Mrs Malaprop was right – comparisons are, indeed, odorous. Bluntly, they stink. But. And ‘but’ again. They’re almost inevitable – and even sometimes indispensable.
Since childhood, I’ve loved Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. The absurdity of an inverted world, with its crazed patterns based on underlying logic, is something that many children instantly grasp and appreciate. And Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations contribute so much to the overall experience – so much so that I can hardly bear to look at anyone else’s visual interpretation.
So it was with a mite of trepidation that I went along to the Galerie des Ponchettes in Nice to see an exhibition of Dutch graphic artist Pat Andrea’s interpretation of the Alice stories designed for a new version of the works. Entitled Projet Alice, the show consists of large mixed media works based on line drawings and mounted on wooden panels. The colours are rich, glowing – echoing at times the combination of clarity with a pearly glow of Renoir’s palette, but the gloss Andrea puts on Alice and her adventures is firmly post-Freudian. Erotic imagery abounds, ranging from the vaguely menacing to the outright frightening. Male genitalia are vigorously, even forcefully, depicted while female attributes are hidden or alluded to – gestured towards – in a manner designed to titillate. I was reminded of the work of Balthus, a painter favoured by the Parisian intellectual-creative élite when I was a girl. Even at the time I recall his paintings made me shudder with distaste so obviously, creepily did they involve voyeuristic pleasure at the sight of discomfited female children. Echoes, too, of the current mob’s rush to support Roman Polanski, I suppose. But revenons à nos moutons – back to the Andrea exhibition, the ‘Projet Alice’.
My overall reaction? I was mostly repelled, partially impressed. Of course, I’m not such an innocent as to assume that children’s books are invariably whited sepulchres of morality, devoid of the murkier aspects of humanity in all its animal forms and guises – any more, in fact, that children themselves are. And even the most cursory glance through a collected volume of the works of the Brothers Grimm or of H C Andersen (as the Danes know him) would immediately dispel any such delusion.
Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment was right, in my view: kids not only enjoy but also need these fictional warnings about very real and present dangers. If only as a rehearsal for how they will approach such things in later life. So-called ‘fairy stories’ taken as a group are often an illuminating metaphorical guide to certain aspects of life.
All of Andrea’s pictures were ravishing to the eye, though. Such is Andrea’s mastery of draughtsmanship and so fresh and vivid his use of colour that there is plenty to admire if not enjoy. One of his large-scale illustrations struck me as especially beautiful, and it does serve to show the scope of his superb technique. In profile, Alice is rowing the boat, with the ewe opposite and a beautifully-detailed drawing of a crab worthy of Albrecht Dürer hovering above her. The sheep is drawn with tenderness – although shorn, the fleece is wrapped around the silhouette of the animal, as if for warmth and protection. The boat is rendered in strips, painted to look like wood markings – from a distance it looks like the unpainted planks that form a clinker-built rowing boat (as in the illustration above). But this Alice is far closer to the Tenniel original. Rather than the lush, pouting Alice of Andrea’s other pictures, this one is severely proto-adult: demure yet determined, head down in concentration and rowing powerfully – a true Victorian child-heroine. Here, Alice is – uniquely in this exhibition – much closer to the sturdily sensible, practical and resourceful child portrayed in the books (and a major part of their appeal). Albeit obviously surreal, the scene has a calm charm lacking in all the other works on show. What a shame. A waste, almost.
Will these illustrations appeal to children? They might. But I’m inclined to doubt it – most kids would stop to sneer or snigger, thus breaking the spell, cutting the connection so crucial to reader involvement in any form of fiction. In any case, the illustrations are liable to detract from the story rather than support it (as did Tenniel’s lovely assured lines) while the narrative rattles and bounces on its purposefully erratic way. In these pictures, a self-consciously adult knowingness has intervened to pervert the subject matter for its own, rather dubious ends. Lewis Carroll as seen by Freud, perhaps – a curiously dated viewpoint, whereas the original illustrations ring true to their era.
But my opinon is – naturally – based on comparisons. And are those comparisons noxious? Do they reduce enjoyment and prevent full understanding? Not always; not necessarily. Sometimes, as in this case, they’re not only inescapable but necessary. What do you think?
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