It is worth going down the rabbit hole to explore the world that Lewis Carroll created and how it is still proving to be influential on all types of artists.
As always with an exhibition of this size, the Victoria and Albert Museum have gone all out to make sure that visitors are completely absorbed in what they are experiencing – but it certainly feels as though on this occasion the museum has taken it a step further.
With Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser the aim is to examine just why Lewis Carroll’s popular children’s story continues to fascinate with not only readers but from artists from all sorts of media – including film, theatre, photography and art. Through its playful quality, this exhibition certainly feels as though there is plenty to be discovered to create an atmosphere that really makes the visitor themselves feel curious about what they are going to experience next – it keeps you guessing and makes you feel like a child again.
Complete with immaculately designed rooms that will delight all those young and old, this immersive experience effectively takes you through the journey of the book from how Lewis Carroll came to write it, how it then became a cultural influence and how the themes covered in the book can still be relatable for readers today.
Every aspect of the book is covered effectively – including the food and drink element with a stunning installation devoted to the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party which is matched with a film by the chef Heston Blumenthal who attempted to make his own mock turtle soup over several days, with the White Rabbit’s fob watch ultimately dissolving in a gilded consommé. Meanwhile, the theme of identity is wonderfully focused on in the thought-provoking final section.
Meanwhile, it was fascinating to see early film adaptations of the story – starting with the silent films in the early 1900’s through to Disney’s famous animated 1951 adaptation and beyond. It shows how the character of Alice has adapted and transformed over the decades she has been seen as an influential cultural character. Many of us will recognise Mary Blair’s illustrations for the film as proving to be one of the most famous interpretations of the characters from the story that fully embraces and celebrates the nonsensical elements of the story. The film section feels particularly vibrant as does the surrealist section – complete with Cheshire Cat beaming at you one moment before disappearing.
But equally as fascinating early on in the exhibition is the way in which it uncovers the background to the book itself, covering how Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll’s real name) came up with the concept for the book at a time when great changes were happening in society. The amount of information in the first two rooms can be slightly overwhelming to read and not all of it necessary – but it is wonderful to see a copy of the original publication as well as John Tenniel’s beautifully delicate original illustrations.
It is extraordinary to think just how influential this story is – particularly when viewing some of the wonderful costumes and outfits that have been inspired by this world, not only in terms of fashion but in terms of theatre and ballet that reveal just how open to interpretation this children’s book is.
While there are perhaps moments in the display which could have gone into further depth about why this book has proved so influential on artists, there is no denying that this is a bold and colourful exhibition that invites the visitor to get lost in Wonderland and emerge feeling more enlightened.
By Emma Clarendon
Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser is on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum until the 31st December.