Once More Down the Rabbit Hole
by Inga Walton
Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end! “I wonder how many miles I’ve fallen by this time?”, she said aloud. “I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth. Let me see: that would be four thousand miles down, I think-” … “I wonder if I shall fall right through the earth! How funny it’ll seem to come out among the people that walk with their heads downwards! The Antipathies, I think-” (she was rather glad there was no one listening, this time, as it didn’t sound at all the right word) “-but I shall have to ask them what the name of the country is, you know. Please, Ma’am, is this New Zealand or Australia?” 1
Curated by Jessica Bram and Sarah Tutton, Wonderland at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) (until 7 October, 2018), presents a compelling survey of this most captivating literary character and her strange cohorts. From the silent short film Alice In Wonderland (Cecil M. Hepworth and Percy Stow, 1903) to the carnivalesque excesses of Alice Through the Looking Glass (James Bobin, 2016), film makers have been unable to resist the escapist potential offered by these stories. Alice’s fantastic filmic adventures are enhanced by more than 300 various objects including costumes, props, original film cells, production stills, character sketches, maquettes, and promotional items.
Lewis Carroll, the pseudonym of the Revd Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-98), could not have anticipated the worldwide influence of his improvised story, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, told in order to amuse the three small daughters of his Dean during a boat trip, 4 July, 1862. Henry Liddell (1811-98), the Dean at Christ Church college, Oxford, and his wife Lorina, had ten children including those associated with Dodgson, Harry (1847-1911), Edith (1854-76), Lorina (1849-1930), and of course Alice Liddell (1852-1934). It was Alice who implored Dodgson to commit the entertaining story to paper; he duly presented her with a handwritten and illustrated copy in November, 1864.2
The Scottish author and Christian minister George MacDonald (1824-1905), recognised as a pioneering figure in the field of fantasy literature, became something of a mentor to Dodgson. After reading the incomplete manuscript of Alice, and sharing it with his children, MacDonald encouraged him to approach a publisher with the work.3 Macmillan & Co. responded enthusiastically; Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) was an overwhelming commercial success, prompting a sequel Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There (1872). Dodgson would lecture in mathematics at Christ Church from 1855 onwards, although his academic career, inventions, and scholarly publications were dwarfed by the success of his children’s books.
Since 1903, there have been over forty various film and short film adaptations of the ‘Alice stories’, including parodies and works based on verse interludes within the books, such as Jabberwocky (1871). The nonsense poem was the basis of a short film by Jan Švankmajer (1971), and the feature film by Terry Gilliam (1977). Fictionalised accounts of the life of Alice Liddell, and her relationship to Dodgson, have been the subject of two biographical films. The black-and-white Alice (Dennis Potter, 1965), was screened as part of the BBC television series The Wednesday Play (1964-70), and the later Dreamchild (Gavin Millar, 1985), was also scripted by Potter. The ‘Alice books’ offer a narrative that allows directors to fashion a dreamscape of their choosing, limited only by compromises in production and the pace of development in the field of special effects.
Although still in black-and-white, the Paramount film Alice In Wonderland (Norman Z. McLeod, 1933) had pioneering special effects by five-time Academy Award winner Gordon Jennings (1896-1953), and one of Hollywood’s foremost technical innovators, (Alexander) Farciot Edouart (1894-1980), who would be honoured with ten Academy Awards in the course of his career. It also included an animated segment, ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’, by two important figures in the development of the genre, Hugh Harman (1903-82) and Rudolf Ising (1903-92). Despite an all-star cast including Cary Grant (Mock Turtle), Gary Cooper (White Knight), and W. C. Fields (Humpty-Dumpty), the film performed poorly in Depression-era America, but remains one of the more ambitious and technically advanced productions to tackle the material. Paramount invited Alice Hargreaves (née Liddell) to a preview screening, who duly gave a favourable review, “I am delighted with the film and am now convinced that only through the medium of the talking picture could this delicious fantasy be tastefully interpreted”.
