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Artful Dodger: Prof. Abigail Baird

Today’s post comes from Deborah Steinberg, Class of 2014 and Art Center Student Intern.

On Tuesday, February 7th, Professor Abigail Baird kicked off this semester’s Artful Dodger series by pulling Salvador Dali’s illustrations of Alice in Wonderland out of storage. Baird, an Associate Professor of Psychology, immediately drew a connection between Lewis Carroll’s work of “nonsense fiction” and Sigmund Freud’s research on the subconscious. According to Freud, Salvador Dali was the only artist who could effectively depict the subconscious. While this is impossible in itself, it’s hard not to look at these illustrations and think you’ve fallen deep into someone else’s dream, or at least a rabbit hole.

We first explored “The Tea Party,” where the Mad Hatter is curiously absent and a typically Daliesque dripping clock replaces the table. While on one hand this may be Dali’s way of inserting himself into the story and making it clear that he is the artist here, Baird also explains that right from the beginning, Alice in Wonderland is a story about time. Apart from the obvious symbolism of the rabbit with the pocket watch, there is an overarching theme of youth and growing up that was especially poignant for Carroll. Baird, whose research focuses on developmental psychology, was also drawn to this notion. She talked about how the mock trial with the queen is like an eighth-grade girl’s world and how adolescents can feel very small one second, and the next, like they’re taking up too much space and popping out of their house.

Baird pointed out how each illustration always depicts Alice with a jump rope above her head, and asked the audience to discuss its possible significance. Viewers commented on the idea of time, how it is circular like the jump rope, and yet Dali freezes that moment in time. They commented on the idea of repetition, how the activity consists of fast and dynamic motion, yet allows the jumper to stay in one place. Finally, others noted the halo effect the rope creates, how it turns young Alice into an innocent and angelic figure, thus echoing the religious imagery contained in “Who Stole the Tarts,” the last plate Baird discussed. It was a thought-provoking encounter with a familiar children’s story – one that left everyone reflecting on their experiences with Alice in Wonderland and growing up.

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