“BEGIN AT THE beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” This advice, proffered by the White King in “Alice in Wonderland”, is a handy rubric for storytellers and curators. But a new Alice-themed exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in London takes a different approach.
It starts conventionally, with neatly labelled objects that give an idea of how literature’s most vividly opinionated seven-year-old came into existence. Charles Dodgson, a mathematics tutor at Christ Church, Oxford, sometimes entertained the daughters of the college dean, Henry Liddell. One afternoon in July 1862, during a boat trip, he told them a slippery story about a young girl’s adventures. The middle daughter, 10-year-old Alice Liddell, pestered him to commit it to paper. Dodgson obliged, and three years later an expanded version was published.
But once this familiar ground has been covered, “Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser” transforms into something altogether more playful—a kaleidoscopic survey of the influence of “Alice in Wonderland” and its sequel, “Through the Looking-Glass”. Alice’s habit of relentlessly asking questions has always seemed an open invitation to producers of spin-offs, parodies, imitations and re-imaginings. Figures as disparate as the suffragettes and Salvador Dalí have cherished her delight in rebellion and the seriousness with which she treats jokes. The same qualities appeal to the fashion world, as evidenced in the exhibition in pieces by Dame Vivienne Westwood, Viktor & Rolf and the milliner Stephen Jones.
Some of Alice’s afterlives have proved truly bizarre. In the 1970s she was deployed in an American government-backed video meant to put children off illegal drugs. (The film had to be withdrawn, because its trippy visuals felt like an advertisement for the thing they were meant to deter.) More recently Alice has been enlisted as a poster girl for South African women protesting against Jacob Zuma. She has even inspired a project at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (known as CERN), which explains why its scientists, on discovering the very smallest lump of nuclear glue, called it the Humpty Dumpty particle.
Many visitors to the V&A will be more excited, though, to find that this exhibition simulates the experience of falling “down the rabbit hole”. It is billed as “immersive”—usually a PR buzzword that proves a guarantee not of enthralment, but of having to hang around expectantly in dank industrial spaces. Yet there are moments when the show genuinely does steep its audience in psychedelia: there’s a life-sized recreation of the Mad Hatter’s tea party, complete with ingenious projections, and a lavish bit of virtual-reality sorcery which involves lobbing hedgehogs through croquet hoops.
But amid the increasingly outré exhibits—Tim Walker’s Pirelli calendar from 2018, artwork for Alice-inspired music by Lady Gaga and Little Simz—the man who launched the myth disappears from view. Although the exhibition is not intended to be straightforwardly biographical, it underplays the darkness of Lewis Carroll’s imagination. It also skirts his less visual, more verbal acts of subversion, which so exhilarated James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, John Lennon and the authors of countless children’s books.
There is only a fleeting sense of the psychic turmoil that informed his work. What, for instance, of his yen for photographing little girls (who were often nude)? Nonsense and whimsy, it’s clear, were his means of fending off dangerous emotions, and he spent sleepless nights wretchedly contemplating self-improvement. To the father of one of his young female friends, he wrote of feeling “my own sinfulness more strongly than I could easily say in words”.
A serious mathematical scholar, Dodgson made pithy contributions to the study of algebra and logic. An inventor too, he loved contriving what, with a touch of vanity, he called “dodges”: a steering mechanism for tricycles, an adhesive strip for sealing envelopes, a device that made it easier for invalids to read books in bed and an early version of what would later become Scrabble.
But all this is now in the shadows. His most famous creation, meanwhile, keeps getting bigger and more fantastical, as she rematerialises in a growing range of films, video games, comic strips and fashion designs. So it feels more apt than ever that, when she speaks of her adventures becoming “curiouser and curiouser”, her very next words are: “Now I’m opening out like the largest telescope that ever was! Goodbye, feet!”
“Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser” continues at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, until December 31st