'Cheshire cat', psychedelic poster by Joseph McHugh, published by East Totem West. USA, 1967. Purchased through the Julie and Robert Breckman Print Fund. (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London II
'Cheshire cat', psychedelic poster by Joseph McHugh, published by East Totem West. USA, 1967. Purchased through the Julie and Robert Breckman Print Fund. (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Alice: The Icon Adapted and Appropriated for All Time

Title:
Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser

Dates:
22 May 2021 – 31 Dec 2021

Times:
Wed - Sun 10:00 - 17:45, last admission 16:45

Venue:
Victoria and Albert Museum / V&A London
Cromwell Road
London
Other
SW7 2RL

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has yet to leave print since 1865. Beyond child’s play, Lewis Carroll’s voyage critiques (and copes with) the Victorians’ changing cultural, political, and industrial context. Yet its endless adaptations and reinventions reveal the eternal questions at its core – ones which transcend space and time.

Carroll was the literary pseudonym of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. The ‘lion hunter’ of Oxford College rubbed shoulders with Ruskin, the pre-Raphaelites, and renowned figures of the contemporary Arts and Crafts cultural movement. Carroll’s creatures leap onto charming ceramics (merely referenced, De Morgan’s Dodo tiles are certainly worth the Google).

William De Morgan, ‘Red lustre tiles depicting two rabbits’, glazed ceramic, c. 1872-1876
William De Morgan, ‘Red lustre tiles depicting two rabbits’, glazed ceramic, c. 1872-1876

Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser eschews any linear narrative, exposing the back-and-forths inherent to the the tale’s re/creations. Carefully crafted illustration plans reveal how Carroll and illustrator John Tenniel told the story with scientific precision, meticulously planning the subject, size, and placement of each etching. The curation even suggests that Carroll scrapped those passages which Tenniel struggled to illustrate, deeming them inadequately vivid.

Through fantasy, Carroll exposes the nonsense of modern reality. Even his most surreal subjects were drawn from social observation. Fact (or fiction) finding-missions to the British Museum influenced Alice’s armours, whilst the Surrey County Asylum inspired the infamous Mad Hatter. Such realism and scathing satire saturates the story. Lines like ‘jam to-morrow and jam yesterday, but never jam to-day,’ were emphasised in the 1911 Lyceum adaptation, a theatrical expression of the women’s suffrage movement.

Perhaps Carroll even foresaw our post-truth political landscape. His Trumpty Dumpty – did I slip? – claims his statements mean ‘just what I choose it to mean’. Elsewhere, Scottish artist Rachel Maclean revisits Carroll’s characteristic lion and unicorn to dramatise the Scottish Independence referendum.

Indeed, curator Kate Bailey draws from her background in Theatre and Performance to play to the exhibition’s dramatic quality. Dark rooms blur into candy cane crevices. No doors; music and mumblings echo throughout the exhibition space. The experience is wholly disorienting. Perhaps, like Wonderland, it is meant to be.

Yet Curiouser and Curiouser’s wide scope sometimes seems superficial, even self-indulgent. Nods to the CERN, VR, and a warped mirror maze lend the feel of a science exhibition without children – Alice’s absent, but primary, audience. It’s indistinct and introspective – and clearly Instagram-ready.

Joseph McHugh, ‘Cheshire Cat’, print, 1967
‘Cheshire cat’, psychedelic poster by Joseph McHugh, published by East Totem West. USA, 1967. Purchased through the Julie and Robert Breckman Print Fund. (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Alice draws compelling connections between the countercultures of the 1860s and 1960s. Yayoi Kusama claimed Alice as the ‘first hippy’ to protest against the Vietnam War. And suitably psychedelic, Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception (1954), and McHugh’s East Totem West posters revive Tenniel’s original imagery in full Technicolor. Private meeting notes reveal how Disney considered adaptations from both Huxley and Dali, before turning to Mary Blair for his infamous animation.

Twentieth-century surrealism was the ideal fit for the abstract Alice story, inspiring the likes of Agar and Ernst. The latter often leant upon his creative and romantic partner Leonora Carrington. His Alice was trapped in rock, her ‘adventure’ reflecting the difficult journeys of child women into adulthood.

Max Ernst, 'Illustration Plan for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, ink on paper, 1864-1865
Max Ernst, ‘Illustration Plan for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, ink on paper, 1864-1865
Photograph of the 'real' Alice Liddell, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 'Pomona', albumen print, 1872 (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Photograph of the ‘real’ Alice Liddell, by Julia Margaret Cameron, ‘Pomona’, albumen print, 1872 (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Alice Liddell was Carroll’s original inspiration, and a hero of her own historical right. Dyed blonde from brunette, she bears little resemblance to her successors – whether Hepworth and Stowe’s 1903 adaptation, or Tim Burton’s CGI. Biro pen scrawled atop study photographs for the Disney adaptation reflect this persistent gap in real and fictional femininities, her features and form exaggerated to fit twentieth century norms.

Concept art by Mary Blair for Walt Disney's 1951 animation of Alice in Wonderland (c) Disney
Concept art by Mary Blair for Walt Disney’s 1951 animation of Alice in Wonderland (c) Disney

But Burton’s costume designer, Colleen Atwood, remarks of Alice as a thoroughly ‘modern’ character, merely ‘a girl who saw her life in a different way’. Breaking from the Alice band, her journey is now reclaimed as one of individual empowerment and personal identity. It’s a message that reverberates from Westwood’s punk to Harajuku Lolita, via Japanese manga and anime.

Indeed, Wonderland’s unmapped territory offers fertile ground for cross cultural adaptation. Turn-of-the-century Swahili translations paved the way for other artistic interpretations. Alice herself has been appropriated to articulate state indoctrination in Alicia en el País de las Maravillas, and suppression under General Franco in Alicia en la España de las maravillas.

This wealth of global Alice stories undermines the V&A’s connection between ‘becoming queen’ and colonial conquering – a thin interpretation of the tale’s complex reimaginings across space and time. Translations refer offer a refreshingly dark taste to the exhibition’s saccharine set. Even the scowling rat of Švankmajer’s Neco z Alenky (1988) is enough to give you nightmares.

Alice also reveals how consumption of the feminine image persists throughout time. Carroll’s Victorians were natural marketeers. Merchandise and musicals (from 1886) birthed chessboards, biscuit tins, Guinness beer advertisements, and Blumenthal tea parties.

But appropriating such an unpredictable tale produced unintended results. Curious Alice, the USA National Institute of Mental Health’s 1971 anti-drugs film, was ultimately pulled for encouraging psychedelic pill-popping.

Visitors today are still drawn to the screen by the seductive soundtrack of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit. Much like De Morgan’s Dodos, the song is one of many Alice influences mentioned, but neither explicitly credited nor featured in the exhibition. But this is only testament to how deep the rabbit hole plunges. Carroll’s titular character gains her strength in her pursuit of questions, experience, and knowledge. Curiouser and Curiouser only inspires us to ask more – and perhaps ‘be more Alice’.

With thanks to Jelena Sofronijevic (Twitter: @jelsofron) for this review. Their podcast Empire Lines is available on all streaming platforms.

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