At the end of last year, I had the pleasure of seeing a wonderful exhibition at the British Library, which celebrates 150 years of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The exhibition contains an abundance of fascinating material to read and look at. We’ve got Lewis Carroll’s original handwritten manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, as well as his diaries where he wrote about the publication and success of the book. There’s an entry, which describes the “golden afternoon” of 4 July 1862 when he first told the story to Alice Liddell and her sisters, and the original woodblocks with illustrations by John Tenniel. In the “Alice Re-imagined” section of the exhibition, we are presented with numerous editions of the book, and a variety of visual interpretations of the story—from Arthur Rackham’s atmospheric drawings, William Andrew (“Willy”) Pogany’s “flapper” Alice, D.R. Sexton’s bobbed Alice, to Salvador Dali’ surrealist lithographs and Yayoi Kusama’s trippy, psychedelic pattern-based imaginings. While there is no shortage of styles, I kind of wished to see my favourite illustrations by Polish artist Olga Siemaszko (below), but this is hardly surprising given how many illustrators have interpreted the story since 1865. Still, and I’m not sure if it’s a childhood nostalgia bias, I consider her illustrations to be my favourite ones (below are scans from my excruciatingly battered copy of the book).
The exhibition was very successful and I was very pleased to see that it wasn’t limited to presenting books and printed artworks. As much as I enjoyed looking at the numerous illustrations, I was even more excited to see the incredibly imaginative computer games designed by young people, based on Carroll’s book. Ever since seeing the excellent Indie Game: The Movie documentary directed by Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, I have been running a personal crusade to help remove the low-art stigma from computer games, for they can often surpass many others art forms in the sophistication of concept and complexity of skills they require to make. The Wondering Lands of Alice, which won the Off The Map competition, a collaboration between the British Library and GameCity, was created by Off Our Rockers, a team of six students from De Montfort University in Leicester. Two other games presented at the exhibition were Chris Lonsdale’s Alice Gardens, and A Curious Feeling developed by Game Art students Hare Triggers Games. These three games, however different in style, are excellent visual and narrative interpretations that give Carroll’s masterpiece a whole new dimension. Needles to say, I would be happy to play them all.
Finally, there was one other aspect of the exhibition that stood out for me: the actual design of it. Having designed my own exhibition a few years ago, I know that designing the spatial narrative is as important as the artworks that are presented in the space. Fiona Barlow, who teamed up with 3d designers Lyn Atelier to design the exhibition graphics, did an excellent job there. She said that their team wanted to “capture the surreal, dreamlike sense of the story and Alice’s childlike logic in the face of irrational events.” The exhibition is structured as a journey where visitors follow instructions and are presented with typographic renditions of quotes taken from the book and printed on the fabric wrapped around a frame that runs through the gallery. There is a wonderful attention to the details, that can be found beyond the actual exhibition, and in the pop-up shop.
The palette is quite minimal; it uses black, white and red, and there is a great emphasis on truly exquisite typography: various styles and widths of Bodoni, Univers and, as I’m guessing, Folio. It is a great example of the kind of graphic design that is beautiful to the eye, perfectly fitting in with the world of the book, but it doesn’t take anything away from the artworks, allowing them to shine.
All in all, a great visual feast. Catch it while you can, it’s open until Sun 17 April 2016.
Photography wasn’t unfortunately allowed at the exhibition, therefore the images I am presenting come from Fiona Barlow’s website. Please visit the website to see and read more about the exhibition.