Walt Disney (1901-66) planned to produce an animated/live-action film based on the ‘Alice books’, intending it to be the studio’s first feature-length film. One of the biggest stars in the industry, Mary Pickford (1892-1979), who was then in her forties, went through a Technicolour screen test for the role. The test footage, and publicity portraits featuring Pickford as Alice, are displayed. Further development of the project was halted soon after Paramount beat Disney to the punch. Disney was nothing if not a patient man, and would have one of his greatest triumphs some eighteen years later with the animated Alice in Wonderland (Clyde Geronimi and Wilfred Jackson, 1951). The ten year-old English actress Kathryn Beaumont provided the voice and movement references for Alice, performing on a near-empty soundstage with minimal props and sets. So important was the film to the Disney studio that a ‘making of’ promotional film, Operation Wonderland (Robert Florey, 1951), was produced, hosted by the light opera singer and musical performer James Melton (1904-61).
The highlight of the exhibition occurs in the section called A Mad Tea Party, which takes its title from Chapter 7 in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. A digital tea party has been installed where visitors are invited to sit at the Mad Hatter’s table and watch the room come to life around them over the course of the presentation. Filmed performances have been eschewed in favour of an expansive environment that positions the audience as the actors. Viewers sit amidst a backdrop of floating text from the books, a forest of giant mushrooms, alarm clocks and ticking pocket watches, and an expanse of abandoned china tea pots, cups, saucers and large golden keys strewn across a desert. Scenes from some of the filmed adaptations are projected onto plates on the table: macarons, trifles and cakes materialise, as ants march across the not-lace tablecloth. “The ‘Mad Tea Party’ experience is part of an overarching curatorial thesis that focusses on celebrating Alice’s life on screen to reveal the evolution in film craft and special effects”, explains co-curator Bram. “That we first meet Alice in moving image form in a silent, black and white nine-minute adaptation in 1903 and still see her in 2010 in a blended live-action/VFX world is extraordinary – not to mention all the iterations in between. It was hugely important for us to be able to reflect contemporary filmmaking practice, and the ‘Tea Party’ was born out of that desire”.
The Sydney-based firm Grumpy Sailor was part of a small group of similar agencies that submitted tenders for the project. “They responded to a tight brief that had been conceived by the ACMI curators that articulated the Mad Hatter experience as magical, immersive and surprising, as well as unveiling the stages involved in building VFX worlds”, Bram relates. “From the earliest imaginings, the ACMI curators wanted this part of the Wonderland journey to reflect contemporary digital filmmaking processes – from wireframe outline to shape, shadow, texture, colour, movement, detail, to the fully realised world”.
Claire Evans and James Boyce, directors of Grumpy Sailor, led the team that worked closely with ACMI’s exhibition designer Anna Tregloan to create the ‘Tea Party’ room. “The vision for this experience as a fully projection-mapped room and tabletop was extremely ambitious, and it took both Grumpy Sailor and the expertise of ACMI’s own audio-visual team to properly realise it. The structure of the space and the overhead truss were specifically designed to support eleven cutting-edge Panasonic projectors, and the 3D objects on the table were digitally printed to make sure that every aspect of the built environment was perfectly aligned”, says Bram. “It took several months of working together, in collaboration with sound designer Byron Scullin and composer Cornel Wilczek, and an intense period of installation to bring the ‘Tea Party’ to life”.
The outlandish costumes for the NBC television production Alice Through the Looking Glass (Alan Handley, 1966) won the first Emmy Award for costume design in 1967. Fashion designer Bob Mackie, best known for his outrageous creations for the singer and actress Cher, worked with his partner Ray Aghayan (1928-2011) on the striking ensembles such as Queen’s Court Clubs gown, King’s Court Hearts tunic, and Queen’s Court Diamonds gown (all 1966). Another television adaptation, the two-part Alice In Wonderland (Harry Harris, 1985), also won the Emmy for costume designs by Paul Zastupnevich (1921-97). Character masks for the Walrus and the Gryphon (1985) were worn by Karl Malden (1912-2009) and Sid Caesar (1922-2014) respectively.
A selection of costumes and original sketches by designer Colleen Atwood from Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland (2010) allow the audience to gain an insight into their working relationship. To date, Atwood has collaborated with Burton on twelve films that he has either directed or produced, from Edward Scissorhands (1990) to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016). “He and I talk about the characters. I go to him with my ideas, with images, with boards, with textiles… He does his edit on what I’ve brought to the table, and then tells me a few little nuggetty ideas he has about the character. It isn’t really a conversation with a lot of people. It’s usually a one-on-one thing”, Atwood comments.4 Atwood won her fourth Academy Award for Best Costume Design for her work on the film.
