by Bittu SahgalApr 18, 2021
“Down the rabbit hole we go!” Are you immediately transported to a world of Cheshire cats, white hares and mad hatters? The symbols and stories derived from the fictional narrative, Alice In Wonderland, have become so deeply embedded in our culture, both linguistically and visually, references to it in our world are barely discernible. Written by Lewis Carroll in the late 1800s, the tale has since served as an endless bounty of inspiration for artists, designers, poets, writers and daydreamers around the world. While it serves as a fine example of how life imitates art, it is also a keystone in understanding how art imitates life. Although the representation of Alice’s universe is rather fantastical and otherworldly, it can be seen as a direct reflection of the author’s social and political environment at the time. In one swift breath, the children’s tale addresses topics around the monarchy, government, psychedelia, magic, supernatural and psychology. In an endeavour to reflect upon, recognise and pay tribute to the contribution made by Alice and her surrounding universe to global literature and culture, the Victoria and Albert Museum is soon to unveil Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser. The exhibition notes the varied applications of the narrative, traces its history and pieces together the fragments of Carroll’s magical world which continue to exist around us today.
The assistant curator of the exhibition, Harriet Reed, talks to STIR about the curatorial concerns of the showcase. Almost equally vital to the story itself is the visual culture it brought along with it. Vibrant, detailed and bewitching, the life of Alice was brought to life by John Tenniel. At V&A, the emphasis placed on Tenniel’s role is a nod to the artist’s iconic interpretation and lasting legacy. She says, “The relationship between Lewis Carroll and John Tenniel is an integral part of the exhibition. It reveals the fascinating and creative origins of the book and the unique collaboration between author and illustrator. Carroll, a scholar at Christ Church College, Oxford, took personal and tough financial responsibility for the publication of the story and mapped out every illustration and arrangement of the text on each page. He chose Tenniel as his illustrator, who was most well-known for being a political cartoonist at Punch magazine. Tenniel brought Carroll’s characters to life, many of whose appearances were not described in the book and were left up to his imagination. Without the encouragement of Alice Liddell (the ‘real’ Alice who inspired the book), the methodical genius of Carroll and the inspired characterisations of Tenniel, Alice in Wonderland would not be the influential phenomenon it is today. To understand 'Alice' and the impact it has had across art, film, music, technology, science and fashion, we must understand the minds behind the words, characters and worlds developed by these inspiring creatives”.
Carroll’s story is a timeless one, the one which can be endlessly revisited, adapted and recreated. Reed says, Alice in Wonderland has been translated into over 170 languages and has become a global phenomenon. Despite the specific world that Carroll and Tenniel lived in and took inspiration from, the world of Wonderland is unmapped and undefined as a place, which makes it uniquely adaptable to different geographies, cultures and societies, no matter the century. We can all identify with Alice, who at the heart of the story is a heroine on an unexpected journey, curious, in pursuit of knowledge and encountering unforgettable characters along the way. The originality and imagination that runs through the narrative are universal, and its themes of adventure, curiosity and discovery transcend languages. Whether it is women’s rights, our collective unconscious, surrealism, eccentricity, political dissent, nationalism or quantum physics, inspiration can be found in the ‘Alice’ books on a global scale”.
She continues, “The Alice books have permeated our collective consciousness, from high street fashion in Japan to political activists in South Africa inspired by Alice’s empowerment. The ideas at the heart of Alice – rebelliousness, revolution, paradox; distortions of space and time, logic, size and proportion; disbelief in conversational reality; assimilations of dreams, wordplay, and the nature of childhood can be found all around us. Political cartoonists often seek inspiration from the books, using the characters’ iconic sensibilities as instant metaphors for ineptitude, confusion and nonsense. The scientific theories of space, time and perception can also be found in the pioneering work of CERN and the A.L.I.C.E. Project. Even in our colloquial language, the accessory, the ‘Alice band' can be traced to Tenniel’s detailed illustration of Alice’s precise outfit. Carroll and Tenniel created characters and scenarios that are endlessly relatable and identifiable – so successful that their influence is almost undetectable”. The curatorial approach here underlines the broad spectrum of emotion, action and reaction motivated by this classic narrative.
The exhibition Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser will be opened to the public on March 27, 2021, and will continue to be on display until December 2021. Due to the ongoing pandemic, these dates are subject to change.