Alice in Wonderland

Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser at V&A

If we look into human civilisation, there was a time when knowledge was transmitted from one generation to another in the form of stories. Storytelling is deeply rooted in us and some stories have the power to transcend time, particularly those who speak about something that truly goes beyond words.

Victoria & Albert Museum
Victoria & Albert Museum

This is definitely the case of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published in November 1865, which is the focus of the latest exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum, here in London. Alice’s adventures began as an imaginative story told by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson to Alice Liddell and her sisters.

This exhibition feels like a journey, it starts with the origin and socio-political context of this popular children’s tale, and one does have a sense of going back in time when surrounded by original manuscripts and illustrations from the Victorian era.

Dodgson’s delight in wordplay infused his writing, even in the latinisation and reversal of his name to form his pseudonym, Lewis Carroll. The British Surrealist artist Eileen Agar described Lewis Carroll as a’ mysterious master of time and imagination’ and a ‘prophet of the future’.

He was already concerned with celebrity culture long before it exploded to today’s standards, when single individuals have millions of followers around the world.

“I have the greatest possible objection to my name appearing in any collection of autographs whatever… The whole tribe of autograph-hunters and celebrity-hunters are distasteful to me, and cause me a good deal of worry.” Lewis Carroll

He was a visionary and his work has touched and continues to touch many people, triggering a wide range of interpretations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in art, theatre, film, ballet, music, advertising and fashion.

The Royal Ballet

Zenaida Yanowsky as The Red Queen in Christopher Wheeldon's ballet Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The Royal Ballet. ©ROH, Johan Persson, 2011. Sets and costumes by Bob Crowley.

One of the most spectacular was definitely created on film by Tim Burton. He was the first director to fully integrate live action and CGI into an Alice film, digitising costumes so they could be recreated in 3D, and using a blend of CGI, animation and live action to create hybrid characters.

For those of us who love fashion, there are a few special treats including the infinity dress by Iris van Herpen, renowned for her 3D print work, from her ‘Hypnosis’ couture collection (Autumn 2019), and photographs of memorable fashion editorials inspired by Alice.

Annie Leibovitz photographed one for American Vogue magazine with model Natalia Vodianova in 2003, inviting leading fashion designers to reimagine her adventures in Wonderland. It’s definitely one of my favourite fashion editorials of all time!

It includes the dress by Viktor & Rolf pictured here, which is also on display. Another brilliant interpretation is by Tim Walker, famous for the otherworldly quality of his work, who photographed only black models for the 45th edition of the Pirelli Calendar in 2018, with art direction by Edward Enninful, the editor-in-chief of British Vogue.

“To see a black Alice today means children of all races can embrace the idea of diversity from a very young age and acknowledge that beauty comes in all colours.” Edward Enninful

There’s an immersive quality to the whole experience of going through an inspiring exhibition, but this one takes it up a notch by having not only surprising interactive spaces with distorted mirrors and psychedelic projections, but also VR sets, where you can play a 3D game in Wonderland.

When enclosed inside a room with distorted mirrors, one can see different projections of oneself, and this is such an accurate depiction of the world we’re living, populated by deep fakes, animated personas, social media filters, video games skins and virtual fashion…

It’s fascinating to know that the Alice books author was already intrigued by ‘fallacies’, correct calculations that can produce untrue results, despite being based on sound algorithms.

He believed that fallacies could help students to sort truth from fiction, not only in maths, but in all aspects of life. He inspired the work of Jorge Luis Borges, that triggered the postmodern concept of hyperreality, coined by French sociologist Jean Baudrillard.

“Hyperreality tricks consciousness into detaching from any real emotional engagement, instead opting for artificial simulation, and endless reproductions of fundamentally empty appearance.” in Wikipedia

Alice’s questioning of the line between perception and reality resonates particularly with the time we’re living now, when so much of out lives happens virtually: entertainment, work, dating, socialising, exercising… It’s almost ironic that such a timeless story is captured in such a timely fashion!

ALICE: Curiouser & Curiouser

22 May - 31 December 2021

Victoria & Albert Museum