For the Mad Hatter suit with hat and wig (2010) worn by Johnny Depp, Atwood was concerned to emphasise the character’s profession. “In the script he came from being a hat maker, which is something that has a lot of little tools. I combined them in the costume and Johnny really embraced that side of the character and really loved all those elements”, Atwood notes. “So I did the bandolier with the threads and I did all those accessories that you see on the costume, taking the colours of happiness and making them part of his costume. We did a lot of textile work on his clothes, little pattern things, that were pieces of material sewn onto other pieces of material. It’s fairly subtle, but it gives it more texture and a bit more life on camera”.5
‘Iracebeth’, the ‘Red Queen’ in Burton’s film, is an amalgam of two of Carroll’s characters, the Queen of Hearts and the Red Queen, played with crashing pantomime ferocity by actress Helena Bonham Carter, CBE. The character’s head is swelled to comic proportions with the aid of CGI,
…her head grew, but her neck stayed the same size… What I had to do was create a longer neck for her through her costume. Instead of her bodice starting where it would normally start – straight across at your armpit level – I cheated down the neckline of the dress two or three inches, so the length between the bottom of her face when her head grew and the top of her bodice was a normal perspective, instead of looking like this giant head which was just plonked onto the little body. To help that along, I put black velvet on the side of the bodices, which helped shave in the waist – her waist is extremely tiny, almost ant-like.6
The Red Queen costume (2010), her rings and sceptre, show Atwood’s repetition of the same motif, “a version of the heart theme. I wanted to keep it playful and keep it a little cheesy because the Red Queen is, in fact, a bit tacky”.
The conclusion to Wonderland edits together various visual representations of Alice, and other characters from the stories, sourced across multiple visual platforms including film, television, music video, advertising and video games to ponder the rhetorical question ‘who is Alice?’ Displayed across a bank of eighteen screens, ‘Alice’s Evidence’ incorporates passing references from other media in order to demonstrate the extent of the cultural influence Dodgson’s stories continue to exert. For example, the Star Trek episode Shore Leave (Robert Sparr, 1966) finds the crew of the Enterprise on an alien planet, and features a scene in which ‘Dr. McCoy’ sees a large white rabbit pursued by a blonde girl in a blue dress. The pivotal blue pill/red pill scene from The Matrix (Lana and Lilly Wachowski, 1999) occurs after computer programmer Thomas ‘Neo’ Anderson follows the White Rabbit and is brought to meet ‘Morpheus’, who then invites ‘Neo’ to discover the truth about their dystopian, synthesised ‘reality’.
The animated sitcom The Simpsons (1989-) is the longest-running American scripted primetime television series, now in its thirtieth season. The programme’s writers have referenced Dodgson’s works eight times, usually featuring the character of ‘Lisa Simpson’. In the episode Treehouse of Horror XXIV (Rob Oliver, 2013) from Season 25, Lisa (dressed as Alice) falls through the couch in the family home and down a shaft surrounded by clocks, tea sets and playing cards, only to land on a pink mushroom. The character of ‘Dolores Abernathy’ in the television series Westworld (2016) is a rancher’s daughter in the American frontier who wears a blue dress and has long blonde hair. In the course of the first season, Abernathy discovers she is actually an android, and the oldest ‘host’ still working in the vast theme park. The thematic connection to Dodgson’s work is made explicit in the episode The Stray (Neil Marshall, 2016) when ‘Bernard Lowe’, head of the park’s programming division, invites Abernathy to ponder the nature of her existence. Lowe instructs her to read a passage from Alice’s Adventures in order to probe her consciousness: “Dear, dear! How queer everything is today? And yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night?”. 7
Included in the montage is the psychedelic song White Rabbit (c.1966) that appeared on the Jefferson Airplane album Surrealistic Pillow (1967), and was written by Grace Slick in the space of an hour, reportedly after using LSD. The song, solemnly intoned by Slick, was based on the structure of Maurice Ravel’s Boléro (1928). Slick recounts that she went to her school’s Halloween parade as Alice, “I was about the right age, eight, and at that time, I had long blonde hair, so apart from being a bit too chubby, it was probably the closest I came to actually looking like the character I’d chosen to inhabit for the day”.8 The song’s pithy lyrics reflect Slick’s later ambivalence towards what she felt were parental mixed messages, and wider generational hypocrisy, concerning drug intake in the era when she was growing up.
