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Saturday 11 May 2013

Alice in Wonderland through the Visual Arts, Tate Liverpool, review

Tate Liverpool’s 'Alice in Wonderland’ exhibition starts brightly – but then descends into incoherence, says Richard Dorment .

3 out of 5 stars
Alice Liddell in 1858 and, right, John Wesley's (Untitled) Falling Alice from 1963
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Alice Liddell in 1858 and, right, John Wesley's "(Untitled) Falling Alice" from 1963  Photo: National Portrait Gallery
Kiki Smith's 'Pool of Tears 2' (After Lewis Carroll), 2000
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Kiki Smith's 'Pool of Tears 2' (After Lewis Carroll), 2000  
Anna Gaskell Untitled #6 (wonder), 1996
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Anna Gaskell Untitled #6 (wonder), 1996 

Jonathan Miller, Tim Burton and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon: what do they all have in common, apart from their talent? The answer is that all three adapted Alice in Wonderland for the stage or screen and all three ended up, in my opinion, with thumping artistic failures. And they are only some of the more recent casualties in the great theatrical car crash that is Alice. The history of the theatre and the cinema is littered with unsuccessful adaptations of a literary text that simply cannot be translated into any other medium. For an adult actress, the simple act of putting on an Alice band has become the theatrical equivalent of ritual suicide.

The problem is that the book resists dramatisation. Whether you like Alice in Wonderland or not (I find it very hard to love), it is a slow read.

Its pace lulls the reader into a state between waking and sleeping where, like Alice, you grasp what is happening and hear what is being said but can’t quite find the logical connection between the image and the word. The story unfolds like a series of lantern slides projected on to a screen, lurching from one bizarre scenario to another without a rational thread to connect them. As in a dream, stuff just happens and there is no particular reason why the story should end. Alice just wakes up. When Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote that no author had ever succeeded in writing about a dream in a way that resembled “the real course of a dream, with all its inconsistency, its eccentricities and aimlessness” he forgot that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) had done just that.

Tate Liverpool’s ambitious exhibition about the impact of Alice in Wonderland on the visual arts starts promisingly with two galleries devoted to Dodgson’s life, his friendships in the Victorian art world, his interest in photography, his infatuation with the Liddell sisters, the writing of his masterpiece, and its reception.

The Oxford lecturer in mathematics who wrote Alice’s Adventures Under Ground to please the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church was also a distinguished amateur photographer with close friendships among the Pre-Raphaelites and their circle. Technically competent though Dodgson’s photographs are, his hand-drawn illustrations to the manuscript he presented to Alice Liddell as a Christmas present in 1862 are something more – evidence of a visual imagination close in spirit to the nonsense drawings of Edward Lear. In fact, one reason for the seamless join between Dodgson’s text and John Tenniel’s famous illustrations is that Tenniel took his lead from the author’s conception of the characters.

In this show, an extensive selection of later illustrated editions and merchandising spin-offs in the form of tea sets and playing cards of the book only confirm my belief that the book and its illustrations are best left alone. With so many later illustrators resorting to the easy option of whimsy, only Mervyn Peake came close to catching the troubling stillness at the heart of the book. Perhaps the problem is that no illustrator can improve on the graphic perfection of the original. Alice in Wonderland is such a strangely static book that to do it justice it needs to be interpreted by an artist of the stature of the symbolist Odilon Redon.

Had the show ended with the story of the book told through the original manuscripts, diaries, photographs and illustrations, you’d be reading a rave review. But as it moves into the 20th century, the exhibition descends headlong into incoherence, failing at so many different levels that it is frequently hard to say what on earth the works of art we are looking at have to do with the material we saw at the beginning.

Alice became a cult book for the Surrealists in the Thirties. The trouble is that a reference in their work to “Alice in Wonderland” became shorthand for any image that showed a strange, irrational or out-of-kilter world. In some pictures, such as the long-haired young girls in Victorian costume who sleepwalk and swoon in Dorothea Tanning’s A Little Night Music, there is indeed a direct link to the book and Tenniel’s illustrations. But it is hard to see any tangible reference to the book when Salvador Dalí plays with scale and perspective in Open Field with Ball in Centre of 1946 or in the work of Humphrey Jennings and Paul Nash. And though I accept that such British Surrealists knew the book well, when contemporaries labelled them “Children of Alice” did it really mean anything more than the use of the word “Kafkaesque” does today?

The revival of interest in Alice in Wonderland in the Sixties resulted in some of the worst Alice-related work in the show, from Adrian Piper’s canvases swirling with psychedelic colours to the insufferable whimsicality of Peter Blake’s screen-printed illustrations and Graham Ovenden’s soft-focus images of slightly too alluring little girls.

In film the situation is different. Everything I said about adaptations of Alice for the stage applies to Cecil Hepworth’s 1902 silent film. Walt Disney made a series of short, silent films called The Alice Comedies that combined live actors with animation. The one from 1923 being shown at Tate Liverpool has virtually nothing to do with Lewis Carroll’s story, and yet the idea of showing a real little girl interacting with lively cartoon characters does not entirely miss the point. Disney’s full-length cartoon version is arguably the most faithful 20th-century adaptation of the book.

By no means all the work in the show is terrible. Tim Rollins and the artist’s collective KOS (Kids of the Street) paste pages from the book on a large canvas, then superimpose a reproduction of one of Tenniel’s illustrations over the text in a work that comments on the book’s famous fusion of word and image. Kiki Smith simply reproduces on a very large canvas Dodgson’s illustration of the scene in which a tiny Alice swims with owls, dodo, cat, duck and birds in a pool of her tears.

That incredible artist Francesca Woodman photographs a naked young man wearing a rabbit’s head mask standing in the shadows of a shack. It is a deeply worrying image. Whether its psychological darkness has anything to do with Dodgson’s book I don’t know, but I suppose that the unexpected appearance of a rabbit in a lonely place must at some level put the viewer in the place of a lost child.

In terms of its ambition and originality Alice in Wonderland Through the Visual Arts has a lot going for it, particularly in the early galleries. What it needed was ruthless curatorial rigour ensuring that visitors understand what every work on view has to do with the show’s subject. Many of the catalogue essays are superb – but the author’s are so selective in the works of art they discuss that as a guide to the show they are useless. And the installation frequently fails to rise to the professional standards you expect at any national museum. Labels are perfunctory, and the lighting is dismal throughout, particularly in the vitrines where the books and manuscripts are on display. A smaller show in which the curator exerted tighter control could have been dazzling.

Until Jan 29

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