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In 1969, the Maecenas Press imprint of Random House published 2,700 copies of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, each chapter accompanied by one of 12 heliogravures by Salvador Dalí. Over the years the books became increasingly rare, and prices astronomical (one went for $5,625 at Christie’s in 2008). This month, in celebration of the book’s 150th anniversary, a new edition with the illustrations and an 1897 manuscript of the text (at a more modest $24.95) is out from Princeton University Press in association with the National Museum of Mathematics. It makes the dreamlike narrative illustrated by surrealist mash-ups of rabbits, caterpillars, clocks, and playing cards finally accessible to a wider audience.
Dalí illustrated several books in his lifetime, but Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with its trippy tumble down the rabbit hole was a better fit for his absurdist and hypnagogic imagery than, say, a 1946 edition of the essays of Michel de Montaigne. His melting clock from the 1931 “Persistence of Memory,” for instance, finds a fitting home as a centerpiece of the manic Mad Tea-Party. Mark Burstein, president emeritus of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, writes in an introduction:
Although the outrageousness of Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898), who came up with the pen name Lewis Carroll in 1856, was limned within a conventional fairy tale (ostensibly for children), the surrealists deliberately sought outrage and provocation in their art and lives and questioned the nature of reality. For both Carroll and the surrealists, what some call madness could be perceived by others as wisdom.
Both Carroll and Dalí also had a connection in their interest in math. Carroll was a lecturer in mathematics at Oxford’s Christ Church, and Dalí often embedded mathematic principles in his work, such as the golden ratio in “The Sacrament of the Last Supper” (1955) and the hypercube in “Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus)” (1954). In an essay for the new edition, Thomas Banchoff, professor emeritus of mathematics at Brown University, describes his personal interactions with Dalí, who once told him his paintings were inspired by metaphysics and medieval polymath Ramon Llull.
Banchoff notes a young lady a with a jump rope who recurs in the 12 gouaches as Dalí’s mature symbol of the seven-year-old Alice, a figure he’d drawn since the 1930s, but later transformed into a stand-in for the character. “He had the opportunity to vary the image of the girl by posing her from different viewpoints and with shadows of various lengths cast from several different virtual light sources,” Banchoff writes. “The exercise resonates well with his experiments in exaggerated perspective, both in single images and in stereo pairs.”
The new edition in its hardback, mass-produced form might not have the elegance of the 1969 version that was issued in a clamshell box with folded portfolios, although the imagery is just as saturated, accented with ink splatters, in this more affordable format. Originally printed alongside the rise of 1960s psychedelia, we can return to examine the curious collaboration between one of the most prolific 20th-century dreamers and one of the 19th-century’s most influential fantasies.
On October 2, the Museum of Mathematics (11 East 26th Street, Flatiron, Manhattan) is celebrating the mathematics of the book in an evening edition of their Unbounded series. On October 8, Mark Burstein, president emeritus of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, will give a talk focusing on the edition at the 92nd Street Y (Lexington Avenue at East 92nd Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan).