Monday, 23 January 2012

Alice in Wonderland: Roadtrip recollections No.1

Estelle Dudley as Alice in Wonderland 1917
Image copyright of the National Portrait Gallery

I've just come back from my bumper gallery roadtrip to Liverpool where I began by visiting the Tate to see the Alice in Wonderland exhibition.

It's great to see the Tate choosing to do this show; they have created a treasure box with a universal appeal which has lured not only art fans but families and non gallery goers too. Maybe it's because Alice has permeated our culture, inspired artists, writers and even the way we think.

Sparking Alice mania back in it's day, the book has left a never ending legacy of surrealism and childhood imaginings which we still plunder in order to make sense of the world we live in today. It wasn't until I saw this show I realised just how influenced we are by this children's story.

Like all good fairy tales, Alice in Wonderland began with some grains of truth; I saw Dodgson's (or Carroll's dependiong on which way you want to view it) original camera, the Victorian version of Nikon; cutting edge technology, so compact you could box it up and carry not only the machine but the developing equipment with you wherever you went, the exquisite glass bottles of developing fluid labled 'Poison'.

Then there were his photos, children playing, children dressed up as fairy tale characters, or children sleeping, their still black and white forms looking like peaceful corpses one moment, the image of innocence the next. One photograph showed a young girl sitting next to a mirror, her reflection creating another character, suggesting a whole new dimension to be explored. Nothing was quite what it seemed. His adoration of the Liddell sisters was evident in the copious images he produced of the three little girls, Alice Liddell clearly his favourite and eventual muse.

Seeing these artifacts within the deep red velvet room in which they were set, elements of Alice began to take shape, it was like delving into Dodgson's mind and connecting the dots.

I especially enjoyed the room filled with different editions of Alice in Wonderland. When the copyright to the story ceased in 1907 a fever for all things Alice took hold and her image along with those of her companions were seen everywhere. Tea sets, magic lanterns, ornaments and dolls, plays, musicals and photography. It was fascinating to see how different people translated the book into new and individual imaginings.

As early as the 1900's artists were beginning to find favour in the many layers of Alice's adventures; Echoes of the little girl in a dangerous and nonsense world can be seen in the work of Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst. One sculpture by Tanning made from a tactile black velvet looked very much like a teapot from one angle and a cat luxuriantly washing itself from another, the double meaning and uncertainty of the book revealing itself in her work.

Eine Klein Nachtmusik Dorothea Tanning 1946

Moving on through the decades the 60's saw an explosion of psychedelia and mind altering drugs which suited the surreal offerings of Wonderland.

Yayoi Kusama sent out invitations to a naken tea party happening in New York's Central Park at the Alice statue. Idolising the heroine she stated 'When she was feeling down, Alice was the first person to take a pill to feel high'

While I wandered through the maze like layout of the exhibition, I couldn't help but feel a little like Alice myself, as I encountered strange and unsettling characters. A Humpty like being sat atop a lofty perch, a re-animated rabbit moving dream like in it's deceased state, and possibly the most strange, Robert De Niro talking to himself in a mirror as the famous scene from Taxi Driver was projected in double across two walls, drawing De Niro into a four way conversation, or so it seemed.

I left feeling a little hazy, but hungry for more. If I'd found a cake with 'Eat Me' written on it I wouldn't need to be told twice. Such a good day that gave me much to ponder upon.

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