A pupil of the famous artist Paul Colin, Alain Gauthier first had a hugely successful career as an advertising poster artist, producing ads for household brand names like Danone, Choco BN, various wine labels and many others. His mastery won him several awards in the 1950s and 1960s. He didn’t turn to illustration till his early 40’s. His first picture book “Zizou, artichoke, poppy, bird” written by Jean Chalon, was published by Grasset in 1974. Since then he has illustrated texts by Jean Joubert, Maurice Denuzière, Michel Tournier and Lewis Carroll. Click here for some beautiful video reviews of a few of those.
“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” with Alain Gauthier’s illustrations was published in 1991 by Rageot. It includes 18 plates in Gauthier’s enigmatic surrealistic style that may appeal more to adults than children. Sensual, dreamlike, provocative, some humorous, some involve nudity, like in the plates below. On the left side, Lewis Carroll himself is seen from behind taking a photograph of a tired and bare-breasted Alice reclining on a sofa. The right-hand side plate concludes the “Pig and Pepper” chapter, which precedes “A Mad Tea-Party”. A totally nude Alice is being carried by protagonists of the tea party – March Hare, Hatter and Dormouse (presented as Mickey mouse here) – into their own chapter of “Wonderland”.
The inventiveness of Gauthier’s visual play and puns matches Carrollian literary wordplay. Here are a few examples. Alice falls through the rabbit-hole, so the hole itself is shaped like a rabbit’s head.
In the pool of tears, the mouse is wearing a rubber pool cap, whereas thoughts of menacing cats manifest as a couple of Gauthier’s felines (frequent subjects in his oeuvre) watching Alice and the mouse from the pool-side. The femme-fatale type cat is eyeing Alice and the mouse. Gauthier’s mouse must be a ‘he’.
At the tea party, Alice is speaking into the ear (which is what they call a handle) of the teapot with a realistic duck head acting as an extension of the teapot’s beak.
Carroll’s “The Queen’s croquet-ground” chapter opens with a dialogue between three gardeners (the anthropomorphic playing cards) who are painting white flowers red on the rose-tree. Gauthier merges the three gardeners into the character of a young artist whose clothing is adorned with symbols of the playing card deck, including Seven and Five (the gardeners’ names identified in their dialogue).
The artist is touching up with red paint the white roses on his painting of an Ace card. That card doubles as the portrait of a beautiful young girl with a fair complexion and blond hair, an “English rose” kind of girl, likely Alice herself (“A’ of Ace).
The plate below references number “42” along with the key, an eyehole and the mysterious door that Alice is about to walk through. These illustrative elements in the aggregate are seen as a potential nod to Douglas Adams’ work “Hitchhiker’s “Guide to the Galaxy” (which I am yet to read), in which “42” is the “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything“. Whilst the novel’s answer to the Ultimate Question is “42”, that Question itself is unknown and to calculate what it is a special computer the size of a small planet was built from organic components and named “Earth”. I find the strangeness of this plot to be quite a match to the strangeness of both Carroll’s Wonderland and Gauthier’s interpretation of it. Besides Douglas Adams’ writing, number 42 is the most frequently called up number in various facets of popular culture from popular music to writing, including Carroll’s mathematically inclined Wonderland puns. I haven’t counted it myself but I understand that the count of Carroll’s own illustrations in the original manuscript called “Alice’s Adventures Underground” was 42.
Doe you see the Titanic slowly entering the below “Pig and Pepper” picture plane? Is it an allegory for the mayhem that is about to ensue in the Duchess’s kitchen? Your guess is as good as mine, I suppose. One certain thing is that pondering the potential meanings hidden in Alain Gauthier’s images is as visually and intellectually challenging as it is rewarding.
Few illustrations elicit a laugh like the one below, look at Alice’s body language and the King and the Queen’s gestures 🙂
In addition to the magnificent full-page colour plates, the book includes a few small watercolours, light, airy and humorous, their style is quite different to the main plates.
Outside illustrating pursuits, Alain Gauthier dedicated time to teaching children and young people, passing on his passion for painting. His painting practise was referred to by critic Janine Kotwica as ‘the very musical universe’, which “reflects the same sensual and mysterious atmosphere as his works on paper. Here too, he combines anachronistic daring with a touch of surrealism and a deeply internalised dreamlike feeling, always with a subtle sense of halftones, a particular talent for layout and a harmonious structuring of space”.
Without detracting from my other long-standing affections, the art of Alain Gauthier is my new wholehearted obsession. Most of the books illustrated by Alain Gauthier are only available through the second-hand market now. My search list presently includes:
- “Le Belle et La Bet” (“Beauty and the Beast”) written by Jeanne Leprince de Beaumont (after Jean Cocteau), published by Ipomée editions, 1988
- “Mon Chaperon rouge” (My Red Riding Hood”) written by Anne Ikhlef, published by Seuil, 1998
- “Ma Peau d’âne” (“My Donkey Skin”) written by Anne Ikhlef, published by Seuil, 2002
- “Nous, les loups”, written by Edith de Cornulier-Luciniere, published by Bilboquet, 2007
- “Est-elle Estelle?”, written by François David, published by Motus Editions, 2002. He received gold medal at the Bratislava Illustration Biennale for this one
I will be reviewing the above and other books by this illustrator as they are added to my home library. In the meantime, please enjoy browsing more of the enigmatic and exquisitely beautiful images from Alain Gauthier’s “Alice in Wonderland”.
To browse other editions from my collection of illustrated “Alice in Wonderland” click here. To browse other editions of illustrated “Through the Looking-Glass” click here. What are you favourite versions of illustrated ‘Alice’?