In Review

What the critics are saying about Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser at the V&A

Make no mistake: this is a ‘stupendous’ show, says The Observer

Few children’s books have lodged themselves in “the global imagination” quite as enduringly as Alice in Wonderland, said Laura Cumming in The Observer. Since it was first published in 1865, the novel has had a profound influence on everything “from theatre and cinema to maths and physics; its madcap lexicon of invented words has cemented itself into the English language; and it has given us the archetypes of the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and the Red Queen.

The V&A’s enthralling exhibition takes the visitor on “three separate journeys in one”: there is an exploration of how a mathematician at Oxford University “came to write Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; the voyage of his startlingly original fiction out into the world; and a tremendous recreation of Alice’s rabbit-hole adventures in the form of a labyrinthine show”.

In the course of this, we are confronted with a dazzling array of exhibits, including the notebook in which Lewis Carroll – real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson – wrote down his stories; and the various artworks they have inspired over the past 150 years. Make no mistake: this is a “stupendous” event.

After a brief section that explains the Victorian context from which Alice sprang, the show plunges the visitor into “a semi-immersive wonderland of cultural reinventions”, said Claire Allfree in The Daily Telegraph. Everywhere you look, images of Alice are repurposed to fit the agenda of their times – and if the show teaches us anything, it is that “there is no cultural form that cannot appropriate her”.

There are dozens of wonderful exhibits here: an extract from Jonathan Miller’s “droll, desolate” TV adaptation from 1966 is a particular highlight, while cartoonist John Tenniel’s original illustrations for the story remain as “magnificent” as ever.

It’s just a shame these exhibits are not better presented. The links between Carroll’s work and the phenomena it inspired are barely explained: we learn that surrealists like Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning “adored” his books, but little about how they affected them. Later, we are told that CERN has named an experiment after Alice; it’s a fascinating detail, but “no attempt is made to elaborate” on it.

Yet none of this detracts from the show, said Rachel Campbell-Johnston in The Times. In fact, it seemed to me that the weird presentation cleaves faithfully to the spirit of the book, with sections linked by vast chequerboards, halls of mirrors, video projections and “psychedelic corridors”.

Along the way, we are given a concise summary of the “origins, adaptations and reinventions” of the story. We see the character reinterpreted in Russian theatre productions, Japanese manga comics and in a “sexually liberated” performance by the artist Yayoi Kusama, staged as a protest against the Vietnam War. There is even a section devoted to cooking, for which Heston Blumenthal has made his own version of mock-turtle soup.

Perhaps most engaging of all are the real-life representations of Alice herself: Alice Liddell, the ten-year-old schoolgirl who inspired Carroll’s stories, is pictured as a child, and later on as a young woman, in an image by the pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Their inclusion roots Carroll’s absurdist masterpiece in reality, and adds to the wonder of a “mesmerising” exhibition.

V&A, London SW7 (vam.ac.uk). Until 31 December

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