Salvador Dalí’s Rare 1969 Illustrations for “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” Rediscovered and Resurrected
Two masters of the fanciful and philosophical, together.
By Maria Popova
In 1865, a Victorian mathematician wrote a fairy tale that would go on to live parallel lives as one of the world’s most beloved children’s books and a modernist masterwork of philosophy that mushrooms its yield of wisdom with each reading — one of humanity’s very few works, alongside perhaps Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, which subtly and seamlessly fuse art, science, and philosophy.
Nearly a century later, in a 1961 lecture titled “Where Do We Go from Here,” Marcel Duchamp prophecized that tomorrow’s emerging artists “like Alice in Wonderland … will be led to pass through the looking-glass of the retina, to reach a more profound expression.” He was the first to intuit the conceptual common ground between the story that the mathematician Charles Dodgson had dreamt up on an afternoon boat ride a century earlier, before he became Lewis Carroll, and the budding surrealist art movement, which was just beginning to find its sea legs. Duchamp’s insight materialized into concrete form eight years later, when a visionary editor at Random House commissioned surrealist kingpin Salvador Dalí (May 11, 1904–January 23, 1989) to illustrate the Carroll classic for a small, exclusive edition of their book-of-the-month series. Dalí created twelve heliogravures — a frontispiece, which he signed in every copy from the edition, and one illustration for each chapter of the book.
For more than half a century, this unusual yet organic cross-pollination of genius remained an almost mythic artifact, reserved for collectors and scholars. To mark the 150th anniversary of the beloved book, Princeton University Press brought back to life the Dalí-illustrated Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (public library) — a crowning achievement among the greatest illustrations of the Carroll masterpiece from the century and a half since its inception, featuring new introductions by Mark Burstein, president of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, and mathematician Thomas Banchoff, who knew and collaborated with Dalí.
In the introduction, Burstein considers the natural creative confluence between Carroll and the surrealists:
For both Carroll and the surrealists, what some call madness could be perceived by others as wisdom. Even the creative processes of Carroll and the surrealists were similar. The surrealists practiced automatism in their writing and drawing; Carroll called the initial telling of the tale … “effortless,” saying that “every such idea and nearly every word of the dialogue, came of itself… when fancies unsought came crowding thick upon [me], or at times when the jaded Muse was goaded into action more because she had to say something than that she had something to say.”
In addition, collages were a serious apparatus in the surrealists’ arsenal; Carroll invented the term portmanteau — combining words — and produced “Jabberwocky,” the most famous example of pure neologistic nonsense in the English language (or close to it, anyway). His bestiary of mome raths, toves, and Bread-and-butter-flies, also from Through the Looking-Glass, could easily have been products of the surrealists’ game of Exquisite Corpse.
Dalí himself applied a number of surrealist techniques to his interpretation of the story. To represent Alice — the sole character who appears in every chapter — he reused an image of a girl skipping rope that he had first painted more than thirty years earlier. He placed this strange, static, mid-motion figure, almost an icon, in each of the twelve illustration — a choice that was part automatism, part cut-up technique, as if echoing Carroll’s incantation from the first page: “The rest next time — ” “It is next time!”
Complement this marvelous, long-awaited resurrection of the Dalí-interpreted Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with the story of how the Carroll story was born and other stunning artistic interpretations of the classic tale from its 150-year history, then revisit Dalí’s rare erotic cookbook and his forgotten illustrations for Don Quixote in 1946, the essays of Montaigne in 1947, The Divine Comedy in 1957, and Romeo and Juliet in 1975.
Published September 2, 2016