‘Alice in Wonderland’ exhibition review

This review was published in May 2016 in the Cuckoo Review here.

 

In my head, Alice in Wonderland would not be the obvious link between a Guinness advert, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama and some old engraver’s woodblocks. Yet a trip down the rabbit hole at the Laing Gallery’s new exhibition shows how all of these are connected by the canonical children’s favourite, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Marking the stories 150thanniversary, the exhibition has been put on by the British Library – with a few extra items on show due to the larger space available in the Laing gallery.

The exhibition is divided into two main rooms; the first re-familiarises visitors with the tale of what happens down the rabbit hole, roughly orchestrated into the twelve chapters. Each chapter is illustrated on 5ft tall playing cards depicting illustrations from a different adaptation. Out of a grass patch in the middle of the floor comes Alice’s stockinged legs diving down the hole.

The second room focuses on the main interest of the exhibition: the way in which the story has been adapted, and by whom, in the years since it was created. A copy of the original manuscript shows how different the original Alice was to what has become the household image – she has dark hair and a much sadder look in her eyes. Next to the original manuscript lies examples of the providence of its purchase, tracking the manuscript from England, to the States and finally back to the UK as a gift to the British Library from an American collector in 1948 (a gesture of thanks for our ‘gallantry in the Second World War’).

It’s a swirling world of black, red and white with dynamic and engaging pieces on show. Particularly interesting was the huge range of adaptations that the exhibition displays, from an early silent film clip, to dark and twisted illustrations by Ralph Steadman where the adventure has been transformed into a modern day commuter context – the rabbit is a commuter who is late for his train.

There are illuminating insights into Carroll and his relationship with his own tale, as well as the complicated and extensive publication history of the story; Carroll was a perfectionist, and published the tale at his own cost, rejecting the first batch that was produced because the quality of the illustrations was not professional enough.

A life-size Japanese street-style Lolita costume dominates the centre of the room – one of the many examples of fascinating international Alice adaptations and influence. As the 20thcentury progresses, Alice becomes darker and the focus shifts to the hallucinatory nature of the story – Salvador Dali’s illustrations have his signature melting clocks oozing down the rabbit hole.

A new surprise is around every corner and I left with a realisation that what I thought was an old-school English children’s tale has been, and is still, transforming and being reinterpreted around the world.

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