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ART REVIEW: "Alice IN the Looking Glass: Illustrations and Artists' Books, 1865-2012"

Strange little girls


The day after I went to see "Alice IN the Looking Glass," an exhibit of wonderful illustrations and books currently at the University of Rochester, I was walking to a meeting downtown when I noticed a white rabbit stenciled low on a wall. My attention was piqued, and I instantly began eyeing the vicinity for what the artist may or may not have wanted to point out. Or, for a trail of rabbits to follow. Such is the enduring legacy of author Lewis Carroll, who couldn't have guessed that the fantastical story he created in 1864 as a gift for a young friend would still make such an impact almost 150 years later.

Visitors to the exhibit learn that the co-curator and collector, Jeanne Harper, is a member of rich and active Lewis Carroll societies of North America and Great Britain, both academic and enthusiastic. For this fascinating show, Harper and her co-curator, Leah Hamilton, share insight into Carroll's life and how Alice and her adventures were interpreted over the past century and a half. This is presented through Harper's collection of illustrated international volumes of Carroll's iconic works, as well as related artworks by various artists.

In the entryway of the Rush Rhees Library's Rare Books and Special Collections department, posted information paints the picture of Carroll as a Victorian-age Renaissance man (mathematician, logician, writer, photographer, and teacher). His actual name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and he wrote and illustrated "Alice's Adventures Underground" for young Alice Liddell. The story so captivated all who read it that after many requests, Dodgson published it as "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" in late 1885, under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll.

The book and its sequel, "Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There," have enthralled readers of all ages, have never been out of print, have been translated to more than 100 languages, and have been illustrated by many notable artists throughout the years.

Elements from the stories are also ubiquitous in other art and in pop culture. The directive to follow the white rabbit kicks off Neo's trip down a code-constructed rabbit hole in the 1990's film "The Matrix." Glasgow-based indie rock band Franz Ferdinand has a song called "The Lobster Quadrille." And the exhibit itself offers the printed lyrics of Jefferson Airplane's allusion-filled song, "White Rabbit."

When visitors enter the narrow corridor into the department, they find themselves flanked on one side by low cases providing the history of the first editions of Alice's adventures from gift to publication to the subsequent stories and other volumes of "nonsense" tales and poetry by Carroll.

On the other side of the passage, tall cases show off the diversity of imagery created by artists from around the world who envisioned Alice and the most iconic scenes quite differently. Reproduction prints of illustrations by artists from Australia, Germany, England, France, Italy, and elsewhere depict the vanishing, cryptic Cheshire Cat, the chaotic tea party, Alice's expanded body spilling out of openings of the White Rabbit's house, the meeting with the riddlesome, hookah-puffing Caterpillar, miniature Alice swimming in a sea of her own regretted tears, and the ever-enraged Queen of Hearts.

In Vienna-born, Germany- and Holland-based artist Lisbeth Zwergler's orderly tea party, the characters stare into separate space and barely interact at all, while Thorsten Tenberken's acrylics and chalk rendition reveal a red-haired Alice amid delicious, dreadful darkness.

Canandaigua-based artist Nancy Wiley made the Wonderland characters into dolls, then photographed them in sets she created. Included in the exhibit is a print of her portrait of Alice shielding herself from the tormenting deck of cards, paired with the actual White Rabbit doll she created.

This case also holds examples of advertisements that used the iconic stories to sell various products, from insurance to beer. Guinness adverts from the 1950's incorporated the beer in Wonderland scenes and verses: "Whenever I lose my patience," said the Queen, "I have a Guinness."

On the surface Victorian England was an orderly pressure-cooker of a buttoned-up, repressed culture. But curiosity and bewilderment were never unfamiliar to anyone, and have always resonated among many readers. In the midst of children's literature that featured fairies and elves, or provided moralizing tales, the heroine of the Alice stories was "curious and independent: a spunky little girl who asks questions and challenges authority," says Harper in the provided information.

Harper's looking-glass collection offers a reflection of changes in art, design, and society over the 20th century. Here, the various Alices range from the very young and innocent poppet in illustrations by British artist Mabel Lucie Atwell, who J.M. Barrie personally asked to illustrate his "Peter Pan," to the mixed-media, dream-and-delirium depictions created by Salvador Dalí, to the gonzo freak-out imagery by Ralph Steadman.

In 1907, the original wide-release Alice illustrator John Tenniel's copyright expired, enabling Arthur Rackham, among others, to legally produce his own dreamy versions of the imagery. In the 1920's, Willy Pogany's young flapper Alice sported short-cropped hair, pouty lips, and fine-drawn brows amid Art Deco elements.

A section on international editions holds Alices from Poland, Hungary, Brazil, Ukraine, Portugal, and Finland. An Arabic translation printed in Cairo features Alice with kohl-lined eyes, and images from "Alitji in the Dreamtime," an Aboriginal version of the tale illustrated by Byronn S. Sewall, include the White Rabbit transformed into a very anxious kangaroo.

Small subdivisions focus on artists' books or small and fine-press editions, such as the 2000 Paris-published work by Spanish painter Julio Pomar, with a rather Cubist-looking panoramic pullout page. Carroll's confounding poem "Jabberwocky" gets its own tiny section, offering some of the most terrifying and intriguing artworks. Here, interpretations ranges from the reptilian bird-beast of beloved British illustrator Graeme Base, to the allegorical adult-world monster of Stéphane Jorisch's socio-political depiction.

A 1959 Guinness advert from the "Alice" exhibit at University of Rochester's Rush Rhees Library.