In Slick’s view Alice was, “…the biggest druggie of them all… who uses chemicals that literally get her high, tall, and short – DRINK ME, EAT ME. She takes a bite out of the Caterpillar’s ‘magic’ mushroom (psilocybin) and pulls a toke from his hookah (hashish). The girl is thoroughly ripped all the way through the book. And our parents wondered why we were ‘curiouser and curiouser’ about drugs”.9 The song’s closing lines, “Remember what the Dormouse said, ‘Feed your head, feed your head’”, are Slick’s invention. In the trial of ‘Who Stole the Tarts?’ (Chapter 11), when asked by one of the jury, “‘But what did the Dormouse say?’… ‘That I ca’n’t remember’, said the Hatter”.10
White Rabbit has also been credited with being the first single that managed to obscure drug references within the lyrics in order to subvert the American censors for radio broadcast. “I also had a long-standing love affair with Alice In Wonderland… it’s about following your curiosity. The White Rabbit is your curiosity. Alice follows him wherever he goes. He leads her to drugs, though, and that’s why the song was written”, Slick has stated. “Hey, all major children’s books do this. In ‘Peter Pan’ sparkle dust lets you fly. In the [Wonderful] Wizard of Oz , they awaken in a poppy field to see the beautiful Emerald City. Our parents read us stories about chemicals that make it possible to have a good time”.11
The music video for White Rabbit was directed by producer, screenwriter, and cult film auteur Ray Dennis Steckler (1938-2009), and features his then wife Carolyn Brandt posing at a beach, briefly intercut with chess pieces on a board, and a live caterpillar. Perhaps to counter the influence of the song, the American Department of Health, Education and Welfare produced the twelve-minute anti-drug film Curious Alice (1968) to ‘educate’ public school children about the dangers of ingesting unknown substances in the home.
The visual potential of Dodgson’s imaginary world has captivated subsequent musicians and performers. The Aerosmith song Sunshine (2001), also a street name for LSD, contains numerous references to events and characters from the books. The video, directed by American artist and cinematographer Samuel Bayer, depicts singer Steven Tyler as the Mad Hatter in a forest where Alice is menaced by the Cheshire Cat and dances with the White Rabbit, all under the imperious gaze of the Red Queen. Gwen Stefani’s music video for What You Waiting For? (Francis Lawrence, 2004) sees her portray the Red Queen, the White Queen and Alice herself, decked out in Christian Dior haute couture by John Galliano, CBE. The song Just Like Fire (2016) by Pink (Alecia Moore) appears on the soundtrack to Alice Through the Looking Glass, and was released ahead of the film’s American première. Directed by Dave Meyers, the video commences with the singer hanging upside down, suspended by silk bands from the ceiling in an ornate drawing room. The expected visual tropes of a blue butterfly, a semi-permeable mirror, a giant chessboard (populated by Pink dressed as various chess pieces), and the Mad Hatter’s tea party are duly observed.
Curiously and curiously, one of the best known representations of Alice in popular culture is missing from the closing sequence, Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s video for the song Don’t Come Around Here No More (Jeff Stein, 1985). Dave Stewart, who co-wrote the song with Petty, had the idea to use the Mad Hatter’s tea party as the video’s theme. It reflected the strange circumstances that occurred, and the famous people Stewart met, during the Los Angeles leg of the Eurythmics world tour in 1984.
[Stein] put together an Escheresque set with forced perspective, using black-and-white tiles juxtaposed with wild-coloured costumes for the band. In the beginning of the video, it’s me as the caterpillar, sitting on a giant mushroom, playing the sitar and smoking a hookah pipe. I’ve got these crazy long fake fingernails that I use to summon Alice up the mushroom steps. I offer her a poisonous cupcake. With some smoke, I blow her tumbling down the steps and she lands at Mad Tom’s Tea Party. The video’s ending actually caused quite a stir because Alice [actress Louise Foley] gets cut up like she’s a birthday cake. MTV had thousands of complaints because it looked like the guys were cutting up the real Alice with real knives, the high scream adding to the horror. We had to do two edits – one with Alice being eaten and one without.12
Stevie Nicks, who inspired the song and for whom it was originally intended, would have an extended Alice In Wonderland moment of her own on her fourth studio album The Other Side of the Mirror (1989). Nicks’ grandmother, Alice Harwood, had read the Dodgson stories to Nicks on family visits back to Arizona during her peripatetic childhood. Ensconced at music producer Rupert Hine’s studio in rural Buckinghamshire, Nicks would reflect on the privileged but compromised world her stardom had marooned her in,13
Like Alice through the Looking Glass,
She used to know who she was…
‘Better run for your life!’, cried the Mad Hatter,
‘Alright’, said Alice, ‘I’m going back to the other side of the mirror’.
