Sunday, October 30, 2011

Alice in Wonderland's Alice

One of the most recognisable figures in fiction is Alice, the little girl at the heart of Lewis Carroll's two classic stories. An exhibition at Tate Liverpool follows her development from John Tenniel's original illustrations.

From a piece in the Guardian about said exhibition...

It's perhaps surprising that an art gallery, rather than a library, is holding a huge survey exhibition about Alice, but then Carroll's creation has been and still is the inspiration of artists, photographers, theatrical designers, animators, film-makers. The new Tate Liverpool show explores this territory, from the author's own rarely seen manuscript illustrations and marvellously evocative biographical materials (Carroll's perceptive and often lyrical photographs, works of art by his pre-Raphaelite friends) to the Surrealists, for whom Alice became a cherished myth. The Surrealist movement is represented by some of the most potent works in the exhibition: Salvador Dalí's illustrated edition of Alice, and the finest painting in Dorothea Tanning's oeuvre, the eerie Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, with sunflowers bursting colossal tentacles around the little girl with her hair on end in spikes of flame. The Surrealist legacy is still very fertile, in the context of a growing return to myth, fairytale and romanticism. Alice is the prototype of wise child and naive innocent – as seen in the vision not only of such artists as Peter Blake and Graham Ovenden, but of their successors in disquiet, Annelies Štrba and Alice Anderson, practitioners of the contemporary uncanny who give a new feminist twist to the heroine. Alice has grown older and more knowing than her original model, and turned into the receptacle of erotic dreams, a femme enfant with whom women artists strongly identify: the knowledge you are Alice as strong as the longing for her.

The character of Alice was inspired by Alice Liddell, the second daughter of the growing family who came to live in the Deanery, Christ Church, the college where Charles Dodgson was a fellow. A very pretty child with a melancholy cast of feature, she became the dearest of the author's child-friends, his chief love from among a host of girls – and boys – whom he entertained with puzzles, riddles, jokes, poems, gadgets, ditties and caricatures. He had begun photographing children several years before he wrote the Alice stories. He would focus on the families of artists, inviting himself into the houses of Rossetti, Millais, Arthur Hughes, and the fantasy writer George Macdonald, in a forward way that seems at odds with the shy, stammering persona of the rather undistinguished mathematics lecturer, who was deaf in one ear, and very partial to jelly and cakes. The eccentric and miraculous creator of Alice was one of history's great refusers. Like Kafka, with whom he has more in common than usually recognised, Dodgson could never resolve himself to move to the next stage of his life: he never took holy orders, never rose in the college hierarchy, never married. He was happy only in the company of children. However, he looked after a large number of other unmarried siblings (especially after he made so much money with the Alice books), campaigned against vivisection, seems to have devised the single transferable vote, and successfully pressed to improve the living conditions of child performers.

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