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Alice in museumland: 2 exhibits offer fresh looks at Carroll's masterpiece

JUST BEFORE the time-pressed White Rabbit appears in the opening moments of Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," Alice finds herself bored out of her mind, sitting beside a riverbank with her sister's dull book offering nothing in the way of entertainment.

John Tenniel's wood engraving on paper, "Why is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?" (1865), is at the Rosenbach Museum & Library.
John Tenniel's wood engraving on paper, "Why is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?" (1865), is at the Rosenbach Museum & Library.Read more

JUST BEFORE the time-pressed White Rabbit appears in the opening moments of Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," Alice finds herself bored out of her mind, sitting beside a riverbank with her sister's dull book offering nothing in the way of entertainment.

"What is the use of a book," Alice moans, "without pictures or conversations?"

Of course, Alice shortly thereafter discovers an entire world full of amusing and nonsensical distractions, but had the rabbit hole dropped her into modern-day Philadelphia, she would have a couple of options to fulfill her demands.

Two new exhibits - at the Rosenbach Museum & Library on Delancey Street and at Chadds Ford's Brandywine River Museum - offer fresh looks at Carroll's imaginative masterpiece. Both are full of pictures, and the Rosenbach even offers a conversation of sorts between Carroll and Modernist poet Marianne Moore.

The Rosenbach show, "Moore Adventures in Wonderland," was created by artist Sue Johnson as both an installation piece and an act of curation. Johnson's work, much of which falls under the umbrella title of "The Alternate Encyclopedia," offers a "parallel universe of stories" which combine to create a sort of museum of invented reality.

She explored the museum's collections of material relating to both Carroll and Moore and began to perceive some unexpected connections between the two.

"Moore almost exclusively uses nature as her platform," Johnson said. "She doesn't people her poetry very often, and I felt a resonant chord with that. With Carroll, of course, it's Alice's adventures, but it's Alice's adventures with creatures that have been anthropomorphized. So I thought that there was a good conversation that could be had there between two creative people that I felt an affinity with."

The Rosenbach's collection includes virtually all of Moore's manuscripts and papers, but its most fascinating artifact is the recreation of Moore's Greenwich Village living room, which the poet willed to the museum upon her death in 1972. Johnson's show occupies the room directly beneath the Moore room at the Rosenbach, a room that prominently features a mirror over its fireplace.

"I was thinking about going through the looking glass upstairs in the Moore room and landing downstairs in the room that I created," Johnson said. "So it's almost like watching an old filmstrip, where there's a slippage of the film and you find yourself in another place, down the rabbit hole. I wanted people to be toggling back and forth between those spaces."

Becoming Alice

The first thing visitors find upon approaching the exhibit is a scale model of the room they are about to enter, followed by a glass labeled "Drink Me." The idea is to approximate Alice's own experience of changing scale, a concept that is laced throughout the exhibit itself.

"I wanted to make a transition for the viewer," Johnson said, "to go through this portal, to change scales, to imagine themselves as Alice, the explorer."

Johnson's piece resembles a Victorian-era scientific exhibition, with objects laid out in glass-topped drawers. The artist chose artifacts from the museum's Moore collection and rearranged them to suggest scenes from Carroll's stories: thus, "The Walrus and the Carpenter" are represented by a small walrus statue and Moore's own typewriter, both from the room upstairs (the typewriter being the "tool" for Moore's own work).

The drawers, however, contain not the objects themselves but photographic collages of them, giving Johnson the ability to play with their scale and to create the exaggerated shadows that play with the viewer's sense of perspective.

"Moore found inspiration both in nature and from unusual sources, and seemed to employ a kind of collage sensibility akin to the automatic processes of the Surrealists," Johnson explained.

"On her shelves in the Moore room, she arranged her collection of animal figures into groupings that create a miniature world for contemplation. And my take on her poetry is that she projected onto objects and animals and created stories about them . . . I wanted to create a kind of scientific document of Moore's own collection and superimpose on that the experience of looking into a diorama, or a drawer of natural history specimens, that almost comes to life. This way I could both document Moore and put another spin on Lewis Carroll."

Although she entered the project under the impression that the Moore-Carroll parallels were purely her own invention, Johnson was surprised to uncover connections during her research.

A mock newspaper created by Moore while sailing to Europe with her mother in 1911 contains her own recreation of "The Mouse's Tale," Carroll's poem from "Alice" in the punning shape of a mouse's tail.

"This is the first concrete connection between Moore and Carroll," Johnson said, "and for me it's kind of a vindication of my intuitive process."

Through the picture books

Opening this weekend at the Brandywine River Museum, "Alice In Pictureland: Illustrations of Lewis Carroll's Classic Tales" presents more than a century's worth of visual interpretations of "Wonderland" and its 1871 sequel, "Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There."

"Most prominent illustrators have taken on the subject at one time or another," said curator Audrey Lewis. "And each illustrator reflects their own time."

The show begins, naturally, with John Tenniel (via pencil drawings from the Rosenbach collection), the British caricaturist who Carroll enlisted to illustrate his original books.

"John Tenniel served as the benchmark for all other artists," Lewis said. "Many have retained certain iconic aspects of the characters that Tenniel invented, like the dress and pinafore that Alice wears and the price tag on the Mad Hatter's hat. They seem to be almost eternal, but others have created their own interpretations of both the characters and the story."

Those varied interpretations include the "fluid, elegant lines" of Arthur Rackham, the renowned fairy-tale illustrator whose 1907 edition was the first alternative to Tenniel by a British artist, following the lapse of the book's copyright; Walt Disney's 1951 film version; a 1969 deluxe edition by surrealist icon Salvador Dali (who characteristically included himself in many of the images); a gonzo 1972 interpretation by Ralph Steadman, best known for his manic illustrations for the books of Hunter S. Thompson; and the acclaimed, grotesque 1981 take by American illustrator Barry Moser.

"The interpretations go into different directions as you get into the 1970s, '80s and '90s," Lewis said. "They're more diverse from the original in terms of exploring the darker side of Wonderland, though there's a lot of humor in them. A lot of recent editions are abridged for children, so they reflect a cheerful approach to the subject, but there are deluxe versions intended for adults which are more esoteric or challenging and reflective of contemporary art styles."

What attracts so many prominent artists and illustrators to the book, Lewis posits, is the fact that Carroll himself always envisioned it as a picture book (hence Alice's opening lament).

"There's a lot of visual imagery in the book," she said. "It's replete with moments that can be brought to life."

She continued,"I also think the dominance of John Tenniel presents a challenge and inspiration to illustrators. But mostly it's the fact that there are so many different interpretations of the story, and people all bring their own childhood memories to it."