Brain Pickings

Lisbeth Zwerger’s Imaginative Illustrations for Alice in Wonderland

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“Lay it where Childhood’s dreams are twined…”

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, commonly shorthanded to Alice in Wonderland, isn’t only one of the most imaginative and influential children’s books of all time, but also one of the most enduringly alluring to artists for visual reinterpretation — no doubt precisely due to its fanciful nature and bold subversion of reality. Since John Tenniel’s original illustrations, the Carroll classic has been reimagined by such visionary artists as Leonard Weisgard, Ralph Steadman, Yayoi Kusama, John Vernon Lord, and even Salvador Dalí.

As an enormous admirer of Austrian artist Lisbeth Zwerger’s mind and work, I was thrilled to track down a used copy of a sublime out-of-print edition of Alice in Wonderland (public library) featuring Zwerger’s inventive, irreverent, and tenderly tantalizing drawings, published in 1999, three years after her enchanting reimagining of The Wizard of Oz.

The book begins with Carroll’s prefatory poem from the book, which recounts the afternoon boat trip on which he first told the Alice in Wonderland story to the three little Liddell sisters — Lorina (“Prima”), Alice (“Secunda”), the real-life girl who inspired the tale, and Edith (“Tertia”):

All in the golden afternoon
Full leisurely we glide;
For both our oars, with little skill,
By little arms are plied,
While little hands make vain pretence
Our wanderings to guide.

Ah, cruel Three! In such an hour,
Beneath such dreamy weather,
To beg a tale of breath too weak
To stir the tiniest feather!
Yet what can one poor voice avail
Against three tongues together?

Imperious Prima flashes forth
Her edict to “begin it”:
In gentler tones Secunda hopes
“There will be nonsense in it!”
While Tertia interrupts the tale
Not more than once a minute.

Anon, to sudden silence won,
In fancy they pursue
The dream-child moving through a land
Of wonders wild and new,
In friendly chat with bird or beast —
And half believe it true.

And ever, as the story drained
The wells of fancy dry,
And faintly strove that weary one
To put the subject by,
“The rest next time—” “It is next time!”
The happy voices cry.

Thus grew the tale of Wonderland:
Thus slowly, one by one,
Its quaint events were hammered out—
And now the tale is done,
And home we steer, a merry crew,
Beneath the setting sun.

Alice! A childish story take,
And with a gentle hand,
Lay it where Childhood’s dreams are twined
In Memory’s mystic band,
Like pilgrim’s wither’d wreath of flowers
Pluck’d in far-off land.

What makes Zwerger’s aesthetic particularly bewitching is her ability render even the wildest feats of fancy in a soft and subdued style that tickles the imagination into animating the characters and scenes with life.

Though Alice in Wonderland is currently out of print, you can still find used copies online and at the library. Complement it with some radically different takes on the Carroll classic from Ralph Steadman, Yayoi Kusama, and John Vernon Lord.

Some of Zwerger’s prints, including one of the Alice cover illustration, are available on ArtKandy.

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