• What is the porpoise of nonsense?

    By Rebecca Sinker -

  • 1

“It seems to fill my head with ideas only I don’t exactly know what they are!”

Hey, I wonder if you’ve had that feeling that you were looking at something wonderful, strange, amazing – bizarre – but you didn’t really understand it? Well here in Tate’s galleries, that can happen. And Alice has that feeling from the moment she falls down the rabbit hole in Wonderland. And then again when she goes through the looking glass into a world where sense becomes nonsense.

What did you do in school today – reeling and writhing? A lesson in ancient mystery?

The thing is, Alice is sort of familiar with that. You know the way grown-ups often don’t make sense – always saying one thing but then doing another? Yeah, you know.

Hey, didn’t I see that cat in your dream last night? Or was it just his grin?

In Wonderland things look or sound familiar but sort of different, as if they were back to front or out of place. There’s a name for it – ‘Surreal’ (which comes from the French word for ‘super-real’ if you must know). And the artists whose work explores those impossible but apparently real ideas are Surrealists. Here comes one now.

Dorothea Tanning, 'Eine Kleine Nachtmusik', 1943

  • Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 1943
  • Dorothea Tanning
  • © DACS, 2002

Would you like some more tea?

Ok what was the porpoise of that? That’s the sort of nonsense Alice in Wonderland has tortoise. It was a really important book because it played with the rules and for readers as well as for many writers and artists, it’s a playful fable of foolishness that helped them to think differently, and somehow make meaning from how daft life is. Art can do that too.

Proof sheet of the mouse's tail cut up and re-pasted in a curve

  • Proof sheet of the mouse’s tail cut up and re-pasted in a curve, early 1860s
  • Charles Dodgson, a.k.a. Lewis Carroll
  • Reproduced by kind permission of Christ Church Library and Archive, University of Oxford

Now, look again at that picture you thought you didn’t understand. T’was brillig, right?

Pick your brain

How many surrealists does it take to change a lightbulb?

Discussion Area

  1. Hmmm, sometimes I do have that strange feeling. Wow, there is more things that Alice and I share!

    Helen - August 25, 2012