reflections on a lewis carroll exhibition: the equitable gallery ; new york, new york
Oscar Gustave Reijlander, portrait of lewis carroll, 1863
1Some artworks have the rare capacity to overflow the edges
of the context in which they were created, and in the process break
free from their authors determination, overwhelming and engulfing
the author in a web all of their own doing. On that account it might
have been premonition when Charles Lutwidge Dodgson coined the pseudonym
Lewis Carroll thus attaching himself to his fiction through yet another
fiction device. The fiction set forth by the two Alice tales is interwoven
with the fiction of Lewis Carroll to such a degree that author and
creation seem to occupy the same plane.
2One of the first books ever given to me as a child was Carrolls
Through the Looking Glass in an adaptation to the Portuguese by Monteiro
Lobato, a Brazilian author of children books. Hence I should now blame
Carroll for my fondness for crossword puzzles and silly word-play,
for kittens and commonplace absurdities. Tenniels illustrations,
I must confess, kept my interest going when confronted with unreconcilable
differences, cultural and otherwise. This all is to say that Alice,
as well as Lewis Carroll, are by now part of everyones unconscious;
translated, adapted, staged, filmed, animated, disneyfied. A fiction
shared and promoted by all those who time and again try to revive
the mythic boat ride with the Liddell sisters.
3Behind the persona of Lewis Carroll there lived and labored
Charles Dodgson, this exhibition made clear in an admirable way. The
first room, devoted to photographs of the Dodgson family, worked as
an instrument of delayone was immersed in the atmosphere of
nineteenth century English family life before being shown the material
proper for which Dodgson is now celebrated.
4There is an innocence in Dodgsons pictures of young
girls that has been often misunderstood in our time. The alarming
occurrence of child molestation cases in recent times has intensified
our sensors to any possibility of abuse, and shielded us from an unemotional
response at any display of child flesh. Under the effects of this
scary paranoia some see in Dodgsons fantastic collection of
Victorian girls the veiled fancies of a pedophile. But what comes
across in this exhibition is the figure of Dodgson as a family man,
although he did not have one of his own. His pictures of children,
often in the company of their parents, brings to mind the work of
Sally Mann, a contemporary artist who has also had the shadow of child
exploitation hovering over her path. Like Mann, Dodgsons pictures
are familiar in the sense that they often reveal a world so intimate
only a trusted relative would be allowed in.
5The girls in Dodgsons pictures are depicted as strong,
intelligent human beings, they represent the pinnacle of our human
trajectory, the exact point where physical and mental development
are still unfettered by any socio-cultural constraint. They are remarkably
self-assured and in control whereas adults, paradoxically, are often
shown vulnerable and melancholy.
6Dodgson was modern beyond his volition. He was keen on getting
acquainted with new technologies, his experiments in photography assure
us; still his most enduring contribution, one that keeps its freshness
to these days, remains the subversive streak of his humor. This trait
was a welcome antidote against the stiffness of nineteenth century
rhetoric and assured a future to his fiction in our time. The Alice
tales, like some of Poes stories, have kept the power both to
amuse and to challenge the readerthey are little masterpieces
in intentional misreading.
7Dodgsons keen sense for the absurd and the ridiculous,
combined with a sophisticated understanding of logic and mathematics,
brought about the best in his art. Some of his antics, particularly
the ones regarding linguistic conventions, have indeed become fundamental
to several avant-garde movements. Perhaps without Dodgson, Dadaism,
Surrealism, Duchamp, and Concrete Poetry wouldnt have happened.
Öyvind Fahlström ends his Manifesto for Concrete Poetry,
of 1953, citing Humpty Dumpty, and the Noigandres poets often refer
to Word-Links and Doublets as sources for their experimentalism in
8In the room showcasing several foreign language editions of
Alice is a Russian translation from 1923. The translator: Vladimir
Nabokov, who would later create Lolita.
9Some pictures betray Dodgsons love for the theater,
most remarkably the one of Xie Kitchin and her brothers composing
a tableau on the theme of st. george and the dragon. The bare, evocative
set is no fruit of mere improvisation. Dodgson was known for carefully
setting the stage for his photographs. On the other hand, he seriously
pursued the improvement of his draftsmanship aiming at a complete
control of his literary creations. The highly stylized tableaux were
thus entirely premeditated. They bring to mind the Symbolist theater
of Maeterlinck where everything is allusion.
10Dodgson was not a dandy, although pictures of
him suggest a well-cultivated man. They lack, however, the flair and
affectation one finds in portraits of a Oscar Wilde, for instance.
The flaneur in Dodgson did not favor the cities but the countryside
and, above all, the surfaces and planes of Euclidean geometry which
seem to be constantly laid open before his eyes. In the opening lines
of Hiawathas Photographing, Dodgson lets out a bit
of this Euclidean view:
From his shoulder Hiawatha
11That Dodgson would appreciate the folding inside
a photographic camera is something also worth exploring. This fold
inside the camera parallels Mallarmés famous folds of
the fanan effect he also aspired to attain in his poetry. Dodgsons
camera, through its folds, unveils a ghostly image on a glass surface.
Dodgsons text, through folds in the logic of narrative, then
becomes fiction. In Alice in Wonderland images, faces, and places
appear and disappear like they do on a prepared plate in the photographers
darkroom. But in Through the Looking Glass they appear and disappear
through folds of spatial planes, as if the fiction had moved away
from the ghostly surface of wet collodion and into the Euclidean space
of rosewood and lenses in the photographic camera.
12Rhyme? and Reason?
Brooklyn, New York