“Through the looking glass with Heart-Shaped Sunglasses: Searching for Alice and Lolita in Contemporary Representations of Girls” Lori Waxman

This is an essay by Lori Waxman in the book  “Girls! Girls! Girls! In Contemporary Art” edited by Catherine Grant and Lori Waxman, published by Intellect Bristol 2011. The book was recommended to me by my tutor as part of my A1 feedback.

It is quite heavy going so I’m going to write it up one essay at a time. The first essay is particularly relevant as I am going to rework A1 with an Alice perspective.

Alice (Lewis Carroll) and Lolita (Nabokov) have provided two templates for young girls in photography, film and literature.

“These two fictional characters provide a provocative – not to mention cute and girly – blueprint for understanding the cornucopia of girls currently being represented in art today.” p17. They represent blueprints who are adaptable, have an almost legendary status, who both tread the line between childhood and adulthood and who are familiar to most of us.

Alice is described as “that mad bundle of innocent curiousity” p21, which sounds absolutely fine until you read Nabokov’s quote that “curiousity is insubordination in its purest form”. Somehow my Alice feels tainted  now. Not by the insubordination, but by the idea of what  Nabokov might hope the insubordination could lead to.  Her defining characteristic is her curiosity, after all.

Through the years, Alice has tended to grow younger (eg the earlier Disney films), whilst Lolita has grown older in tandem with the age of consent rising. Interestingly, Anna Gaskell’s Alices were not particularly young, nor was Mia Wasikowska’s Alice – old enough to be proposed to in the first film and to captain a ship in the second film. Anna Gaskell’s Alices are wobbling on the edge of puberty, and she uses composition, angle of viewpoint, cropping  and varying print sizes to convey the changes in sizes and shape that Carroll conveyed via food and drink. {Note – I wonder about using a birthday cake image to convey the growth that comes with age}. Waxman wonders: “Can a girl really get to tell her own story, free of adult hang-ups and coloured visions?” (p31) Personally I doubt it, unless the girl is taking her own pictures or writing her own story free of any kind of editorial influence or without doing the work as part of a graded programme of study.

I picked up some more references to follow up from this article. They are:

  • Loretta Lux
  • Rita Ackermann
  • Lisa Yuskavage
  • Suen Wong
  • Jan Svankmejer (Alice animated movie).

So what will I take away from this to my work? I think the increased knowledge of Alice will help me with the rework, and help me with the positioning of my work. My daughter is to me exactly the right age for this. I was intrigued by the consideration of the narrator’s role as well. Nabokov as the narrator is the person who writes Lolita as a girl who reflects desires back, he ensures that the reader can project their desire onto her because like Jessica Rabbit, she “can’t help it”, it’s the way she’s drawn. I think that as B’s mother there are obviously ways in which I would not want her to be portrayed, and I need to be aware that I am telling my version of her story which is probably not the same as her version of her story.

I think that some of the Gaskell work veers towards Lolita rather than Alice. “Real girls don’t dress like that and real girls look you in the eye.”

Returning to this post to wrap up and post I can add that the Francesca Woodman work that I saw at Feminist Avant Garde of the 1970s exhibition yesterday fitted well into an Alice viewpoint. I liked the curiosity of the images, the tight crops and the use of space.



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