Illustrating Alice

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John Tenniel-Through the Looking-Glass
And what is the use of a book, thought Alice, without pictures or conversation?’ Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland 

It would indeed be hard to imagine the Alice books without illustrations. Lewis Carroll himself illustrated the original handwritten manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground that he gifted to Alice Liddell. However for the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Carroll approached the political cartoonist for Punch, John Tenniel. Tenniel proved to be an inspired choice and his illustrations for Alice’s Adventures and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice FoundThere have shaped the perception of Alice in the popular imagination to this day, the only serious rival being the Disney animated movie Alice in Wonderland from 1951.

Although Tenniel’s illustrations are iconic, it hasn’t stopped illustrators and artists in attempting to re-imagine Alice. With the lapsing of British copyright in 1907 saw thirteen editions with newly commissioned illustrations alone. While most did little more than update the dress of Alice to reflect the looser fashions of the day, Arthur Rackham watercolours did genuinely try to break with Tenniel’s imposing precedent.

The Surrealists adopted Alice as a patron saint of the movement. In their radical re-design of the traditional playing card deck Le Jeu de Marseille, Alice is the Siren of Stars. Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning are among the many Surrealists who produced works obviously inspired by Alice. It is barely an exaggeration to suggest that Balthus‘s entire oeuvre seems to implicitly reference the Alice books. In 1969 Salvador Dali produced 12 heliogravures for the Maecenas Press edition of Alice Adventures in Wonderland, which has since become a highly collectable item.

Among the other notable 20th Century versions of the Alice books is Mervyn Peake’s rather sinister Gothic interpenetration: Ralph Steadman who brings the savage lunacy of Wonderland to the forefront and  Tove Jansson’s delightfully whimsical rendition.

In the run-up to the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland there was a fresh slew of editions, the most notable being the British illustrator John Vernon Lord who also illustrated James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, a novel heavily indebted to the Alice books.

Here are some examples of Alice illustrations and other Alice inspired art work. I hope you will find them, as I do, a feast for the eyes and a chance, as Grace Slick so memorably sang, to ‘Feed Your Head’

Mad Tea Party
John Tenniel-A Mad Tea Party

Tenniel-Jabberwock[1]
John Tenniel-Jabberwocky
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Arthur Rackham-Rose Bushes 1907

Max Ernst-Alice in 1941
Max Ernst-Alice in 1941
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik 1943 by Dorothea Tanning 1910-2012
Dorothea Tanning-Eine Kleine Nachtmusik 1943
Balthus-The Street 1933
Balthus-the Street 1933

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Salvador Dali-Who Stole The Tarts? 1969
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Salvador Dali-Down The Rabbit Hole 1969

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Mervyn Peake-Chesire Cat 1946
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Ralph Steadman-Alice 1972

Down the rabbit hole
Ralph Steadman-Alice 1972

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Tove Jansson-Alice In Wonderland 1966
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John Vernon Lord-The Caterpillar 2009
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John Vernon Lord-Cheshire Cat 2009

Jabberwocky

Jabberwocky-John Tenniel 1871
Jabberwock-John Tenniel 1871

The only extant work of Looking-Glass World literature, Jabberwocky is undoubtedly the masterpiece of nonsense.

After stepping through the mirror and encountering the White King and Queen, Alice discovers a book. While initially mystified by its contents, Alice realises that it is a Looking-Glass Book and to be able to read it she must hold it up to the mirror. Alice’s reaction to the poem is an excellent summation of its abstract power; “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas-only I don’t exactly know what they are!”

Later Alice encounters the semantician Humpty Dumpty (see my post Glory for further details on their meeting), who deciphers the more unusual coinages of the first stanza. However, considering Humpty’s cavalier attitude to the exact meaning of words and Alice’s subsequent dismissal of Humpty as most unsatisfactory, combined with the markedly different interpretations that Carroll had previously stated leaves the poem eluding traditional, concrete definition.

Nonsense as a form would be used frequently by various Modernist movements, notably Dada and the Italian Futurists, yet they tend to lack the deftness of touch of either Carroll or Lear.

Jabberwocky

 

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
    Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
    And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son
    The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
    The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand;
    Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
    And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
    The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
    And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
    The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
    He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
    Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
    He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
    Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
    And the mome raths outgrabe.

Lewis Carroll-1871

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Jabberwocky creatures round the sundial-John Tenniel 1871
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Mervyn Peake-Jabberwock

Mirror||rorriM

 

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All mirrors are inherently mysterious and magical. The moment when Narcissus looked into the lake and realized that what he saw reflected was at one and the same time the self and an image was the moment of a great divide, a second Fall, but as certain Gnostic sects argued about the temptation of Eve and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden this recognition was a necessary loss of Innocence.  It was the first experience of a mediated reality. All was needed was the technical expertise to manufacture mirrors to disseminate this heightened self-awareness to every individual. And from mirrors it was only a matter of time before the camera and then film which led to the media landscape that envelops and dominates our perception today.

Voodoo mirror 2

Mirrors are mentioned frequently in myth, folk-lore and religion; not to mention in art and literature. In Corinthians Paul says of our knowledge of the divine ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known’. In Vodou, the syncretic religion practised widely in Haiti that combines elements of West African spirit religion, Catholicism and arguably Mesoamerican traditions, the altars of hounfours (temples) are decorated with mirrors as they are  conduits that the houngan use to contact the spirit world. Many cultures at many times held the tradition of covering all mirrors in the house when in mourning, this custom persists today in Judaism. In connection with a heresy held by one of the numerous Gnostic sects Borges states ‘Mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of men.’

In libertine fiction mirrors play a large part as they increase the pleasure of the moment and enables the libertine to view the erotic scene which they are  actively participating in. In the sparkling sophisticated jewel of a tale Point de lendemain (No Tomorrow) by Vivant Denon the artful heroine describes to her paramour the delights of her chamber with its reflective glass covering every wall, when he enters he is enchanted to find a ‘a vast cage of mirrors’ and then states that, ‘Desires are reproduced through their image’.

One of the most memorable mentions in fairy-tales of the deceptive nature of the looking-glass is the Magic Mirror of the Evil Queen in Snow White, which is a good illustration of William Blake’s quote  ‘A truth told with evil intent beats any lie you could invent.’

However for me the supreme moment for the mirror in literature is when Alice steps through to the other side of the looking glass. Ever since the phrase has been used to describe many different and varying experiences; the transfigured absolute reality glimpsed in insanity; the shifting contours of the nightly dreamscape, the heavens and hells of drug use (the John Tenniel illustration was reproduced on LSD blotters in the sixties) the transcendence achieved in sexual ecstasy, and ultimately death, that unknowing inevitable frontier where we hope that the outward appearance will vanish to be replaced for all eternity by our fundamental essence. For although mirrors are just surface and can deceive, distort and warp, they also always reveal something other than just ourselves.

Aliceroom3[1]


The Shooting Gallery

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The Shooting Gallery XII-Toyen 1939-1940
The Shooting Gallery is a haunting series of lithographs by the enigmatic Toyen, portraying a young girl wandering in a strange and ominous world of dislocations; especially in size and scale. To my mind The Shooting Gallery appears to be a particularly sinister Surrealist sequel to the Alice books.