Jean-Claude Silbermann is a French poet and painter born in 1935 in Paris. He joined the French Surrealist movement in 1956 and had been part of the group until its conclusion in 1969. Max Ernst, Salvador Dali and Man Ray were some of the major figures in the movement, along with other writers and artists. The group’s members believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination and sought to channel the unconscious instead. Influenced by the writings of Karl Marx and by psychoanalysis, the Surrealists have cast aside the rational and sought out the anxieties of the mind and body, transforming them into works of art and literature.
First a foremost a poet, Silbermann started painting from the early 1960’s without formal training and was largely self-taught. His first exhibition, at Galerie Mona Lisa in Paris in 1964, featured a catalogue with a preface by one of the founders and leading figures of Surrealism André Breton (1896-1966) , who believed that Silbermann’s inspiration lay at the crossroads of poetry, freedom and love. Silbermann actively participated in the Eleventh International Exhibition of Surrealism, L’Écart Absolu, in 1965. On the subject of his large symbolic canvas from 1988, “Le Oui des femmes (et pour commencer le Oui des homes)” – “The Yes of women (and to begin with the Yes of men)” – Silbermann noted: “I sometimes paint against my will, without pleasure, with fear even. I sometimes paint out of duty to the truth. The superego sometimes allies itself with deeper forces, in order to preserve the expression of the most distant subjectivity, no matter how unpleasant it may seem to me.”1
“Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass” must have appealed to him on account of its surreal settings and characters. Silbermann first created 180 carved wood artworks depicting scenes from Carroll’s text. The artist used canvas-backed plywood panels on which the images were drawn, cut out and then painted with watercolours and oils. First exhibited as an installation, the artworks’ arrangement on the wall and in the space was distributed “similar to cards dealt for a game, in a way that would make sense”, notes the artist in the Afterword to this edition. The original “Alice” art series continued a larger body of work, entitled Babil-Babylone, which Silbermann was working for more than fifteen years and reported as “far from being completed” in the Afterword to this edition of “Alice” with his illustrations. Babil-Babylone was exhibited in various spaces, including in Musee d’Art Moderne et Contemporain (Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art) in Geneva, where it was part of the group exhibition called “Onamatterpoetic”.
The installation nature of Silbermann’s original ‘Alice’ art is alluded to through the illusion of shadows that the illustrations appear to cast over the pages of the book. Images range from the whole scene to various fragments of the whole repeated throughout the book as chopped and cropped parts, sometimes suspended or rotated at different angles. This gives the book a certain rhythm that plunges you into an illusion of being in a dream that betrays any chronological sequencing or logical ordering of things and events.
In the Afterword to this edition, Silbermann quoted some visual references from Bernard Roger’s book “Discovering alchemy: The Art of Hermes through tales, legends and Masonic rituals”. Silberman writes about his close engagement with Carroll’s text which has ultimately convinced him that both Carroll’s stories were an allegory of the “great alchemical powers in action”, where Alice changes constantly but never ages, holding the secret to eternal youth. So deep was the artist’s engagement with the character of Alice that he ends up concluding that “she [Alice] is the boat and, if I am not mistaken, I am the river, the way I feel her plunging deeply into me.”
Silbermann sees Alice changing sizes as well as changing the clothes she’s dressed in while Underground. In the Afterword he elaborates on the impact it had on his illustrations’ imagery:
“Between these mutations, I happened to see her in all her nudity. Later, when she pursued the idea to go through the looking-glass, it was like a black virgin that I saw her enter it. Despite the cold crossing she wore no clothes. But a great fire awaited on the other side of the mirror. The fire that keeps on burning the beautiful logs of the forest where all things are nameless.”
Black Virgin or medieval Black Madonna, whose images can be found in many Catholic churches, is one of the most controversial images in Christianity. Some interpretations suggest that Black Madonna guides us through our darkness and represents the inner process of transformation. Some attribute her blackness to the accumulated smoke from votive candles of the faithful (which may or may not be reason for a few candles scattered across the book).
Another symbol nodding to Alice’s virginity is the strawberry. There is one on the book’s cover which is then repeated numerous times throughout the pages. In ancient Rome the strawberry was a symbol for Venus, the Goddess of Love. In medieval times the illuminated manuscripts were often decorated with the borders of strawberries symbolising perfection and righteousness. In Christianity wild strawberries were associated with goodness and purity and was once considered the symbol of the Virgin Mary (as seen in the medieval painting “The Madonna of the Strawberries”).
Closer to the surrealist symbolism, the strawberries in Hieronymus Bosch’s famous “Garden of Earthly Delights” were commonly interpreted as an emblem of temptations of earthly pleasures. In Silbermann’s “Wonderland” Alice holds a strawberry between her feet (below left) which in my mind points to the purity of her mind and virginity. The cover image, later fragmented and repeated throughout the book, shows a strawberry with the ears of a rabbit; the rabbits as well as many seeds on the strawberry traditionally symbolise fertility. This may be alluding to Alice’s impending coming of age and approaching her womanhood.
