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November 9, 2011 6:05 pm
“If you don’t know what a Gryphon is, look at the picture” reads a note in Charles Dodgson’s detailed plan for a text with integrated illustrations, one exhibit in “The Story of the Book” in Tate Liverpool’s Alice in Wonderland exhibition. The book in question, a story told to children on a trip on the river at Oxford in the summer of 1862 by a young don, was written out for one of the children, Alice Liddell, the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church, and published under the nom de plume Lewis Carroll in 1866; it has never since been out of print.
Along with Dodgson’s manuscript, there are proof sheets, engraver’s woodblocks, pencil sketches by the illustrator Sir John Tenniel showing Alice swimming in the pool of tears and passing through the looking glass, and pages from Dodgson’s diaries. A section devoted to the Liddell sisters includes a selection of his many photographs of Alice, Lorina and Edith, a decorative trio who were also the sitters for a sentimental watercolour of 1864, “The Sisters” by William Blake Richmond, and for some of Julia Margaret Cameron’s blurrily artistic photographs of the early 1870s. In all of these Alice, the youngest, stands out as having the most characterful face.
A sampling of Alice spin-offs – biscuit tins, children’s games, a magic lantern show, theatre posters, sheet music, wallpaper and a Royal Doulton Cheshire Cat – shows how soon Alice in Wonderland became a commodity free of the Carroll text.
So far so reassuring. Outside, the city’s two venerable Liver buildings overlooking the Mersey are half hidden by several overweening constructions in steel and glass; so inside in the galleries, the original Victorian artefact is surrounded by more dubious modern works. Following an artistic rather than a chronological narrative, the exhibition’s story of Alice leads to what the curator Christoph Benjamin Schulz terms “the collective unconscious”, in which the book’s characters become tropes of anxiety and sexuality. Taken up by the Surrealists in their manifesto, Alice inspires Max Ernst (“The Stolen Mirror”, 1941), René Magritte (“Alice au Pays des Merveilles”, 1946), Oskar Kokoschka (“Anschluss – Alice in Wonderland”, 1941), Salvador Dalí (storyboard drawings for Destino, a Walt Disney short film begun in 1945 and eventually released in 2003 and Leonora Carrington (“Ladies Run, There’s a Man in the Rose Garden”, 1948), works in which a Freudian subtext is indicated by the title and by a bedaubed female figure. The British artists are more restrained; Eileen Agar, Humphrey Jennings and Conroy Maddox play with images of trains, boats, skies, rooms and mirrors to evoke a mood of eerie emptiness or postwar despair.
By the 1960s, interpretation has returned to the figure of Alice herself, who appears as a vacant pubescent blonde in Peter Blake’s bright screenprints, and elsewhere as Campaign Alice, Black Alice and Falling Alice. Most subversive are the photographs taken by Yayoi Kusama of an “Alice Happening” of 1968, in which nude male dancers in bodypaint and blond wigs pose by José de Creeft’s kitsch sculpture of Alice in Central Park, New York. By this stage Alice has lost her innocence, her curiosity and her conversational powers. She also loses her pinafore, and gains ringlets, breasts, a nightdress, even furs.
The Alice industry and the Alice inspiration come together in sections entitled “Alice Revisited” and “Reflections of Childhood”, in which the conceptual artworks depart yet further from their original inspiration and give an impression, not of engagement but of anything-will-do. Dan Graham’s “Girl’s Make-up Room” of 1998-2000, a construction from two-way mirror glass, perforated stainless steel, wooden stool and cosmetic articles, has a cold corporate feel, as do the video projections, typographical prints and coloured cardboard boxes that are only loosely tied to Carroll’s dutiful daughter.
A separate section downstairs, “Contemporary”, contains Annelies Strba’s gigantic coloured photographs and Jason Rhoades’ huge 2004 construction of hanging cables and neon lights. This is called “Tate Touche from My Madinah: in pursuit of my ermitage” – which might win the prize for the most off-putting title in the exhibition, although it is challenged by “English Heritage – Humpty Fucking Dumpty” (Bill Woodrow, 1987) and “Arsewoman in Wonderland Act 1” (Fiona Banner, 2001).
The catalogue reinforces the exhibition’s unintended lesson that licence does not always fruitfully liberate the imagination. The curator’s contribution is full of terms such as “synaesthetic multimediality”, “gestures of citation” and “productive friction”. Carol Mavor offers “An Alicious Annotated Fairy Tale”, a story with footnotes centred on a photograph of “Nancy” taken by the US photographer Emmet Gowin in Danville, Virginia, in 1969. The miscellaneous later works – hit and miss and chaotic, deliberately challenging to the pictorial – are accretions of Alice, parasitic on the legacy of the well-brought-up child of the deanery who first appears here in a photograph of 1858 taken by the 26-year-old Dodgson as a pensive six-year-old with dark bobbed hair.
Until January 29 www.tate.org.uk/liverpool
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