Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Alice is changing!

The evolution and of an iconic image

This article is a brief attempt to map the evolution of a much-loved figure but one which has been subject to radical changes over time

Many artists have risen to the challenge of illustrating Lewis Carroll's two most celebrated books but none have yet acquired the iconic status of Sir John Tenniel's original drawings - subsequently engraved on wood by Orlando Jewitt.

While Tenniel was - for fifty years - principal illustrator for 'Punch' magazine, it is the 'Alice' books (1865 and1871) upon which his reputation rests

Indeed, Tenniel's 'Alice' is the only Alice that had Lewis Carroll's own seal of approval.
Despite having a head that is perhaps too large for her body, this image rapidly acquired general 'acceptance'

In a later edition, Tenniel allowed his original engravings to be colored - thereby determining for ever that Alice's dress was blue. Although allegedly modeled on Alice Liddell - the 'real' Alice - this child is older and has a thoughtful, somewhat quizzical look about her

What Tenniel captures so wonderfully is the surreal nature of  Alice's adventures underground. The startled look and position of both arms in the above illustration is subtle but also very effective dramatically

Arthur Rackham's 1907 edition marks a move to a more realistic representation of Alice

Rackham's own seven-year-old daughter Barbara may have been the original model but the young girl above is surely in her teens

What he also  brings to the table is a greater sense of drama, coupled with superior graphic skills. The swirl of Alice's dress in the above illustration is beautifully rendered - as is her startled expression.

This is a new and very real 'Alice'

Mervyn Peake 1946

One of the best modern artists to tackle Alice is Mervyn Peake.

He is, moreover, one of the first to raise the tricky issue of sex - a theme that is already an integral part of the Alice story, whether we like it or not.

In a recent biography, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst explores issues surrounding Dodgson's own sexuality. It does not make for comfortable reading

Not surprisingly, given our culture, subsequent 'Alices' rapidly acquired a thoroughly modern sexuality - quite at odds with Tenniel's prim and very proper, quintessential Victorian child

 In the above illustration by Brian Partridge, we have a confident Alice that not only returns the spectator's gaze but shows a 'nonchalance' in her body language that is almost provocative

Greg Hildebrandt's Alice (1990) takes this even further with an older Alice that is both thoughtful and a little remote. She is no longer a child but a young teenager

Indeed, as the story unfolds, she acquires further maturity, transforming into a somewhat thoughtful young  woman - even with a very long neck!

The temptation to add a sexual element - albeit unwittingly - is even present in Hildebrandt's sensitive illustrations:

Indeed, Alice's legs and petticoat acquire a graphic importance that far exceeds dramatic or narrative requirements and marks a trend that will become increasingly apparent

In more recent times, another trend emerges whereby Alice acquires the look and attributes of a puppet - as in the above illustration by Zdenko Basic

I particularly like this artist's attention to detail -  as in the rag-like clothing of his Alice figure below. Note also her hair that appears to be made of string:

This is part of a contemporary creative interest in 'dolls' that is now widespread, partly due to new modelling techniques and materials.

The illustration below is an example of what I mean:

There is something disturbing about these figures but it is, never-the-less, a legitimate art form that even has its origins in Surrealism.

That, coupled with a contemporary preoccupation with 'fairies' has given this  new art form an impetus that is quite astonishing:

Meanwhile, back on the Alice trail, some contemporary artists - such as puppeteer and film-maker Jan Svankmajer - merge a realistic Alice with a Mad Hatter that appears to be made of wood:

Salvador Dali also gives his Alice an abstract quality in a series of lush prints that are quite astonishing. I first saw the entire collection in Prague and was bowled over

Equally striking is the work of Julia Gukova (1991) who pushes this surreal element even further, emphasizing the psychological pressures that Alice must experience on her journey.

The illustration below has something of Kafka about it:

Note the differences in the orthognals (lines of perspective) on either side of the table, suggesting perhaps that Alice is teetering on the edge of alternative realities

In my own work on Alice I have tried to give an added dimension, partly sexual but also one in which Alice - returning to Wonderland as a young woman - discovers that much has changed and not necessarily for the better!

Indeed, I am forcing Alice to face her own emerging sexuality and to engage in modern sensibilities whereby desire, no longer sublimated, is squarely addressed

The problem of how to avoid creating a 'sexy' Alice is probably there from the start.

Indeed, Lewis Carroll himself photographed his 'child friends' in the nude. Although this was done under parental supervision it leaves a queasy feeling, especially when considering that this 'obsession' lasted throughout his adult life

Illustrators of the Alice books have themselves frequently fallen into this trap, some more blatantly than others:

Indeed, falling down the rabbit hole - with which the novel begins - has always been something of a challenge to illustrators

Sometimes it is depicted with great delicacy and graphic skill - as in the illustration below:

Often, however, it becomes merely an excuse to look up a young girl's skirt - a reflection perhaps of a modern obsession increasingly evident in Japanese 'comics' and other related forms of graphic yet widely published 'pedophilia'

These are not comfortable themes but Modernism has always pushed the envelope and an iconic figure such as Alice is an inevitable target perhaps for radical, even drastic malformations

It is at this point that another theme emerges, namely drugs.

 While opium may have had a medical use in Victorian times, contemporary illustrators have seized the opportunity present within the Wonderland books to exploit this idea so that Wonderland itself takes on an increasingly surreal, hallucinogenic quality that graphically, at least, gives enormous scope

Part of this process involves the demonization of the Mad Hatter himself - clearly a drug-crazed lecher intent on corrupting Alice

What is even more troubling perhaps is that Alice herself is not adverse to this process. She now shows not only a full awareness of her sexuality but a predilection to flaunt it:

The above illustration shows a 'Some like it hot' Marylin Monroe moment in which even a lecherous White Rabbit gets in on the act with an electric fan!

If that were not bad enough, she now acquires a demonic nature of her own in which sex and implicit violence join forces in ways that are quite disturbing

While this transformation of our beloved Alice may trouble some readers, it is the function of art to challenge all that is normative or 'established' and create new forms and sensibilities.

You may not like this process but you must admit that we have come a long way from Tenniel's innocent child to the sexually provocative, fashion icon shown below:

Mike Healey

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