Musician and actor Marilyn Manson (Brian Warner), was set to make his directorial début and portray the titular role in Phantasmagoria: The Visions of Lewis Carroll since the project was first mooted in 2004. The poem Phantasmagoria (1869) is Dodgson’s longest, a narrative discussion between a ghost and a man named Tibbet written in seven cantos. Manson consolidated his preoccupation with the Alice genre on his sixth studio album Eat Me, Drink Me (2007), which contained the song Are You the Rabbit? By 2015, however, Manson seemed to have distanced himself from the Phantasmagoria project, claiming it was “damaging to my psyche”.14 If anything could be curiouser?
The later cinematic potential of Dodgson’s books perhaps has its basis in a creative vision that was deeply influenced by the author’s passion for the fashionable pastime of photography. Dodgson began taking photos in March, 1856, having been introduced to the craze by Reginald Southey (nephew of the Poet Laureate Robert Southey). The collodion wet-plate process was a time-consuming, exacting, and messy business. “An absolutist when it came to his own conduct… Carroll had chosen a pastime that was measured in equally uncompromising terms. It left little room for creative accidents; like religion or mathematics, it was a matter of all or nothing. Photography also gave a new focus to many of his more private preoccupations. It widened his social horizons… it also offered a new way of grappling with the power of time.” 15
Dodgson became one of the most accomplished amateur photographers of his day. Between 1856 and 1880 he took approximately 3,000 photographs, perhaps a third of which survive. Self-portraits, family members, children and religious colleagues served as Dodgson’s most frequent subjects. However, many of his portraits of Victorian notables are also preserved, such as the art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900), philologist Friedrich Max Müller (1823-1900), artist John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (1829-1908), composer and musicologist Sir Frederick Arthur Gore Ouseley (1825-89), and the cleric and academic Richard St John Tyrwhitt (1827-95), who wrote the textbook A Handbook of Pictorial Art (1866). Dodgson’s friendship with the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82) led to the family group portrait Mrs Rossetti and her children, Dante Gabriel, Christina and William (c.1857).
Dodgson drew well and was certainly a talented amateur artist, as evidenced by Illustrations for Alice’s Adventures Underground (c.1862-64), but as Alice grumbles on the book’s opening page, “…what is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?” 16 The soon-to-be famous author engaged the skills of the illustrator and principal political cartoonist at Punch magazine, Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914). According to Professor Robert Douglas-Fairhurst,
A good deal has been written about Carroll’s working relationship with Tenniel, little of it flattering to either party… matters proceeded much as might have been expected from two busy perfectionists- with a good deal of caution and some annoyance on both sides. Carroll found the process especially difficult: after years of having complete freedom to illustrate his own stories, suddenly he had to deal with a collaborator who was unwilling to be treated as a skilled prosthetic hand. Nor was Tenniel merely prickly; he was also painfully slow… However, when the illustrations were finally complete, it was clear that the wait had been worthwhile.17
Tenniel’s preliminary drawings for Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, What will become of me! and The White Rabbit (1864-65) are on display, as is one of the rare ‘suppressed’ first editions of the book, of which only twenty-two are known to remain. After Dodgson visited Macmillan to inscribe some presentation copies in July, 1865, a few days later he received a letter from Tenniel who expressed himself, “entirely dissatisfied with the printing of the pictures”.18 In deference to Tenniel, Dodgson scrapped the entire print run of 2,000 copies (printed by Clarendon Press) at his own expense, but not before shipping some of the ‘defective’ and disbound copies to the publisher D. Appleton & Co in New York (the distribution copies were eventually reprinted by Clay’s).
