Disney’s film Alice in Wonderland (1951) will kick off the Ransom Center’s Young Adventurers Film Series this Saturday at 3 p.m. Other films in the series include James and the Giant Peach (1996) on June 13, Coraline (2009) on June 20, and Where the Wild Things Are (2009) on June 27.
The titular heroine of Lewis Carroll’s whimsical classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass has changed to reflect the aesthetics of the times outside her fictional word. The fantastical nature of the story allows a certain freedom of temporality: although the narrative was written to occur in Victorian Britain, there are no specific indicators of the year, and the story could just as easily have been set in the twenty-first century. The changing visual depictions of Alice reflect this sense of timelessness. Having a contemporary-looking Alice makes it easy for younger audiences to relate to her and helps to explain Wonderland’s enduring popularity.
First published in 1865, Sir John Tenniel’s iconic illustrations imagine Alice in a contemporary mid-Victorian pinafore, apron, and stockings. Tenniel’s depiction of Alice was the standard for the rest of the 1800s, but by the turn of the century, when the book went out of copyright, other illustrators reimagined the tale. Bessie Gutmann created Nouveau Alice in 1907, who wears a white, high-necked dress with full, long sleeves; her hair is long, swept up, and adorned with a flower.
In the 1920s Alice became a sporty flapper. Willy Pogany’s 1929 illustrations depict a lanky Alice, somewhat older than previous representations, wearing a short, plaid skirt, short sleeve top with a tie at the neck, and knee socks. Her hair is bobbed and boyish, as per the androgynous Jazz Age fashion.
Mid-century Alice reverts to the traditional, much like popular culture at the time. Disney released the animated Alice in Wonderland film in 1951, in which Alice dons a blue dress, white apron, and a black ribbon in her hair, very similar to Tenniel’s depiction. Subsequent illustration from the period shows Disney’s influence.
During the 1960s and ’70s, Alice adapts to the fashion of the period. One 1970 edition puts an older-looking Alice in a hot pink minidress with a Brigitte Bardot-esque bouffant; another illustration from the same year makes Alice look like she walked off of the set of The Brady Bunch, in a floral-accented minidress, knee socks, and long, straight hair.
The continued success of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is related to its ability to stay relevant and fresh to generations of readers. The story itself is not rooted in any particular temporal setting, and thus Alice has the ability to change her style to look like her readers. Although Alice was created in the Victorian era, she is anything but drab and prim: she is, more than many other literary heroines, thoroughly modern.
See examples of some of these book covers in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, on view through July 6. Share “Thoroughly Modern Alice” with #aliceinaustin.
Please click on thumbnails to view larger images.
Sir John Tenniel. Dalí. Yayoi Kusama. What do these artists of vastly different styles, mediums, and artistic movements have in common? Each, along with many other artists, has tried their hand at illustrating Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a tale so whimsical it demands illustrations. Alice appeals to such a broad range of artists because the creative quality of the story gives artists freedom to interpret the look of the story in any way they please, and the book’s quirky sense of fun is irresistible.
The novel’s first illustrator was none other than its author. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson—alias Lewis Carroll—created a handwritten manuscript with 37 illustrations for the story’s muse, Alice Liddell, after she asked him to write down the fantastical story he told her one lazy summer afternoon on a boat ride. Although somewhat amateurish, the ink illustrations depict a sweet, pretty Alice, not unlike the famous Tenniel illustrations. Indeed, Tenniel, a famous Victorian political cartoonist, and Dodgson worked closely together in creating the now-classic illustrations for the first published edition.
Tenniel’s classical and rather prim imagining of Alice remained the standard throughout the nineteenth century and still remains the most recognizable Alice illustration today. It was not until the turn of the twentieth century that other illustrators tried their hands at Alice. These illustrations reflect the aesthetic of their time. Mabel Lucie Attwell’s 1910 rendering of Alice and Margaret W. Tarrant’s 1916 version are sweet and feminine and still very much geared toward a young audience.
By the middle of the century, illustrations of Alice became more experimental. German illustrator Wiltraud Jasper’s 1958 version is edgy and minimal, all in black and red. In 1969, iconic surrealist Salvador Dalí put his spin on Carroll’s story, creating a dreamy, abstract, and characteristically melty Wonderland in a melancholy color palate.
More recently, Japanese pop artist Yayoi Kusama has re-imagined Alice in her signature polka dots in a 2012 Penguin publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Kusama steers away from the “classic” scenes of illustrations and instead focuses on details. For instance, the Mad Tea Party chapter features a red-and-black polka-dotted bowler hat instead of the traditional scene of the eccentric cast of characters tucking into high tea at a long table.
At the very onset of her story, Alice muses to herself about the importance of illustrations: “‘And what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without any pictures?’” What use indeed? Would Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland be the classic book and cultural phenomenon that it is without pictures? Likely not—both readers and illustrators alike have fun with the creative freedom offered by the Alice books.
See examples of some of these illustrations in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, on view through July 6. Share with #aliceinaustin.
Please click on the thumbnails to view larger images.