Dalí In Wonderland

A hundred and fifty summers ago, Charles Dodgson, rowing the Liddell children up the Isis, told the story that became Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Oxford marked this sesquicen-Tenniel with an Alice exhibition at the new Weston Library; on Alice Day, July 4, a crowd of Alice impersonators massed in Broad Street. Publishers are also celebrating Alice’s birthday. Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice has been revised (Norton, £25). And, for those who prefer their Carroll curioser and curioser, Princeton have reissued Alice with Salvador Dalí’s illustrations of 1969 (£25), with essays by the Carroll expert Mark Burstein, and the mathematician Thomas Banchoff, who once collaborated with Dalí on a project to build a 100-metre horse. 

“Sentence first, verdict afterwards.” Off with their heads: without Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations, Alice stands on one leg like a flamingo. But, like a flamingo repurposed as a croquet mallet, Dalí’s illustrations have a colourful force of their own. Carroll’s Alice anticipated the Surrealist wonderland: dreams and paradoxes, puns and psychoanalysis, distortions of space and time. “Carroll est surréaliste en non-sens,” pronounced André Breton, the “Pope” of the Surrealist gospel of non-sense. Louis Aragon translated The Hunting of the Snark. Max Ernst illustrated The Snark twice, as well as Carroll’s Symbolic Logic. Balthus, Magritte, Dorothea Tanning and Ernst all painted Alice. Duchamp called on young artists to emulate her passage “through the looking-glass . . . to reach a more profound expression”.

Dalí, the least profound of the bunch, was the most successful. He may also have had the greatest influence over Alice’s posterity. In late 1945 and early 1946, Dalí  spent several months at Walt Disney Studios, working with the animator John Hench on a Fantasia-style short, Destino, which Dalí called “a magical exposition of the problem of life in the labyrinth of time”. Destino did not emerge from the labyrinth of time until 2003, but Dalí ’s influence can be seen in Hench’s designs for Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951), notably in the melting Victorian architecture that surrounds her tumble down the rabbit hole, and in the final nightmare chase. Disney’s Alice might expound more clearly on the problem of life had the studio not rejected an early script by Aldous Huxley.

Dalí’s Alice illustrations are not quasi-photographic oils, but 12 bright gouaches. By 1969, Dalí  was well into his hip and mediocre dotage. If he drew “six impossible things before breakfast”, it was in order to sell them by lunch. Many of the insects and butterflies that decorate these images have a nightmare-by-numbers feel. His caterpillar is a wearisome psychedelic blur, inchoate as a Jefferson Airplane jam session. But the rest of Dalí ’s animals are urgent and vicious. The Rabbit, looming over Alice as though fired off a mushroom launch pad, would eviscerate the twee neurotic in Disney’s cartoon. His Pig floats like a pink and purple surveillance balloon. His Mock Turtle has claws and a bird’s beak. Even the Dodo looks predatory.

The Tea Party is cleverly underplayed: the china slides off the melting clock face of The Persistence of Memory (1931). The Alice motif is recycled too. A young girl raises a skipping rope; its arc of shadow looks like a (rabbit) hole, or even a looking-glass. By 1969, Dalí, the oldest swinger in town, was returning to what Carroll called “the simple and loving world of childhood”. Dalí  first sketched this girl in 1935, for the stars in his 1936 triptych, Landscape with Girl Skipping Rope. One obvious precursor is de Chirico’s Mystère et mélancholie d’une rue (1914). Another is Whistler’s Harmony in Yellow and Gold (1873), which depicts the skipping-rope routine of the young vaudevillian Connie Gilchrist. She was Lewis Carroll’s friend and possible model. As Alice says, “Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.”

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