MUSEUM REVIEW Through the window-glass
Exhibit on Alice and how we’ve seen her through the ages
“We are all mad here: Alice in Pop Culture”
March 5–June 12
Victoria and Albert Museum, London UK
It seems as if Tim Burton’s most recent project has sparked a resurgence of Alice in Wonderland. Certainly Alice is all the rage in London, with the movie’s recent Leicester Square premier and Selfridges’ Alice-themed tearoom (although second to Harrods in posh-ness and size, Selfridges can still boast unrivalled bumblebee-yellow bags and equally eye-catching, face-against-glass window displays, displays that for a time matched the said tearoom).
But there is more to tell between the childhood classic’s first 1865 printing and its less child-friendly, Burton-esque recreation of 2010.
In just two small display cases, almost completely lost in the labyrinth that is London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, I found the entire history of Alice in Wonderland in popular culture. And Alice has most certainly been getting around.
Predictably, there were several modern permutations of Alice in Wonderland, all with varying illustrations – in contrast to the more traditional Victorian depictions was the 1929 Art Deco version by Willy Pogány, featuring an Alice with bobbed hair and fashionable shift dress. The more radical 1967 illustrations by Ralph Steadman replaced the actual characters with modern stereotypes (the Caterpillar is actually a hashish-smoking student, for example).
Less predictable were the politically charged parodies, Malice in Kulturland (1914) and Adolf in Blunderland (1939): While the anti-war Malice in Kulturland kept the character of Alice and even had illustrations close to the originals, Adolf in Blunderland went so far as to feature its title character as a rather unintelligent schoolboy.
Futuristic movies and flamboyant fashion designers have even added to the roll of the modern Wonderland-crazed. One of the many graphic novel spinoffs of The Matrix (ed. Andy and Larry Wachowski), has the unsettling first sentence: “It’s always the same, the day turns into sleep, sleep into a dream, the dream turns into a nightmare, and then the nightmare turns into reality.” Sounds familiar? In the realm of fashion is John Galliano, who designed Alice-themed costumes for both Annie Leibovitz’s December 2003 photo shoot for Vogue and Gwen Stefani’s 2004 music video for “What You Waiting For”? .
Only Alice has inspired beyond the occasional fashion photo shoot or Disney movie. Alice in Wonderland is more than a fairy tale, and we owe its uniqueness not to an opium-smoking poet but to a bored Oxford mathematician, Charles Dodgson, who escaped the monotony of his life by telling nonsensical stories to children on rowing expeditions. Now all that remains to be done is a movie paying homage to the “Lewis Carroll” as he spun the tale that would inspire artists generations later. Finding Wonderland, perhaps?