Posted by: lizl3wis | December 13, 2021

Alice, Suspended: An Analysis of Salvador Dalí’s 1969 Illustrations of Alice in Wonderland

In 1969, Random House commissioned surrealist icon Salvador Dalí to illustrate Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The result was a four-color etching as a frontispiece and twelve heliogravures, one representing each chapter of Carroll’s work. Heliogravure is a printmaking technique originally developed by Nicéphore Niépce in the 1820s, contemporaneous with his work in developing photography. Heliogravure is considered one of the earliest ways of reproducing photographic images. Dali’s use of the medium is fitting — an abstracted representation of Carroll’s already whimsical story, expressed through one of the mediums that shaped the visual culture of Alice’s historical moment. 

The illustrations are often abstracted to the point where they could be described as psychedelic, but one feature remains staunchly and recognizably present throughout all twelve editions: Dali’s representation of Alice. The artist chooses to portray Alice as a silhouette of a woman jumping rope, always accompanied by her shadow. Dalí initially used this figure in some earlier paintings during his career, often titling the figure, “Girl Skipping Rope.” Here, this girl is repurposed as his Alice. Her jump rope is suspended in an arc above her head in every appearance. 

For all of the real Alice’s morphing, shrinking, growing, and other disruptions to her form, Dali’s representation of her is surprisingly static. The shadow, however, is granted that freedom of form. In some images, it stretches far taller than the figure, as though the sun is setting. In other illustrations, the shadow is identical to the figure, creating an uncanny doubled effect that carries echoes of Lady Clementina Hawarden’s photography, and all other features of Victorian visual culture that positions adolescent girls in front of mirrors. 

Though this Alice is only a silhouette, she still carries with her two seemingly contradictory ideas of age and Victorian girlhood. First, she seems to have been aged up considerably — a young woman, rather than a child. In several of the twelve representations of her, she is clearly drawn to have the figure of someone who’s already gone through puberty, and perhaps even reached young adulthood. This is an interesting choice, considering that Carroll’s Alice is firmly a child, several years removed from entering the nebulous Victorian space of young womanhood. This idea is complicated, however, by the jump rope.

The jump rope makes for a compelling and recognizable silhouette, but holds symbolic function as well. First, it communicates a sense of suspension in time for her character that carries interesting implications. Though Wonderland as a space already complicates the passage and function of time, we never get the sense in the original work that Alice, herself, is frozen in time in some way. This Alice, though, seems suspended in a paradoxical moment of frozen motion, the rope at the height of its trajectory, suspended in the space between upward movement and downward movement.

Second, the jump rope carries with it the undeniable connection to childhood. It indirectly suggests a reading of Alice that exists in a suspended state of play, hoisting that moment above her head; girlhood, frozen at its apex, right before it falls. 

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