exhibition review

Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser

by Sarah MacKay | 23 November 2021

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Exhibition shot of Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A real-world wonderland, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser is a thrilling immersive exhibition that abounds in dazzling delights for all ages. Exploring the evolution of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s, aka Lewis Carroll’s, original children’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the exhibition showcases the numerous ways Alice and her gripping tale have been reimagined in cinema, literature, fashion, theatre and art over the past 157 years.

 

Much of the exhibition is composed of a series of theatrical stage sets created by award-winning set designer Tom Piper, each one transporting the viewer into a memorable scene from the story—the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, the Cheshire cat’s dark forest or a croquet field filled with playing cards, to name a few. In this way, the exhibition caters well to children, but also reawakens adults’ sense of wonderment. Snippets of identifiable audio pulled from the Alice films play over speakers creating a sensorial, all-encompassing experience. In some instances, though, these amusements come at a price—they distract from the over 300 manuscripts, paintings, illustrations and couture pieces that comprise the show which warrant concentrated attention. Although the blockbuster exhibition feels more like a carnival than an intellectual adventure, it is undeniably great fun and a true taste of a tumble down the rabbit hole.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The exhibition is broken into three sections, ‘Creating Alice’, ‘Performing Alice’, and ‘Reimagining Alice’, and begins with the origin story of Carroll’s famous book. On a boat trip in 1862, Dodgson rowed down the River Isis with little Alice Liddell and her sisters, the group making up a mystical tale about another young girl named Alice as they went. As calming sounds of oars rowing through river water play in the background, visitors are invited to gaze upon Carroll’s original manuscript and charming photos from his time at Oxford before stepping into the first major gallery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This first room, which is appropriately less theatrical than the rest, describes how Carroll pulled from a vast network of sources—Pre Raphaelite art, mathematics, poetry, politics, mental institutions, Victorian fashion, etc.—to craft his nonsensical, but eerily familiar, fantasy world. The gallery is particularly text heavy and contains numerous intriguing objects that informed the tale such as an elaborate clock and a delightful ceramic tea pot. Adorning the walls and in multiple glass cases are original drawings for the initial books by illustrator Sir John Tenniel which recount the development of Alice and her fantastic friends’ identifiable storybook looks. The room demonstrates the book’s immediate universal appeal by highlighting multiple editions of the text in other languages including Swahili and French—a comforting suggestion that a child’s tale and a passion for storytelling can unite diverse peoples from around the world.

 

 

 

Piper’s designs for the ensuing rooms seem to oscillate between the gimmicky feel of Disney’s water-ride It’s a Small World and the cutting-edge look of the showstopping fashion exhibitions for which the V&A is known, like ‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’. Yet, this mixture of high and low, of corny and couture, perfectly captures Alice’s far-reaching influence especially within the realms of film, art and fashion. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first few rooms track the history of Alice’s filmic journey. It begins with silent shorts (which now seem more like horror films) moving through the 1951 cartoon by Walt Disney—perhaps the most widely recognized version—and ending with Tim Burton’s live action movies from the 2010s. Within these rooms, highlights include artist Mary Blair’s designs for Alice’s now characteristic cinematic look (blonde hair, baby blue dress and black headband) preserved in original Disney celluloids, and copies of preparatory water-colours by Salvador Dali for a collaborative project with Disney studio artist John Hench called Destino begun in the 1940s. The project was paused, and then completed in 2003, years after Dali’s death.

Dali’s aesthetic left a lasting impact on the Disney studio, much in the same way that Alice’s magical world fed the minds of many surrealist artists. Carroll’s use of psychological narratives and his ability to navigate between the real and dream worlds appealed directly to their interest in the unconscious mind. Works by Max Ernst, Marion Adnams and John Armstrong feature alongside illustrations from an exclusive edition of the Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland from 1969 which included 12 heliogravures by Dali. This version of the book was reprinted in 2015 for the 150th anniversary of the text.

In the final few rooms, the exhibition turns to Alice’s impact on fashion showcasing how designers Viktor&Rolf, Vivienne Westwood, Thom Browne and others have given familiar motifs such as playing cards and chess pieces a sartorial twist. Arguably even the recent streetstyle headband craze has its roots in wonderland; before Blair Waldorf, Alice was the it-girl wearing a little black headband. Also on display in the gallery are large photos from British photographer Tim Walker’s 2018 Pirelli calendar which included an all-black cast dressed in edgy looks à la Alice, a significant moment considering the story’s multi-generational, global relevance.

Although its thrills and frills often feel directed to an Instagram audience, the show succeeds in demonstrating the substantive contributions Carroll’s children’s book has made to so many facets of culture. Perhaps most of all though, it is the curiosity, courage, independence and tenacity that Alice demonstrates on her difficult journey through wonderland that resonates with everyone, everywhere. ‘Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser’ is a powerful reminder that we could all use to #bemoreAlice.

 

Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser is on view now until Friday, 31 December 2021 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

 

Use the hashtag #bemoreAlice to tag the show on Instagram.

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Pomona, photograph of Alice Liddell, by Julia Margaret Cameron, albumen print, 1872 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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Exhibition shot of first gallery of Curiouser and Curiouser © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Exhibition shot from Curiouser and Curiouser © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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Exhibition shot from Curiouser and Curiouser © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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A Mad Tea Party, Salvador Dali, 1969. © Salvador Dali, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, DACS 2019

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Alice, Pirelli 2018 calendar, shot by Tim Walker and styled by Edward Enninful featuring Duckie Thot. © Tim Walker Studio Courtesy of Pirelli & C.S.p.A

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Alice, Pirelli 2018 calendar, shot by Tim Walker and styled by Edward Enninful featuring Duckie Thot. © Tim Walker Studio Courtesy of Pirelli & C.S.p.A