“Alice in the Wonderland of Art” at Hamburger Kunsthalle

Posted August 6th, 2012 under Books, Kids, Shows


For almost 150 years, one of the greatest literary inventions has fascinated children and adults alike: Lewis Carroll’s tale of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Soon after it was first published, the story of the little girl’s journey down a rabbit hole and – in the sequel – through a mysterious looking glass, quickly captured the imagination of a wide circle of readers that included Queen Victoria and Oscar Wilde. Carroll’s stories continue to captivate an audience of millions, whether as novels or as film adaptations. Now, for the first time, an exhibition is being dedicated to Alice and the many different ways in which she has inspired and influenced visual artists. Alice in the Wonderland of Art at the Hamburger Kunsthalle brings together around 200 works from 150 years of art history, including paintings, sculptures, book illustrations, photographs, drawings, films and installations. The broad range of media on show demonstrates the variety of approaches to this subject matter and transforms the exhibition itself into a striking visual wonderland.

The artistic reflections on the subject of Alice in Wonderland clearly show that hidden within this apparently simple children’s story is an intricate web of references to the history of ideas, principles of logic and philosophical concerns. At the same time it is a highly entertaining story that contains many absurd, alogical or nonsense elements and is peppered with subtle wit and irony. The imaginative dream-like world of the narrative thus allows existential issues to be explored in a playful way; it addresses questions of individuality and self-knowledge, notions of space and time, the relationship between literary fiction and empirical reality, as well as the function and power of language. As such, Alice has become a metaphor for creative endeavour and the search for meaning. Ever since Lewis Carroll gave the original manuscript of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to the little girl who inspired the story – 10-year-old Alice Liddell – as an early Christmas gift in 1864, the visualization of the narrative has been an integral aspect of the work. John Tenniel’s classic illustrations for the first editions of the Alice books created a compelling visual world that has since taken on a life of its own: Alice herself and the bizarre characters who populate Wonderland – the Cheshire Cat, Humpty Dumpty, the White Rabbit and the Mad Hatter, among many others – have become embedded in our collective memory. And since the mid-19th century, many visual artists have found their own ways to reflect and portray the seemingly absurd world that was first discovered by an extremely curious and fearless little girl. The exhibition opens with works created by Lewis Carroll himself. The author, whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832–1898), was also a mathematics professor, a photographer and an art collector. The presentation continues with groundbreaking illustrations and documents relating to theatrical adaptations and films of the Alice books. While the display of independent visual artworks begins with examples from the late 19th century, the exhibition has a strong focus on surrealism, as artists such as Max Ernst, René Magritte or Salvador Dalí were among those who drew particular inspiration from the Alice novels as they ventured into the realm of the fantastic. The show continues with artists of the 1960s and 70s whose interest in forms of consciousness expansion and new understanding of the interrelation of language and image can be related to Lewis Carroll. Finally, the works on show by contemporary artists such as Stephan Huber, Markus Lüpertz, Anna Gaskell, Kiki Smith or Pipilotti Rist demonstrate the enduring fascination of his novels and the characters he created. Alice in the Wonderland of Art at the Hamburger Kunsthalle brings together around 200 works from 150 years of art history, including paintings, sculptures, book illustrations, photographs, drawings, films and installations. The broad range of media on show demonstrates the variety of approaches to this subject matter and transforms the exhibition itself into a striking visual wonderland. The artistic reflections on the subject of Alice in Wonderland clearly show that hidden within this apparently simple children’s story is an intricate web of references to the history of ideas, principles of logic and philosophical concerns. At the same time it is a highly entertaining story that contains many absurd, alogical or nonsense elements and is peppered with subtle wit and irony. The imaginative dream-like world of the narrative thus allows existential issues to be explored in a playful way; it addresses questions of individuality and self-knowledge, notions of space and time, the relationship between literary fiction and empirical reality, as well as the function and power of language. As such, Alice has become a metaphor for creative endeavour and the search for meaning. Ever since Lewis Carroll gave the original manuscript of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to the little girl who inspired the story – 10-year-old Alice Liddell – as an early Christmas gift in 1864, the visualization of the narrative has been an integral aspect of the work. John Tenniel’s classic illustrations for the first editions of the Alice books created a compelling visual world that has since taken on a life of its own: Alice herself and the bizarre characters who populate Wonderland – the Cheshire Cat, Humpty Dumpty, the White Rabbit and the Mad Hatter, among many others – have become embedded in our collective memory. And since the mid-19th century, many visual artists have found their own ways to reflect and portray the seemingly absurd world that was first discovered by an extremely curious and fearless little girl. The exhibition opens with works created by Lewis Carroll himself. The author, whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832–1898), was also a mathematics professor, a photographer and an art collector. The presentation continues with groundbreaking illustrations and documents relating to theatrical adaptations and films of the Alice books. While the display of independent visual artworks begins with examples from the late 19th century, the exhibition has a strong focus on surrealism, as artists such as Max Ernst, René Magritte or Salvador Dalí were among those who drew particular inspiration from the Alice novels as they ventured into the realm of the fantastic. The show continues with artists of the 1960s and 70s whose interest in forms of consciousness expansion and new understanding of the interrelation of language and image can be related to Lewis Carroll. Finally, the works on show by contemporary artists such as Stephan Huber, Markus Lüpertz, Anna Gaskell, Kiki Smith or Pipilotti Rist demonstrate the enduring fascination of his novels and the characters he created.

Image above: Annelies Štrba (*1947), Nyima 438, 2009. Courtesy Annelies Štrba und Frith Street Gallery, London © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012.

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