The V&A’s mammoth show about Alice in Wonderland was due to open before the pandemic, but it’s all the better for a bit of delayed gratification. The only rabbit hole most of us have been down is how to make the perfect sourdough, so it feels genuinely good for the soul to wander around an exhibition which is an unapologetic celebration of brain-expanding curiosity. It’s the perfect antidote after months of staring at screens.
Alice, the Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat are imprinted in our minds, but most of us remember the Disney-ified version of Alice in Wonderland – Mary Blair’s illustrations are iconic, but they’re a bit male gazey. Her Alice was all wide eyes and flowing blonde locks, whereas the source material is an altogether stranger affair. (Re-reading it at uni, I remember thinking, “This book is weeeeird.”)
The exhibition kicks off with a deep dive into how Charles Dodgson – AKA Lewis Carroll – came up with the story back in the 1860s, in an era of emerging, enlightened ideas about education, culture and the natural world. As most of us know, he made it up to entertain a young girl called Alice Liddell (a friendship which furrows modern brows), but he also had all this great murmuration of influences swooping through his mind. It’s thrilling to imagine Dodgson’s brain buzzing with all of these brilliant new ideas, if you can get past the label fatigue in the first two rooms.
Dodgson recruited illustrator John Tenniel to bring the story to life, and early sketches are on display here, along with a meticulous plan for each of them. He then paid to have the book published himself, putting himself alongside 50 Shades of Grey in the ‘canniest self-publishers ever’ hall of fame. The book became a phenomenon, spawning merchandise, stage productions and films. The rest of the exhibition explores the extraordinary grip Alice still has on the imagination, from creatives as diverse as the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama to Heston Blumenthal.
There are costumes from shows at the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House, political sketches from the New Yorker (Malice in Blunderland, of course), and couture dresses, all inspired by Carroll’s creation. Throughout the exhibition, scenes from the book are brought spectacularly to life by designer Tom Piper, from the Mad Hatter’s tea party to a giant chess board, and there are lots of interactive elements to excite younger visitors too, including a VR headset and a hall of mirrors.
The show’s curators must have been spoilt for choice for this show – when you start to look, Alice turns up everywhere (even on my head, it seems – now I realise why it’s called an Alice band). What emerges is a sense that the novel always ends up reflecting different attitudes and fears of the time. In the 1960s, she was co-opted by the psychedelic movement – blame the hookah-smoking caterpillar. In 1971, the story was used in an educational video to discourage kids from using drugs; it was quickly withdrawn upon the realisation that the groovy visuals actually made taking drugs seem pretty attractive. And in 2000, Alice became the subject of a violent video game, returning to Wonderland after a stint in a psychiatric facility after a house fire killed her entire family.
After months of grey, dull days, the show feels special. If someone could put this exhibition in a tiny bottle with a label saying ‘drink me’, my advice would be to devour it.
Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser is at the V&A from May 22; vam.ac.uk