’s tea party. Round the walls is a detailed chronology of the partnership between Carroll, his illustrator John Tenniel and the Dalziel brothers who were wood-engraving specialists. This traces the commercial enterprise of the Alice books and the development of the iconic figure of Alice and the other characters which are now fixed in our ‘collective imagination’. The translations of the books by 1900 and a few photographs and biographical notes about Alice, including her possible romantic involvement with Prince Leopold, Queen Victoria’s youngest son, complete our survey of the books.
The exhibition then shifts into an exploration of the phenomenon of wonderland, the adaptations into an 1886 musical stage show and a succession of revues and parodies, magic lantern shows and the early commercial marketing initiatives in toys and games. Subsequent rooms take the visitor through imaginative sets and light shows and dwell on the film adaptations throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries which mark our most common experience of Carroll’s books. The ‘Alice fever’ which surrounded the real Alice Hargreaves’ trip to America to receive an Honorary Degree of Letters from Columbia University in 1932 was exploited by Hollywood in a re-fashioning of the Alice figure for a mass-market audience. Later, darker and more menacing narratives marked avant-garde versions, drawing on the possibilities for psychological investigation of the frankly weird and dysfunctional figures populating Carroll’s stories. Tim Burton’s 2010 adaptation features as one of the most recent, in which a ‘newly-empowered’ Alice claims her own agency.
We explore further examples of Alice’s cultural impact through Surrealist art, works for example by Max Ernst, Eileen Agar, Salvador Dali, Edward Burra and Marion Adnams, visualising grotesque and disturbing distortions of the body, and through the mescaline-altered realities experienced by Aldous Huxley and quoted on a wall: ‘Spatial Relationships had ceased to mean very much…The mind was concerned not with measures and locations but with being and meaning’ (The Doors of Perception, 1954). These were individual, complex artistic engagements, presented here as broader ones. The influence of Alice sits more comfortably within the counter-culture of the 1960’s, its renewed interest in Victorian culture and ‘hallucinogenic art’. Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama described Alice as the ‘first hippy’, a subversive symbol during the years of protest over the Vietnam War.
Examples of sets and costumes explore manifestations of Alice on the stage as dance, opera and theatre, and these move on to fashion design’s extravagant ensembles and magazine illustrations. A wall label tells us that ‘Following [Alice’s] mantra for curiosity, independence and learning, today anyone can be Alice’. Ideas of ‘identity, power and truth’ and individual aspirations are embedded in this twenty-first century reading of the texts. The fantasy of Alice becomes the scientific reality when we learn that the acronym for the 1993 CERN large Ion Collider experiment, part of the Large Hadron Collider project, spells ‘Alice’. It was established deep underground to investigate nothing less than the origins of the universe. A 2001 film takes us ‘down the rabbit-hole’ to see the tunnels and equipment for ourselves. The ‘looking-glass world’ takes on a new meaning, but one which ironically is the least accessible or understood by most of the visitors to the exhibition. Straining against the gallery space, Alice has moved into Particle Physics and the very nature of existence. Nostalgia, dreams and alter-egos are left behind, replaced by a rabbit hole journey into an experimental world in which we as individuals barely matter at all.
Alice: Curioser and Curioser is showing at the V&A, London, until 31 December 2021. See here for more information and to book tickets.
Feature image: Down the Rabbit Hole (c) Kristjana S. Williams.