The spontaneous tale that Charles Dodgson made up for Alice Pleasance Liddell and her sisters during a summer riverboat ride down the Isis in 1862 has spawned more visual illustrations, retellings and cultural associations than any other narrative, possibly ever. Film versions of Alice were created in almost every decade of the twentieth century. The most likely Alice to spring to mind is Disney’s blonde haired, restless cartoon version from 1951, who questions the logic of books without pictures before curiously following a waist-coat clad white rabbit into the bowels of the earth, but other incarnations have included 1983 Japanese-German anime, Mia Waskikowska’s older, gothic 2010 Alice (thank you Tim Burton) and a peculiar Czech interpretation by Jan Svankmajar that began with a taxidermied rabbit smashing its way out of its glass case and ended with my friend and I rocking backwards and forwards in horror on the floor in my room and feeling more than slight apprehension about ever going outside again.
In the early years of the twenty first century, Alice has inspired resurgence in the popularity of everything from retro tea parties to floral prints to the Urban Outfitters golden pocket watch necklaces on long chains that never seem to leave the shelves. For her birthday this year, one of my friends threw an Alice themed garden party. During the course of my English degree, Alice appeared in modules dedicated to Victorian literature, literature and film, and children’s literature. Tim Burton’s film version saw an onslaught of Alice-related paraphernalia swamping our high streets. An alarmingly large number of British students, I have noticed, seem to have an obsession with tea drinking and cup-cake consumption. Alice in Wonderland has even passed into the medical lexicon, its eponymous Syndrome referring to the condition, usually manifesting itself in childhood or adolescence, whereby as a result of surplus blood flow to the brain sufferers experience confusion over their physical size.
The affect that Alice has had, and continues to have, on our popular culture cannot be underestimated. Questioning why exactly this is the case, I find myself feeling just like Alice herself –curiouser and curiouser…
Why has Dodgson’s tale of a middle class, mid-Victorian girl child falling into a world of hookah-smoking felines and talking flowers been so successful at capturing both the public conscious and the cultural sphere for the last hundred and fifty years? Why, simply, is there (still) such an enduring interest in Alice?
Answers may be found at the Tate Liverpool, where the Alice in Wonderland exhibition brings together a collection of Alice related paraphernalia dating from its initial publication in 1865, through its later Victorian stage adaptations, its relationship with war-fractured Europe and influence on artistic movements including Pre-Raphaelitism, Surrealism and the psychedelic.
We are first greeted with a collection of dream-like, psychedelic neon words that are suspended from the ceiling as if depicting thought clouds. The words appear random, as is the nature of dreaming, and indeed Wonderland itself – ‘Abraham’s Bosom’, ‘Trout Basket’, ‘Vice of Love’, ‘Peep’, ‘Cha Cha’. Suspended at various heights, they certainly seem to offer a manifestation of the wandering, unrestrained imagination – or, as my companion put it, ‘the wacky ramblings of Carroll’. On the floor beneath is a pile of towels folded into the shape of a bed, an incongruous pair of ears emerging from it. An attached label reads ‘#2 My Madinah’ – research later tells me that ‘Madinah’ is an alternative word for Medina, the supposed birthplace of Mohammad. Possibly this installation is suggesting that sleep and dream-like states, or the imagination that comes from dreaming, can offer healing and solace in the same way that religion can. The Freudian themes of the Alice books, then, can be seen clearly in the first room of the exhibition.
On the walls are three paintings by Swiss artist Annelies Strba, entitled Nyima 445, Nyima 405 and Nyima 438, that depict a sleeping child in a wood. The colours are hazy and purple, again suggesting a half conscious state. Running above the works, around the walls of the room, is a thick black line – it is nine feet above the ground, the same height that Dodgson’s Alice grew to in Wonderland after imbibing the cake labelled ‘EAT ME’.
Upstairs, we are given a wealth of information on the mid-Victorian context of the Alice books. The nineteenth century fascination with childhood, as seen in Pre-Raphaelite works such as William Holman Hunt’s Triumph of the Innocents, which is seen here, was one of the reasons for the books’ early popularity. The relationship between Dodgson and the Pre-Raphaelites can also be seen in the numerous paintings of him that they produced – including works by Dante Rossetti and Holman Hunt. Pre-Raphaelite inspired painter George Dunlop Leslie was the first to make a clear connection between the novels and seemingly unrelated art, with his 1879 painting entitled Alice in Wonderland – a portrait of his wife holding his daughter, who also happened to be named Alice.
Quotations from Dodgson are printed on the walls, offering an insight into the spontaneity behind the novels: ‘In a desperate attempt to strike out some new line of fairylore,’ his words read from above a line of Pre-Raphaelite portraits, ‘I had sent my heroine straight down a rabbit-hole… without the least idea of what was to happen afterwards.’
Also included in this section of the exhibition are translations in Polish, German, French, and Russian –the latter the work of Nabokov. The real highlight though is Dodgson’s original, handwritten manuscript, set behind glass. It is bizarre to consider that all the cultural associations previously mentioned –tea sets, dressing up costumes, countless films– have stemmed from the small, slightly faded book that now sits in front of us unimposingly at the Tate.
After the Victorians, we are faced with the first art movement to consciously engage with Alice in the twentieth century: Surrealism. Unexpected, anti-rational, uncanny –the suspension of reality required fits easily with the land beneath the rabbit-hole. The theme of displacement was adopted poignantly by artists as a result of the Second World War, and the movement of dispossessed peoples in mainland Europe. Here we see works by Max Ernst, a POW in France in 1939, and Oskar Kokoscha, whose 1941 painting shows Alice’s naivety as a metaphor for the Austrian government, closing her eyes to what is going on around her.
A 1969 work by Dali shows twelve illustrations, one for each chapter of Alice. She is depicted as a young girl with a skipping rope, overshadowed by huge, psychedelic insects and bright swirls of colour.
This leads us directly into the ‘altered states’ of the 1960s, the decade that saw Dodgson’s Victorian creation become ‘a poster child for the psychedelic generation’. We are faced with oils by Adrian Piper, showing a hallucinogenic version of the rabbit hole, the tea party and the card game. The LCD-esque creations that close the exhibition bring it full circle – back to the beginning, which saw neon words hung from the ceiling in an incongruous depiction of a dream world.
The day after I write this review, I am sat in Revolution in Manchester when a stop-motion version of Alice appears on the screen next to our table. Mildly surreal, in a vodka bar on Deansgate Locks, but the hypothesis is proved correct: in late 2011, 146 years since its first publication, society is still taking Dodgson’s dream-like, unpredictable narrative and adapting it for its own ends. We aren’t bored of Alice yet.
The Alice in Wonderland exhibition runs until January 29th.
Tate Liverpool, Albert Dock, Liverpool, L3 4BB.