Curiouser & curiouser: Alice in Wonderland exhibition

15 Jul
Bryan Talbot's Jabberwock, from Alice in Sunderland

Bryan Talbot’s Jabberwock, from Alice in Sunderland

Come down the rabbit-hole with me, to the Cartoon Museum’s Alice in Wonderland exhibition. It opens today in celebration of the book’s 150th anniversary, and the press launch was last night.

The most striking part of the show is what a gift Lewis Carroll’s creation has been to political satirists. Not all are wildly original: there are five books in a glass case all weakly punning on the title – Adolf in Blunderland, Malice in Kulturland, Wilson in Wonderland, Alice in Wonderground and Alice in Plunderland! They might have added Russell Brand’s TV show Ponderland, and the current kids’ TV fantasy spin on that, Yonderland.

They are in good company, however. There are two Punch cartoons by the definitive Alice illustrator, John Tenniel, parodying his own work: Alice in Blunderland (1880) derides the erection of the Temple Bar Memorial, and Alice in Bumbleland (1898) attacks the bill to divide the County of London into 28 metropolitan boroughs. I guess you had to have been there.

And there are a few really clever ones. My favourite might be the Vietnam War-era cartoon by Robert O. Bastian, with Lyndon B. Johnson as the Duchess and Chairman Mao as the Cheshire Cat. It’s captioned: “Speak roughly to your little boy, and beat him when he sneezes/ He only does it to Hanoi because he knows it teases”!

An honourable mention, too, to Victor Weisz of the Evening Standard in 1961, when strike action by teachers led to school closures: “That’s why they are called lessons,” he quotes from the Gryphon, “because they lessen every day.”

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party is, of course, a gift to political illustrators, but the best use of Humpty Dumpty must be Les Gibbard’s in 1988. It portrays the ovate Mr. Dumpty toppling at the feet of Edwina Currie as Alice, after Currie’s comments about salmonella had wrought havoc in the British egg industry.

The ad industry co-opted Alice, too, particularly Guinness, who have a series of poorly pastiched poems on posters around the Cartoon Museum, of which one good line stands out: ‘Off with its head!’ cried the Queen. ‘Nonsense!’ replied Alice. ‘Guinness keeps its head.’”

The rest you’ll have to find out for yourselves. Look out for Ralph Steadman’s striking Patty Hearst trial illustration, and the great comic writer/artist Bryan Talbot tackling Tenniel head-on in his wonderful graphic novel Alice in Sunderland.

Kudos, by the way, to the magician in a Mad Hatter’s hat who performed close-up tricks. I was also rewarded with a story for gallantly giving up my seat to a lovely lady who turned out to work for the Museum. The seat in question was a toilet seat, for which I had been first in line, at which she directed me to the upstairs loo: “It’s said to be haunted, so most of the staff refuse to use it.”

Intriguing. Clearly JK Rowling was on to something with Moaning Myrtle.

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