Early on in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice drains a bottle labeled DRINK ME, which causes “a curious feeling” as she shuts up “like a telescope.” (1) She then finds a small cake with the words EAT ME written in currants. As she nibbles it, she exclaims, “Curiouser and curiouser!,” and immediately opens out “like the largest telescope that ever was,” her throat stretching in John Tenniel’s iconic illustration like the neck of a swan. (2) While Alice’s transformations seem to result from typical childhood appetite and inquisitiveness, it is significant that Carroll describes her reactions to them as “curious,” for this term had specific overtones in Victorian England.
Originally, the Latin curious meant “full of care”—that is, paying close attention. In the Renaissance, the word came to mean “inquisitive,” especially about unusual matters. During the Enlightenment, a “curiosity” was an object made with careful skill, while a “curioso” was someone who inquired into esoteric matters, whether of science or art. Such people collected “curios”—scientific specimens or objets d’art that were rare or strange—and cabinets of curiosities became quite popular, kept by private collectors or exhibited in museums and displaying such items as horns, nautilus shells, or boxes made of bone. (3)
Yet by the Victorian period, “curious” had become associated with both imperialism and deviance. Curiosity shops, kept by curiosity-mongers, aimed to entice curiomaniacs—collectors who sought objects from the far East, especially items made from animal skins and ivory. A “curiosity” also came to suggest the bizarre and the forbidden; “curiosa” was a euphemism for pornographic books or photographs. Thus Alice, who first feels curious and then curiouser, is not merely articulating an innocent wish to learn. She is also expressing a darker longing to know things that she should not know, particularly firsthand knowledge of Wonderland’s exotic creatures.
In Moore Adventures in Wonderland, Sue Johnson plays upon these multiple meanings of the curious by merging the curiosities of Carroll’s Wonderland with the unconventional, curioso poetics of Marianne Moore. Drawing upon scenes and themes from Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Johnson has selected, arranged and photographed items from Marianne Moore’s collection of curios held by the Rosenbach Museum and Library. In the exhibition, these photographs are then contained within large boxes resembling eighteenth-century specimen cabinets—although it takes a keen eye to recognize that the cabinets contain photographic assemblages rather than three-dimensional collections of curiosities. In addition, in many of the cabinets, Johnson has painted directly onto the photographic surface, adding various creatures reminiscent of Carroll’s own as well as imagistically connected to Moore’s poetry and poetic process. As such, the cabinets ask viewers to imitate Alice by tumbling “down a rabbit hole” of thought and suggestion in order to appreciate such provocative combinations.
Indoor Garden | 2009
Things That Fly | 2009
Yet Moore Adventures in Wonderland brings to light additional connections between Carroll and Moore as well, emphasizing the curious fact that, in terms of process, both writers acted as their own authorial “curators”—gathering bits of language and imagery from diverse cultural sources to construct their poems and novels. For her poetry, Marianne Moore culled found language and imagery from sources as eclectic as advertisements, National Geographic, Chinese philosophy, and displays at the American Museum of Natural History, aligning such disparate elements within her poems to engender, like Johnson, her own new “animals” from certain bones. (5) Thus, Moore Adventures in Wonderland offers a similar artistic process as well as a parallel site of productive interaction in which artist and viewer co-create meaning. Ultimately, the fixed and tagged objects in the pseudo-scientific boxes are not static at all but are in dynamic interaction with each other. As such, Johnson’s groupings ask viewers to take on an inquisitiveness that recalls both Carroll’s and Moore’s own by contemplating embodied, visual “poems” made from curated objects.
Lewis Carroll's watch.
Marianne Moore's Gloves, 1983.
Dye transfer print, 20" x 16".
Courtesy Peter Blum, New York.
Tea Party | 2009
In Johnson’s version, “Tea Party” offers another layer of critique—this time, an analysis of an artist’s relationship to the materials of his or her art. Specifically, “Tea Party” transforms the viewer into a scientist peering down into clinically neutral space where specimens can be scrutinized, categorized, and deconstructed. Yet as viewers continue to look, the objects become less and less neutral. In keeping with Alice’s shifts in size, here the economies of scale are out of joint: the Dormouse’s shadow looms larger than its body, and the obnoxious Hatter has been reduced to a tagged, miniature metonym. The tea cups are empty and the creatures largely absent. Instead of a party, we see the material detritus of Moore’s life—her gloves, cups, and hat. The curious on-looker confronts what he or she perhaps shouldn’t learn: an assemblage of the dead, objects that have outlasted a poet’s life and are no longer in human motion.
Installation view | "Moore Adventures in Wonderland"
Dürer, Young hare.
Humpty Dumpty | 2009
Walrus and The Typewriter | 2009
(1) Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There; The Hunting of the Snark, ed. Donald J. Gray, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1992) 11.
(2) Carroll 13.
(3) The term “cabinet” was used in sixteenth-century England to designate a case for storing small articles, including biological, antiquarian, or curio collections. By the seventeenth century, “cabinet” could also mean a secret room for storing treasure or a room for exhibiting artworks in a museum. As a curioso herself, Marianne Moore often wrote poems about unusual objects displayed in private collections or museums; see, for example, “The Jerboa” or “Tippoo’s Tiger.”
(4) Hoffman, a personal friend of Moore’s, was a well-known sculptor and author who worked for a time with the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
(5) See, for instance, Moore’s “Comment” in The Dial from May 1927. Moore was the editor of this literary magazine from 1925 to 1929.
(6) Dürer’s “Young Hare,” 1502, is now at the Graphische Sammlung Albertina in Vienna.
(7) Carroll 55, 60–61.
(8) Dürer is best known for his woodcut of a rhinoceros in which he represented this exotic animal by depicting its armor—a visual language recognizable in Dürer’s time. For two centuries, the woodcut was copied and became the visual definition of “rhinoceros” to Europeans. Moore kept a reproduction of Dürer’s rhinoceros on her writing desk and made direct reference to his work in poems such as “Apparition of Splendor.” Intriguingly, Dürer has been a touchstone artist for Johnson as well. In 1996, fascinated with the legacy of Dürer’s rhinoceros, Johnson created a print in dialogue with the history of this famous image, entitled "Reversed Rhinoceros with Gauntlets, after A.D."
(9) Carroll 159.
(10) Moore’s presence among the listening creatures in Johnson’s “Mouse’s Tale” is delightfully apt. Her only known direct use of Carroll’s writing is a verbatim transcription of “The Mouse’s Tale” from Alice’s Adventures under Ground—his original manuscript of the Alice stories presented to the real-life Alice Liddell in 1864. As a young woman, Moore copied out Carroll’s original rendering of “The Mouse’s Tale” as part of a mock newspaper, called “The Daily Scale,” that she and her mother assembled in 1911 while embarking upon a Grand Tour of Europe.
Dr. Jennifer Cognard-Black is an Associate Professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where she specializes in transatlantic Victorian literatures and fiction writing. Her publications are eclectic, encompassing critical articles, short fiction, a symphony text, popular essays, and three books, including Kindred Hands: Letters on Writing by British and American Women Authors, 1860–1920.