Impossible things before breakfast
At the V&A the lines between madness and sanity are blurred
I was late for my timed slot for Alice: Curiouser & Curiouser, having overslept after spending the previous evening drinking far too much champagne in Carlton Gardens in the soaring late-July heat. Gingerly descending the stairs into the relative cool of the Sainsbury Gallery I empathised entirely with Tweedle-Dum, in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. “I’m very brave, generally”, he assures the eponymous heroine, “only today I happen to have a headache”.
At first encounter my heart sank: the exhibition opens with a dark space so oppressively Victorian that all it lacks is a consumptive child in the corner, reading John Keble’s Christian Year on a chaise-longue and discretely coughing up blood into a handkerchief; obviously, he dies before the end. With my fellow inmates I stomped round grumpily, dutifully taking in the artefacts presented for our edification. It is all frightfully earnest: letters on loan from Christ Church Library; paintings sent from the National Gallery; a large neo-Gothic clock.
It is all rather whimsical, with a fun-for-all-the-family carefree air and photography encouraged
To be fair to the curators, this is Charles Dodgson’s world: starched and starchy, full of public morality and private wickedness, and one in which no one smiles in photographs. From today’s lofty vantage point Carroll’s own photography, of which selections are on display, jars against the mores of his own day. How healthily progressive for a clergyman to have had such a scientific hobby in an age of discovery; how sensitively artistic that his personal collection should have included images of pretty young girls in varying states of undress.
Dodgson cannot now defend himself, so insinuation is unfair; there is nothing to suggest that there was anything improper in his relationships with the many children whom he befriended in the course of his life, even though they unsettle contemporary sensibilities. Nevertheless, as Will Brooker observed nearly 20 years ago in Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture, Dodgson has for a long time come across as “a man you wouldn’t want your children to meet, yet [whose] stories are still presented as classics of pure, innocent literature.”
It is a distinction that the show observes, either consciously or unconsciously, for at the end of the room of dusty Victoriana a small dark passage leaves Carroll behind; the rest is given over to his enduring literary progeny. The transition is clearly intended to represent the rabbit-hole down which Alice tumbles, and it works well; from there on everything seems to be a step removed from reality, like being in a film by Wes Anderson, or in the mad cartoon bit in the middle of Mary Poppins, or even in the Kingdom of the Animals in Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
Visitors suddenly find themselves on an Edwardian pier, full of amusement booths charting the wondrous and varied transformations that Alice experiences after her arrival in Wonderland. It is all rather whimsical, with a fun-for-all-the-family carefree air and photography encouraged, but the boards end up suddenly tapering off, Dalí-like, and splintering in mid-air. The Surrealists have their place here, alongside John Tenniel, Walt Disney, Tim Burton, and a host of others. A giant mushroom signals a change of mood, and a turning of a corner.
The hippies of the Sixties saw the Carroll’s shroom-sitting, hookah-smoking caterpillar as a metaphor for the swamis and the prevailing drug culture. Why wouldn’t they have, these successors of the opium eaters, in the age of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds? Swirling patterns on the floor and dancing lights hammer the message home, as does Jefferson Airplane’s song White Rabbit. A virtual-reality experience, goggles and all, seals the deal; people sitting under giant pink flowers, pawing the air like tripping felines playing with slow, imaginary mice.
We find Alice in history; Alice in film; Alice in contemporary fashion; Alice in modern art. She ranges from the subtle to the explicit: from the discreet and learned note reminding us that “countries like Argentina and Spain have used Wonderland as a metaphor for national politics” to the shrieking campery of an enormous quotation on a wall at the fashion-show end, where Alice proclaims “I want to be a Queen.”
Some of the outfits are impressive and some are deranged; one looks like a giant albino peacock. Another from Japan is a replica of Alice’s now-trademark blue dress and white pinafore, designed for adult women. Given the well-documented Japanese obsession with seishun, which roughly translates as the peak of adolescence, this is discomfiting; it catapults its viewers right back to the start, and to Carroll’s infatuation (however innocent it may have been) with the little girl who inspired the whole business. It is no surprise that Alice has found her way into anime, too.
We find Alice in history; Alice in film; Alice in contemporary fashion; Alice in modern art. She ranges from the subtle to the explicit
Although the shades linger, Alice has long since left Victorian Oxford and become an international superstar; she now transcends time, race, class, culture, politics, and sexuality. She appears to be for everyone: whoever they are; wherever they come from; whatever they do; however they live. As the Dodo proclaims after the Wonderland Caucus Race, “everybody has won, and all must have prizes.” It is all a very far cry from genteel picnics in Christ Church Meadow, with the Isis gliding somnolently by, and the last century-and-a-half still to come.
The rooms go on and on, getting madder and more psychedelic with each stage; it might be simpler for the V&A just to have a couple of flunkeys handing out tabs of acid on Exhibition Road. The last space, a hall of mirrors with a wacky son-et-lumière installation, is totally indulgent; then again, perhaps we need bit of indulgence to drag us out of our shadowy coronavirus half-lives and back into full technicolour.
Indulgence often comes at a cost, of course. I made my way back upstairs still feeling slightly delicate and somewhat detached, blinking in the light, and trying to work out what had just happened to me. The exhibition is mind-bending; it brings together disparate and varied strands of this story and weaves them into an impressive, if sometimes bewildering, whole.
Heading to the exit, I meandered through the familiar sculpture gallery still half-convinced that one of the statues might be about to get down off its plinth for a chat, or be transmogrified into a grinning Cheshire Cat. Whoever put this spectacle together is either a genius, or a lunatic, or possibly both. Curiouser and curiouser, indeed.
Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser is at the V&A until 31 December.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe