The Bible aside, Alice’s Adventures Underground and Through The Looking-Glass could claim to have influenced and inspired more artists than any other books. That’s certainly the impression you get from this sweepingly ambitious exhibition which opened yesterday at Tate Liverpool – a show which begins with pre-Raphaelite paintings and ends with a Fiona Banner porn transcript – taking in original manuscripts, surrealism, psychedelia and conceptual art along the way.
It begins with the author of these extraordinary books – Oxford maths professor Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll – with pictures of him, pictures he took of the young Alice (who has a steely self confidence even as a four-year-old) and the original manuscript of the book.
There’s also the author’s own sketches for some of the most famous characters and a detailed list of exactly where illustration should come in the text – proof, according to the curators, of Dodgson’s instinctive mutual appreciation for the textual and the visual.
Fortunately Dodgson left the illustrations to others (his ponderous griffin is a study in artistic under-confidence) – originally the instantly recogniseable images of Sir John Tenniel, but later a myriad of artists who bring unique takes and talents to the famous story.
A hugely enjoyable way to wile away 15 minutes at this show is to browse through the many international editions of the book, comparing and contrasting the wildly different illustrations employed in each – from, warm, soft pseudo Disney colours to stark, modernist line drawings.
The way the stories toy with perception and reality chimed in nicely with the surrealist movement – Andre Breton called Carroll “their first teacher in the art of playing truant”, and the influence is both obvious – such as in Max Ernst’s Pour les amis d’Alice a hazy blue half-dream of characters form the books – and less direct, as in Dorothea Tanning’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusic, a claustrophobic, little-girl haunted nightmare where the rules of perception ally against the viewer.
The highlight of the show for me was Salvador Dali’s extraordinary set of sketches for the book – wrenching out the darker elements and pushing to the extremes the psycho sexual impulses the end of innocence implies. So we have the Mock Turtle as a brooding be-taloned beast, the Queen of Hearts as a Giacometti shadow with a cruel playing card attachment and Alice herself a faceless, wispy black figure with a skipping rope forever swinging wildly above her head.
The British surrealist movement go as far as to dub themselves “The Children of Alice” and although their visual references are rarely obvious – in the paintings of Paul Nash, Eileen Agar and Roland Penrose, and the sculpture of F.E.McWiliam you can discern threads that runs all the way back through the looking glass.
The 1960s sees Alice and chums co-opted by the pychedelic movement, a countercultural icon (whose stroy even inspired a Jefferson Airplane album). Two magnificent series of illustrations sit side by side – Graham Overnden’s nightmarish screenprints where Alice becomes the creepy little girl motif so beloved of modern horror films, while Peter Blake goes for more muted, darker, realistic renderings of this topsy-turvy world.
The latter rooms, with their conceptual art pieces, may sometimes seem like they are stretching the point too far, but with recurring themes of childhood, time and linguistic games there’s still an argument to be made.
Jan Dibbets’ Perspective Correction pieces, Jospeh Kosuth’s famous Clock (One and Five) recall some of Dodgson’s trickery, and there are parallels to the endless word games in Joseph Grigley’s 167 White Conversations, which collate notes the deaf artist has used and received to communicate and clear up misunderstandings.
And just as the themes of Alice have become familiar, so too has the imagery become a well-known cultural cornerstone. As such it has been appropriated by various artists, most notably here in Bill Woodrow’s English Heritage – Humpty Fucking Dumpty a sculptural history of humanity assembled in honour of the wall-perching one.
It’s a tremendous show whether you fully buy into the persuasive central thesis or not, cleverly curated and a fitting tribute to the fantasy world created originally simply to entertain two bored little girls on a boat trip.