Continuing with Biblical associations, the reference to the ‘original sin’ may be seen in the illustration with the serpent, which reflects the text, even if such meaning was not necessarily ascribed to it by Carroll. Silbermann’s scene shows Alice with two heads, that of a girl and also of a serpent, with the ‘evil’ taking the form of an ugly anthropomorphic looking creature with a red body, the longest nose, wearing black gloves and what looks like black roller skates. Not sure of the symbolism of the gloves or the roller-skates, but the long nose in popular culture is usually the symbol of trickery, lies and deception (think Pinocchio or the wicked witches). In some shamanic cultures of the past a long nose was a sign of sexual energy and a man’s virility, thus signifying a very powerful shaman (shamanic powers could be amplified by the subversion of sexual energy).
Moving on from Alice’s character, Silbermann’s White Rabbit appears in both traditional and surrealist forms. I was puzzling over the surreal cross between a rabbit’s head and a camel’s body on the cover, until registering that the camel is not any type, but a one-humped camel known as a Dromedary. The word ‘dromedary‘ (Latin ‘dromedarius’) originates from the Greek word ‘dromas’ meaning “running” or “runner”. My suggestion is therefore that the rabbit-camel creature is an allusion to the White Rabbit being always late and on the run. The page from Silbermann’s sketchbook (reproduced at the end of this book) shows the genesis and evolution of this White Rabbit idea – starting as the rabbit under the roots of a large tree, which must signify his belonging to the Underworld. Alice emerges from the rabbit’s ears and her many faces look out from the stalk of the plant projecting upward from the rabbit-camel’s hump. This could be referring to Alice coming from the land above the Underworld, with multiple faces signifying her constant changes in physical size and mental states, her reflections on her identity and asking herself “But who am I?”, the answer to the latter question also demanded from her by the others protagonists (notably, the Caterpillar).
Silbermann’s more traditional White Rabbit is a direct quote of JohnTenniel’s image. The artist referred to it in the Afterword to this edition, acknowledging Tenniel’s’ authority as the illustrator whose work has been controlled and approved by Carroll himself. “It seems fair to me to quote sometimes from these original drawings, even if by modifying slightly their form, function and meaning”, wrote Silbermann.
Similarly to the White Rabbit, below are the examples of quoting Tenniel’s Alice, the White Knight and some elements of Jabberwock.
Silbermann plays with images mimicking Carroll’s wordplay and puns. In the example below, the cross between the horse and caterpillar is derived by swapping the middle letters in “un cheval” (French for “a horse”) and “une chenille” (French for “a caterpillar”). Two surrealistic hybrid animals shown below visually echo the newly created words whose etymology has been transformed. The new words “un chenal’ and ‘une cheville’ clearly inscribed on the backs of the new-born surrealist creatures made this visual riddle easy to crack. The question of why horse remains unanswered in my mind; but possibly there is no further meaning to it and it was just what worked for the word/image pun.
Yoyo in the image (below left) signifies Alice changing sizes. A notebook page (reproduced at the back end of this edition) shows Silbermann’s sketch of Alice in different sizes with a yoyo in hand. The sketch is annotated at the bottom:”Non, Alice ne joue pas au yoyo, elle est au yoyo“, which translates as “No, Alice is not playing yoyo, she is yoyo”.
In the ‘Mad Tea Party’ scene, the thought bubbles attached to each protagonist include visual chiasms on the theme of saying what one means. When Alice was found not doing so by the tea party hosts, the March Hare remarked:
“Then you should say what you mean”. “I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing, you know.” “Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “Why, you might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”. “You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, ‘that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like!” “You might just as well say,’ added the Dormouse, ‘that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe!”
Silberman brilliantly transforms the above dialogue into a series of visual puns, which demonstrate that, for example, “Hand over heart” is different to “Handover heart” (alternatively, “Hand on the heart” is clearly not “Heart on the hand”) whereas “Hen on the Cow” is very different to “Cow on the Hen”.
To my regret I am not conversant in French, otherwise, I’m sure I would have obtained great insights into Jean-Claude Silbermann’s thinking and the genesis of his surrealist ideas through examining his notebooks’ sketches and comments. Many pages from his “Alice’ sketchbook are reproduced at the back on this edition. Some of them can be easily interpreted by reference to images alone (eg. Alice playing with yoyo, as described above). Other pages, however, are filled with ample handwritten notes, but Silbermann’s handwriting is indecipherable to me for the largest part. If you own this book and are able to read and understand these notes, please share your insights in the comments below this post.
Browse more of Silbermann’s “Alice au Pays de Merveilles” (“Alice in Wonderland”)
Browse Silbermann’s “De l’autre côté du mirroir” (“Through the Looking-Glass”)
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.
1 As quoted in http://www.thesurrealists.org/jean-claude-silbermann.html. I could not find an image of the work the quote relates to on the net (“Le Oui des femmes (et pour commencer le Oui des homes)” – if you’ve seen it I would greatly appreciate a lead, please share in comments!