Artists continue to be inspired by Dodgson’s tales, and few are as synonymous with Alice In Wonderland in the national context than Charles Blackman, OBE, (1928-2018), one of the most significant figurative painters in Australia. Blackman’s forty-six Alice-themed paintings, produced within a twelve-month period from 1956 to 1957, stand as one of the most important series in Australian art. Blackman’s first wife, the writer, poet, and librettist Barbara Patterson, AO, was diagnosed with optic atrophy as a young woman, and had been legally blind since 1950. She received a ‘talking book machine’ from the Lions Club in 1956, and one of her first 24 RPM books was Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, read by the BBC announcer Robin Holmes. Blackman listened to the narration without any influence from the various illustrations associated with the printed versions. “I’d never read Alice In Wonderland [sic.], although I’d heard of it of course. And I’d never seen Tenniel’s drawings, which are very famous illustrations to this magnificent and marvellous book, which everybody’s analysing out of their minds eternally. And it means so much to everybody, including me”.19
For the artist, “the story of Alice moving through irrational situations strikes a chord with Barbara’s personality and solitariness”.20 His wife’s spatial disorientation, and her subsequent pregnancy with their first child Auguste, intensified Blackman’s identification with Alice-as-Barbara; her increasingly distorted body expressing a state of transformation. Dodgson’s stories were also a precursor of sorts to the Surrealist movement, and Blackman embraced a more improvisatory technique with this series, experimenting with tempera, and then overpainting in enamel and oil. As he told the ABC’s Robert Peach,
…it seemed to sum up for me at that particular moment my feelings towards surrealism, and that anything could happen. The cup could lift up off the table by itself, the teapot would… pour its own tea… when [Alice] passes through the mirror. The world is a magical and very possible place for all one’s dreams and feelings. One is completely outside of reality… That was sparked completely off Barbara’s influence on my life.21
The autobiographical content of the series was further enhanced by Blackman’s job as a short-order cook. In 1956, he was working for Georges Mora (1913-92) at his Wellington Parade restaurant the Eastbourne Café, and paid particular attention to the vessels depicted in the paintings. Chairs, tables, plates, teapots, dishes, vases and bottles reflect Blackman’s “kitchen ballet” as he experienced it by night in the restaurant, to be preserved on canvas the next day.22 After an initial exhibition of his ‘Alice paintings’ at the Gallery of Contemporary Art, Melbourne (1957), Blackman gifted all the unsold works to his wife. The gradual dispersal of the series over the following decades made it increasingly difficult for the scope and impact of this distinctive body of work to be widely appreciated.
Blackman would return to the Alice In Wonderland theme at various points in subsequent years by way of paintings, screenprints, and book illustrations. His fruitful collaboration on five productions with dancer and choreographer Barry Moreland, director of the West Australian Ballet (1983-97), allowed Blackman to “extend the layers of imaginative meaning into real space and time”.23 Blackman designed the sets for Moreland’s production of Alice In Wonderland (1984), and was photographed presiding over the stage in an oversize white chair. After years of indecision, the National Gallery of Victoria acquired Goodbye Feet (1956) from the ‘Alice series’ in 1999. In 2005, Barbara Blackman donated the remaining ‘Alice paintings’ in her possession, Feet Beneath the Table (1956), Into the Beautiful Garden (1956), and Janus-face Alice With Teapot Crown (1956), to the Gallery. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the paintings, the NGV embarked on an extensive campaign to locate and reunite Blackman’s complete Alice In Wonderland series at the Ian Potter Centre (2006).
Blackman’s latest exhibition, The Evening is the Morning (22 September-7 October, 2018) at Harvey House Gallery and Sculpture Park, was intended to celebrate the artist’s ninetieth year. However, just one week after his milestone birthday, Blackman died on 20 August. Ahead of the exhibition, artist and musician Bertie Blackman said of her father,
In his fading light he does little else than draw. Ghostly static schoolgirl shapes, boats and cats and windows. He is like the Cheshire Cat. Grinning and enthralling you in one moment and, in the next, invisible but always there. It is a privilege and an honour to have the opportunity to wander through the windows and chasms of such an intricate and incredibly deep feeling mind. I walk with him and hold his hand as he wanders, and we hope that you too will come with us… upside down and downside up! …down the rabbit hole.
Polixeni Papapetrou (1960-2018), another internationally recognised Australian artist whose death this year was widely mourned, was also drawn to Dodgson’s themes of physical and emotional change, transformation, and notions of identity. As a child growing up in Port Melbourne, Papapetrou struggled with a Greek background that rendered her an outsider within the school environment. Her name was even changed to ‘Pauline’ in an attempt to help her assimilate, and the conventions of ‘mainstream’ Australia took precedence over Papapetrou’s suppressed cultural heritage. The feelings of confusion and bewilderment she internalised as a young woman would later be explored in her artistic output. Papapetrou’s fascination with role-play and performance, otherness and ambiguity, and individuals or groups on the fringes of society is evident throughout her work.
Papapetrou’s series Dreamchild (2003) cast her young daughter Olympia Nelson in re-stagings of various photographs of young girls originally taken by Dodgson as tableaux vivants. Child models such as Alice Liddell, Alexandra Kitchin (1864-1925), Beatrice Hatch (1866-1947), and Julia Arnold were dressed up for Dodgson’s camera in various romantic guises, or posed as otherworldly beings, such as fairies or woodland nymphs. “I’d say that the Dreamchild element was important: Polixeni’s point of entry was Victorian photography with its strong narrative gist and theatricality. Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson had a genius for both photography and story-telling; but his story is unusually telling for its implications in the photography, because the dialogue and characters are so ironic and symbolically convoluted”, observes Associate Professor Robert Nelson, Papapetrou’s husband. “The idea of some kind of symbolist pre-modern naïvety that goes with the early days of photography is debunked when you read Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, which has all the levels of consciousness that you can then read back into the pictures”.
The following year Papapetrou commenced the Wonderland (2004) series of sixteen works in which Olympia is recognisably playing Alice against character backdrops painted by her father. “Dreamchild was the forerunner to the ‘Alice’ series in many senses; first, technically, the studio practice meant figuring out the continuous backdrop concept and the ‘recreation/recreational’ involvement of Olympia. But most of all, the impetus for both series came from Polixeni’s curiosity (and also Olympia’s curiosity) for the photographic work of Carroll/Dodgson. Polixeni was absorbed for many hours looking at his work and pondering its magic”, Nelson recalls. The backdrops were also intended to evoke a level of nostalgia for the work of Sir John Tenniel. “Polixeni wanted a fairly close correspondence with the illustrations by Tenniel. She wanted her pictures in the first instance to be re-enactments. I think that she enjoyed certain postmodern assumptions that challenged the myth of authenticity and relished the vertical complexity of themes, layered contributions, histories”, Nelson contends. “She didn’t want me to suppress any element of Tenniel in the painting (nor for Olympia to do it in the acting) but she was happy with extrapolation, added fantasy, the spontaneous gestures that worked in the moment”.
Also important to Papapetrou’s concept for the series was the influence of film, cognisant that her audience would have already been exposed to any number of versions of the story via that medium. “Polixeni definitely watched lots of Alice films. I think that her favourite was Jonathan Miller’s Alice in Wonderland (1966) where the Alice [Anne-Marie Mallik] is a rather dour lass among pucker crackpots of an irksome nature”, quips Nelson. Papapetrou explores the ‘strangeness’ of Dodgson’s slightly sinister world as Olympia/Alice is buffeted between erratic authority figures such as The Duchess in Pepper Soup (2004) and the Queen of Hearts in Off With Her Head (2004). She grapples with the incomprehensible musings of The Caterpillar in I’m Not Myself You See (2004) before arriving at the tea party in Riddles That Have No Answers (2004) [see this issue’s front cover – ed]. “Carroll’s Alice is continually wrong-footed and alienated by pre-existing righteous incumbents and authorities who despise her and resent her presence as some kind of interloper”, Nelson asserts. “In a way, Polixeni was happy with my chromatically wilder style of painting the backdrops because it highlighted the somewhat lurid strangeness of Alice’s environment and by extension herself as an ‘Other’ in a largely unsympathetic and competitive culture”.
Inevitably, Papapetrou’s life experiences informed her later image-making, as well as her ability to connect and empathise with her diverse subjects. Yet she was also concerned to explore more universal themes within her work, probing aspects of what she termed ‘the various guises of childhood identity’. “I agree very much with that identification of ‘more universal themes’, which I think is borne out in Polixeni’s subsequent work as well. The work doesn’t amount to a series of illustrations and anecdotes from a famous story. They’re really archetypical situations. And so maybe that’s the element of ‘the guises of childhood identity’ that transcend the particular identity of individuals that photography is inclined to depict”, Nelson concurs. “For Polixeni, it’s a collective identity in ‘child’, perhaps ‘girl’. There’s something about both Carroll and Papapetrou that licences the categorical, the way the mind works when it isn’t cluttered with investments in identity. It’s a kind of paradox, because the openness that she recognises in the child – and which makes child identity – is in fact a freedom from conscious identity shaping that we as adults establish for our vanity”.
