Illustrator’s ‘Alice’ making surrealistic splash: Barry Moser’s work at heart of French exhibit

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 02-17-2023 8:39 PM

Barry Moser needs little introduction in these parts, or across much of the U.S., for that matter. The Hatfield artist has won enormous praise and recognition over the years for his detailed wood engravings and his limited edition prints of classic stories such as “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

But for the past few months, audiences in France have been getting their first major look at some of Moser’s most well-known work: his illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” a 1983 National Book Award winner for design and illustration, and the artwork in a follow-up book, “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.”

Moser’s art is part of an expansive exhibition at the Tomi Ungerer Museum, a center for illustration, in Strasbourg in eastern France. The exhibit, called “Illustr’Alice,” features book illustrations inspired by the character of Alice from Carroll’s stories.

That exhibit in turn is connected to a larger show at the Strasbourg Modern and Contemporary Art Museum (MAMCS) called “SurréAlice,” which offers a broader look at surrealistic art — paintings, photographs, drawings, prints and more — from the 20th century that was inspired in part by Carroll’s “Alice” stories.

What’s particularly notable about “Illustr’Alice” is that Moser is one of just a few American illustrators whose work is part of the exhibit — most are Europeans — and that he’s the only artist in the show who has an entire room dedicated to his work, according to Kathy Ollivier.

Ollivier is a Smith College graduate (class of 1979) who majored in art and now lives in southern France with her French husband and their child. She became enamored with Moser’s work when she saw an image of one of his prints on sale last September though the Smith College Museum of Art; before that, she says, she hadn’t known about him.

Now, though, she’s forged a close electronic connection with the artist.

“I just absolutely fell in love with his art and I started emailing him, and we struck up a relationship right away,” Ollivier said in a recent call from France.

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In an email to the Gazette, she also noted that “Illustr’Alice” is considered of “national interest” by the French Ministry of Culture and has received major support from the French government.

Ollivier has taken up efforts to publicize Moser’s work in France, including with Smith College, where Moser has taught art for years, as she says he has kept a low profile about the Strasbourg exhibit.

“He’s really pretty modest about what he does,” she said. “He’s not looking for publicity. But I’m happy to do anything I can to spread the word about his work.”

For his part, Moser says he’s enjoyed the online relationship he’s forged with Ollivier. “She’s been incredibly enthusiastic,” he said in a recent phone call. “It’s a little embarrassing in a way, but really it’s a funny and lovely story … we exchange emails almost every day.”

Ollivier notes that last fall, Moser had told her that the Tomi Ungerer Museum had bought many prints from his “Alice” books, and that an exhibit “was about to happen … Several weeks later, I asked him why I hadn’t seen any mention of the exhibit in the news from Smith. He humbly replied that he’d never submitted anything of the kind to the department of College Relations.”

So Ollivier got in touch with the college and the French museum and has since translated some of the program materials from the exhibit into English; she’s also accessed some material in English from the Office of Tourism in Strasbourg that Smith College can link to.

The exhibition catalog notes that though the first French translation of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” came out in the late 1860s, it was not until the 1930s that the book “fully entered French culture, not just as a classic of children’s literature but also as a point of reference for the artistic avant-gardes.”

“Many illustrators have appropriated the theme of nonsense, Alice’s principal element, and adapted it using extremely varied forms of graphic expression,” the catalog notes. “The Alice motif has also served as a satirical medium for the purpose of social and political criticism in newspaper cartoons.”

A darker version of “Alice”

Moser’s work in his editions of the “Alice” books has certainly been part of that tradition. His illustrations offered a darker version of the story, and he turned some conventions on their head. Alice, usually depicted as a dainty, carefully combed blonde, became a tow-headed brunette, one he modeled on his youngest daughter, who was 10 at the time.

Moser’s Cheshire Cat, in turn, has an alternately vulpine and bat-like look, with elongated ears and a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth. And Richard Nixon (and in a latter edition, Dick Cheney) became the face of Humpty Dumpty.

“I didn’t see ‘Alice’ as a children’s story,” Moser told the Gazette in a previous interview. “To me, it was a much darker tale, and I wanted people to see Wonderland the way Alice saw it — less whimsical and more nightmarish.”

As the exhibit catalog puts it, “Moser’s ‘Adventures in Wonderland’ is in the vein of British and American narrative illustration … By using his daughter’s face for the figure, Moser gave Alice a ‘real-world dimension,’ while infusing the story with a tone midway between childhood and fantasy.”

In his recent phone call with the Gazette, Moser said he was contacted by the Tomi Ungerer Museum a couple of years ago about buying some of the first batch of prints from the engravings he made for his “Alice” books. He sold 18 of them, not knowing at the time that they’d be part of an exhibit. He’d previously had a smaller number of his prints displayed at an Alice-themed exhibit in Paris in 1983.

Ollivier says Moser was invited to a pre-exhibit bash in Strasbourg that would have included meeting the city’s mayor and the show’s organizers, but he wasn’t able to make it. She says she and her husband now plan to see the exhibit in a week or so (it runs through February).

“And at some point I want to get back [to the Valley] and meet Barry in person and just give him a big hug for being such an incredibly talented guy,” she said.

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