If Salvador Dali was anything, he was a rule breaker. He completed art school but didn’t graduate because his oral exam response to a single prompt about Raphael was that he knew the Old Master’s work better than the proctors. His art was no different in its attitude: operating by its own rules and within its own language.
After being expelled again, this time from the surrealist movement for his apoliticism, Dali responded simply, “I myself am surrealism.” He developed “nuclear mysticism” as a response to atomic warfare and Einstein’s theories of relativity, splintering his iconography in a near-psychedelic frenzy. And he even dabbled in pop art with work like the macabre, large-scale “Portrait of My Dead Brother.”
Dali was no stranger to shapeshifting. So it was no surprise that when he was commissioned in 1968-69 by a Random House editor to illustrate an edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, he came out with a new and exciting style.
The images are startling and wonderful in their own way, even featuring callbacks to Dali’s earlier work. Many of the twelve main pictures show Alice as an incidental figure, a small ballerina-like girl with impossibly long hands extending above her head. This image is featured in Dali’s earlier work, including 1934-36’s “Morphological Echo”: an isolated figure in Dali’s strange wastelands much like Alice was within Wonderland. Alice seems to simply be there, an incidental participant, someone to whom things are happening and not someone with much agency—an interpretation echoed in Carroll’s book.
An image of two knight-servants holding cards shows little Alice under the feet of the knight holding the splotched Red Queen’s image, itself a callback to Dali’s 1923 “Portrait of My Sister.” In a way, it’s as though we are reading Carroll’s Wonderland through Dali’s mind, intertwined with his back catalog of thoughts and images. Alice—both as the thin Dalian figure and Carroll’s character—exists simultaneously within the book and outside of it within readers’ minds, both inside Wonderland and in the garden while asleep and dreaming next to her sister.
The images are psychedelic and haunting, with an ominous foreboding exuded by Carroll but not by the original illustrator of the book, John Tenniel. While Tenniel’s work aimed to clarify scenes, Dali’s compresses them into one image—Alice’s arm sticking out of a house while a caterpillar climbs up its stairs, for instance. It reflects Dali’s propensity for the collision of themes that initially seem disharmonious, and in a way mirrors the horror of the unknown that Carroll and children’s storytellers before him seemed to aim for.