Museum Proper: The Cemetary Gates

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The Victorian age became a grand spoof quickly after it ended in 1903, and its place in history as a playground of prudes certainly cemented after World War I. Whereas opposition movements defined Modernism better than any centralized establishment, conformity was unfairly considered the defining characteristic of its artistic predecessor.

While the heretofore lost and catalogued photography of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as the Lewis Carroll of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," conforms to many of the stereotypes of society and art that a son of an Anglican archdeacon could never free himself from, Victorian norms actually seem to have allowed him to explore (perhaps unconsciously) realms of humanity and eroticism that would be condemned by today's cynical and overprotective mores.

The 76-photo exhibit currently at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, representing a photo career spanning over 24 years and 3000 negatives, seeks to even Dodgson's reputation as a semi-professional photographer with one as an academic mathematician and another as an eccentric author. But as the curator who organized the exhibit, Douglas Nickel, rightly observes, it is impossible to divide the ingenuity that fueled all three careers.

The most striking thing when stepping into the exhibit, one pretty blandly set up to appear a minimal Victorian parlor, is that the photos are mostly of children-mostly of little girls-and not fully clothed little girls at that. One's cynical built-in spoof machine kicks into high gear and spews forth images, most readily the sublime work of one of the most eminent satirists of the period (and brilliant illustrator himself), Edward Gorey.

The mid-20th century comic artist built his cultish fame on somber comi-tradgedies set against vague Victorian backgrounds in which most of the youthful protagonists are hilariously killed off or perverted. Gorey's most memorable adage about adults who spend a little too much time with children sounds something like: "The tutor buys his pupil ices/ And hopes he wont resist/ When he tries to practice vices/ Few people even know exist."

But when it comes to Dodgson's visual and literary products, the fact that Nickel fends against the rumors of impropriety between Dodgson and his youthful portrait subjects is as irrelevant as Gorey claiming there are vices few people know exist.

Many of the little girls, including the original "Alice," are depicted in their nightgowns, reclining on couches deep in sleep or staring off in dreamy trances. Alice Lidell, age 8, poses as the "beggar girl" who, in her simulated rags, reveals a lot of leg and a hint of her right nipple.

We can thank Freud for charging the sex relations across youth and adulthood with a neuroticism that would have seemed silly to the Victorian sensibility. The belief in innocence of childhood from all matters of worldly sin and sexuality aided Dodgson in dramatically blurring the lines in his photography.

Dodgson may have preferred women as models because of their greater breadth of dramatic possibilities. Some of his mature female models, conversely to the passive girls, are decked out in chainmail armor as Joan of Arc or even St. George.

For the most part men are props in the pictures, except in Dodgson's intense father/daughter portraits. Shock-bearded, Bible-bearing and staring, George MacDonald grasps his daughter Lilia about the knees as she stands next to him on a bench. The scene is as arresting for merely the emotions as for the modern innuendo.

In assessing Dodgson's work, one must remember that photography was still basically in its infancy in the 1850s and '60s. The range of emotions granted to a person obliged to pose motionless for several minutes for the exposure to set did not leap beyond stiffness or somnolescence. Of his landscapes, a very few of which showed up in the CD-ROM appendicies at the end of the exhibit, some of a broad walkway near his church fortell of the famous double row of trees at the end of "The Third Man."


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