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Alice in the forest where things have no names
No thoughts are necessary
page updated 9 September 2007
Detail. Acrylic and oil on prepared paper. State at completion 2007. Click to page down to detail of Alice 2004 and the complete Alice painting 2007. Free desktop wallpaper of this image is available.
A happy swap
An artist by the name of Joanna Thomas saw an earlier stage of this painting and wanted to buy it. I liked her work so much I offered a swap. The work I commissioned from her is called Misfortune and is of the heroine of that name from the Italian folk tale. This prompted me to do a lot more work on the painting, adding greenery and the light petticoat you see here (to make Alice fit for transport to the USA and for the artistic reasons explained below). I shall post a photograph of Misfortune here on receipt.
A problem of artistic representation
Originally I painted Alice nude (detail below). This was because I wanted some way of showing the innocence of the state, free of Victorian or even any anxieties, considerations of propriety, or indeed any thoughts at all.
The problem is that depictions of naked girls upset people. You can see artistic representations of naked boys in galleries and even in churches, but naked girls create an uneasy feeling. This creates a problem when an artist has a good reason (as here) to use nakedness as a representation of truth and innocence, in what is intended to be a non-sentimental way. It evokes the wrong response. Yet there may be no clearer way to evoke the right response.
In the end I decided to clothe her. However, rather than give her the full Victorian paraphernalia, she is wearing only simple undergarments and a petticoat: enough to preserve her modesty, but not enough to burden her. I think in this state of mind clothing is immaterial to her.
I stretched acid-free paper by wetting it and using gum arabic paper tape to tape it to a board. The paper was then coated with acrylic gesso. At first the painting was done in acrylic.
After leaving the painting for two years, I remained dissatisfied that the acrylic colours had dried a lot duller than they had appeared when wet. I started darkening parts of the background with an oil glaze, and adding highlights to the flesh tones with thicker oil paint. Also I corrected some errors in the anatomy. I also worked a lot on Alice's facial expression, which wasn't quite how I wanted it.
The composition of the painting is based on Tenniel's illustration in Through the Looking Glass and the style is heavily influenced by Picasso's Boy leading a horse 1906 (see illustrations).
Commentary on the symbolism
The wood where things have no names allows Alice to meet with a faun without it being the least afraid. In this wordless state Alice simply is, without having to define herself or the things around her. In fact, she says as much when she tries to remember her name: L, I know it begins with L!. This makes sense if we do call her L, then we can say, L-is , that is to say, she exists (without thoughts), and also if we say it out loud it sounds like Alice. (I am indebted to Martin Gardner's The Annotated Alice footnote 6 for this insight.)
We have been warned elsewhere in the Alice books that words have no real substance, since Humpty Dumpty makes words mean what he wants them to mean, neither more nor less. No doubt students of Ludwig Wittgenstein will email me in their thousands to tell me that a private language is impossible. But of course, once you start talking to other people no end of chaos can ensue. We do all understand words slightly differently (sometimes radically differently). Words are both stretchy and fuzzy at the edges, so for instance not everyone will agree just where blue leaves off and green begins.
Even so, we treat words as if they were things (just as, in Gulliver's travels, the philosophers treat things as if they were words, which is more accurate but less convenient, because they have to argue using actual furniture, kettles and such like). Because of this, we often do not live in the real world at all, because we imagine that our internal map of the world, composed of words and drawn up by ourselves over the years, by dead reckoning mostly, is actually the world itself. (This incidentally is one meaning of Borges's story in Extraordinary Tales about the land of cartographers, who made a map on a scale of 1:1.)
In the wood where things have no names Alice briefly is herself. No longer is she confused about her identity, as she was when she met the caterpillar: 'Who are you?' said the Caterpillar. This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, 'I - I hardly know sir, just at present...' . She even says, 'I'm not myself'. But in the wood where things have no names this is no longer a problem, even though she cannot remember her own name.
Whether you believe it or not, the Self does not disappear when deprived of thought.
My Alice links
Click on the left image if you want to buy Martin Gardner's updated Annotated Alice from Amazon. Click on the right image for an Alice painting I did some years ago.