By engaging with the familiar tropes of Dodgson’s tales, and his surviving photographic works, Papapetrou subtly introduces a note of ambivalence towards these idealised, largely class-driven constructs of childhood that obscure both its complexities and uncertainties. “Yes, and a part of Polixeni’s doctorate concerned those very themes in Victorian childhood. Independently, she did make reflexions on her own childhood that ran in parallel”, agrees Nelson. “She did not enjoy the kind of freedom from responsibility that I had growing up in a middle-class family cluttered with books and ambitious conversations. No books but lots of orders instead! But for all that, the family culture had heightened expectations of show, of dressing up and appearing extremely ideal (which is the opposite of the relative visual neglect in my experience)”.
By focussing on Olympia’s portrayal of Alice, Papapetrou also acknowledges the widening gulf between the childhood experiences of boys and girls. The agency and spirit of Alice, as the assertive and inquiring protagonist, is celebrated in Papapetrou’s interpretation of the story. Alice deftly negotiates her place in an otherwise chaotic, sometimes hostile, and frequently illogical world; one populated by duplicitous, irrational and narcissistic characters.
Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to”, said the Cat.24
Over the last 150 years, throughout her endlessly mutable iterations, Alice has consistently managed to find her way. Presumably she took the red pill. Curious indeed.
Wonderland, Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), Federation Square, Melbourne (VIC), until 7 October 2018 – acmi.net.au
Charles Blackman: The Evening is the Morning, Harvey House Gallery and Sculpture Park, 213 Tooronga Road, Terrey Hills (NSW) – harveygalleries.com.au
Polixeni Papapetrou: polixenipapapetrou.net
FOOTNOTES: 1 Lewis Carroll, The Alice Collection: The Macmillan Alice, Macmillan Children’s Books, London, (1927) 2014. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland (1865), 1927, 2014, Vol. 1, p.4-5. | 2 Alice Liddell, who married the cricketer Reginald Hargreaves, would later sell the manuscript at Sotheby’s in April, 1928 where it achieved a price of £15,400. It was bought by a wealthy collector from Philadelphia, Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach, but is now in the British Library. | 3 Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland, Harvill Secker, London, 2015, p.130. | 4 Jessica Bram, “Dressing Alice: Interview with Colleen Atwood”, in Emma McRae & Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (Eds), Wonderland, Thames & Hudson/ACMI, Port Melbourne, 2018, p.87. | 5 Ibid. | 6 Ibid, p.86. | 7 Lewis Carroll, op cit, p.16. | 8 Grace Slick (with Andrea Cagan), Somebody To Love? A Rock-and-Roll Memoir, Warner Books, New York, 1998, p.21-22. | 9 Ibid, p.108. | 10 Lewis Carroll, op cit, p.149. | 11 Marc Myers, “She Went Chasing Rabbits”, The Wall Street Journal, 29 April, 2011. [online] | 12 David A. Stewart, Sweet Dreams Are Made of This: A Life In Music, New American Library, New York, 2016, p.129 & Warren Zanes, Petty: The Biography, Henry Holt & Co, New York, 2015, p.185. | 13 Stephen Davis, Gold Dust Woman: The Biography of Stevie Nicks, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2017, p.231-33. | 14 Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, “Abandoned Alice: Marilyn Manson’s Phantasmagoria: The Visions of Lewis Carroll”, in Emma McRae & Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (Eds), op cit, p.58. | 15 Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, op cit, p.79. | 16 Lewis Carroll, op cit, p.1. | 17 Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, op cit, p.143. | 18 Ibid, p.153. Also, Jenny Woolf, The Mystery of Lewis Carroll: Discovering the Whimsical, Thoughtful, and Sometimes Lonely Man Who Created Alice in Wonderland, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2010, p.170. | 19 Charles Blackman interview with Robert Peach, “Sunday Night Radio Two”, ABC Radio, 9 September, 1973, quoted in Felicity St. John Moore, “Conception to Birth: The Alice In Wonderland Series”, in Geoffrey Smith & Felicity St. John Moore, Charles Blackman: Alice In Wonderland, National Gallery of Victoria Publications, Melbourne, 2006, p.10. | 20 Felicity St. John Moore, Charles Blackman: Schoolgirls and Angels – A Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings By Charles Blackman, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1993, p.19. | 21 Geoffrey Smith & Felicity St. John Moore, op cit, p.10. | 22 Ibid, p.11. | 23 Felicity St. John Moore, op cit, p.9. | 24 Lewis Carroll, op cit, p.79.