Exhibition Review

Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser at the V&A

by Brooke Pritchard | 2 August 2021

Image: the V&A Museum

Alice in Wonderland is certainly a much loved childhood classic, one that both confuses, confounds and excites you, which is what the Victoria & Albert Museum has done with their exhibition, executed with charm and flair. The curation alone deserves as much respect as its installations and artworks, as it cleverly turns the museum space into a whimsical landscape worthy of Wonderland itself; giant caterpillars, painted backdrops and incredible Alice-inspired structures delight the viewer at first sight and continually heightens one's enthusiasm with every turned corner.

Image: the V&A Museum

What really emphasised the genius of Alice in Wonderland in this exhibition was the prominent inclusion of its artistic inspirations, allowing no one to forget the way art and literature have always influenced each other. This correlation is one I found fascinating, and even more so once I saw the countless illustrations, Pre-Raphaelite photography and surrealist paintings that helped Alice become the story we know and love today. In many instances, art has helped shape a large part of literary and filmic culture, and this is explored from the very first room you step into at the V&A. Julia Margaret Cameron's photography reminds one of the types of aesthetics and conventions that were flourishing in the late nineteenth century - the flowing haired, enchanting female muse and the emphasis of a fairytale setting clearly establishes the tone for the adventurous, curious Alice and her supernatural escapades. In fact, she came to photograph an older Alice Liddell (Carroll's neighbour, who inspired the story) in a variety of mythology-inspired photographs, emphasising how fantasy still played a part in the life of the real Alice.

 

Further influences to character are examined through comparisons to Quentin Matsys' 'The Ugly Duchess' and the Queen of Hearts, which once again demonstrates the deeply connected relationship between art and storytelling. As movies and stage shows were being made in the early twentieth century, surrealism also played an essential part in creating the visuals for Wonderland; clips from multiple productions of the story are shown throughout, providing one with insight into how surrealist art translated the magic of each scene, character design, and backdrop into the fantastical vistas of each modern adaptation. Even Salvador Dalì was once commissioned to create illustrations for a version of the book, and these enchanting paintings enforce the correlations between representing Wonderland in art as well as a literary concept in its naturally surrealist forms.

Image: the V&A Museum

The power of art on literature cannot be emphasised better than in the display of Lord Tenniel's illustrations, however, with his rendition of Alice with long wavy hair and an apron dress becoming the stand-out identifier of her appearance for years ever since. This motif affected following editions and versions of the book, live-action costume design, and even artworks that represent the impact Carroll's book has had on children throughout the generations; one particular painting in this exhibition highlights this perfectly, an artwork of an Edwardian girl dressed as Alice being read the book by her mother. As for the general aesthetic of Wonderland and its characters, the vibrant colours of early novella illustrations have managed to influence the bright psychedelics of Disney films as well as Alice-inspired fashion runways. What makes Tenniel's illustrations so endearing is the realistic rendering of the subject; there is a sincerity in the drawings that makes the extraordinary, surreal scenes feel as though they fall into the realm of possibility.

Image: the V&A Museum

From photography, music, modern costume design, British politics and even language (calling someone a 'mad hatter' for example, can be a colloquial term for describing someone as crazy or odd) the short, Victorian story has caused change to the way the world views and can embrace weirdness and the fantasy genre. It has been used to inspire creativity, satirise political issues, and collectively provide joyous, comforting escapism, especially to those deemed weird or odd by others in society. It's relationship with art continues in these fields as people pursue new ways in which to reinvent the story within their artistic media. The V&A certainly exploits this well, as later on in the exhibition some rooms hold remarkable, technologically advanced responses to the ever-growing Alice in Wonderland canon. Without giving too much away, these thrilling installations and designs are enough for one to truly feel convinced that they are in another place and time, transported to Wonderland itself.

 

The museum takes you on a journey through the humble beginnings to the modern day impact of Carroll's novel, a timeline of its history as well as fun, interactive elements along the way. By entering the exhibition, you descend to the lower level of the gallery via a black set of stairs, and the parallel to Alice's trip down the rabbit hole does not go unnoticed. The theatrics, immersive experiences and fascinating historical facts make this exhibition truly one of a kind - something for not only art lovers and fans to enjoy, but for everyone of all ages, regardless of their enthusiasm for art or literature.

 

Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser is available to see at the V&A until 31st December 2021. For more information go to https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/alice-curiouser-and-curiouser