Alice: 150 Years of Wonderland

One of the things that makes New York such an amazing city is the fact that at any moment you can get your eyes on the most amazing artifacts of our cultural history.  It's mind blowing to think of some of the things that are just a subway trip away.  One of those artifacts was on display at The Morgan Library in their exhibit on Alice and her crazy trip through Wonderland.

Kirk and I were able to catch the closing day of the exhibit, Alice: 150 Years Of Wonderland.  It feels like EVERYONE is doing an exhibition.  Back in Austin there was one at the Harry Ransom Center, and there's one that just opened up at the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.  This one, however, was likely the best, as the pieces on display were incredible.

The crowds were large when we arrived, and by the time we left the line was out the door.  It was a surprisingly small room, and essentially, to see the exhibit everyone had to line up and tour the perimeter, for everything was placed up against the walls.  Of course you had to deal with some museum assholes who don't care to follow the system and make themselves as large as humanly possible while looking at the exhibit, or stand as close to it as they can so no one else can get in.  This behavior really chaps my hide, but...I was able to contain my annoyance, largely due to the pieces, and the fascinating info about them.

There was a copy of the first edition (of which there are only about twenty in existence because the illustrator objected to the print quality of his illustrations) as well as many original color illustrations, one of Lewis Carroll's diaries, photos he had take of Alice Liddell (more on that later, as it feels impossible to talk about Dodgson/Carroll without discussing his child portraits or other possible improprieties.

As for the illustrations, it was amazing how small they were.  They were 4 inches by 4, at the most, and so incredibly detailed.  It's pretty astounding, even when you consider that penmanship and drawing was a huge obsession with the Victorian English.  There was a sample of a letter written by Alice at age seven, and it is a work of art.  So precise, so careful, and studied.

Now, before I get to this amazing artifact I mentioned earlier, it's important to put it in the context of the creation of Wonderland and how it all came about.  

Charles Dodgson was a don at Christ Church, Oxford, and became friends with the new dean, Henry Liddell, his wife, and his three daughters, one of whom was named Alice.  It became a routine that he and his colleague at the college would take the girls out for little excursions on the river in a rowboat, and Charles would tell them stories.  One day, Charles told a story about Alice tumbling down a rabbit hole to a strange underground land, and Alice, who was around ten at the time, enjoyed the story so much that at the end of the day she asked Mr. Dodgson to write it down for her.  

He went home, made a rough outline, expanded upon the story, illustrated it, and eventually presented it to her.  It was titled Alice's Adventures Underground and would be the prototype for the first edition of the story we know as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. What he created, complete with his illustrations that would become the model for many of Tenniel's, was on display at the Morgan Library, and I had to read the description several times before I was able to trust that I was in front of Alice's personal copy, the very first version of the story ever, which prior to this exhibit had not left the British Museum in thirty years.

Now, about the little girl portraits... Charles was a photographer, and he used little girls as subjects quite a bit, and would occasionally shoot them in scant dress.  But it was all done with complete knowledge of the little girls parents.  He would write to them and request they arrive in as little clothing possible.  And no one was concerned.  It wasn't considered remotely possible that they would be viewed as sexual objects (in spite of the implications of the Little Red Riding Hood story).  And if this is the case, is it possible that Dodgson/Carroll was just shooting the beauty of children?  I guess.  Is the other possible as well?  Yes.  Will we ever know what was going on in his head?  It's unlikely.  Can we condemn him on the evidence provided?  Again, I'm not sure.

But I do fall into the camp that, as we do not know for sure, we can appreciate and enjoy the art as a separate entity from the artist.  And I can take a small amount of satisfaction in the fact that I'm more of an Oz fan anyway.