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Alice in Wonderland in Central Park

Statue commissioned as a gift to the children of New York City
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Written by Mayra Mahmood

Hidden away in the southeastern quarter of Central Park you will find a statue dedicated to one of the great heros of children's literature -- Alice in Wonderland. Erected in 1959 as a gift to the children of the city, the scale and design of the structure encourages children to crawl, climb, and find space for respite and imagination, within the art itself.

After his first wife, Margarita, died in 1959, millionaire George Delacorte (1894-1991) commissioned the Spanish sculptor, Jose de Creeft (1884-1982), to design a statue of Alice in Wonderland as a gift to the children of New York. The subject was obvious to him: Margarita’s favorite author was Lewis Carroll, and she’d read his book, “Alice in Wonderland,” to the couple’s children. To create the piece, de Creeft worked closely with landscape architect Hideo Sasaki and designer Fernando Texidor, while the Modern Art Foundry cast the statue in Long Island City, Queens.
In May 1959, Commission of NYC Parks Robert Moses unveiled the statue as the Margarita Delacorte Memorial. Unlike other public art of the period, de Creeft's sculpture was deliberately made to be enjoyed by children in an interactive manner. “It just seemed a nice thing to have in the park. On Sunday mornings I watch the kids climbing over it, under it. It’s a regular parade” Delacorte stated, shrugging off criticism that the statue was not monumental and lacked a specific function. “What good is the Eiffel Tower? Not everything has to have a practical function,” he said. “What do we remember about Rome? We remember the fountains and the statues. There has to be a place in life for the eye’s pleasure.”
Adults have always had different approaches to understanding the nature and essence of “childhood.” In the late eighteenth century, scholars believed that children experience and require a different spatial language (landscape) than adults. The writing of Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the natural child inspired a new view on childhood as innocent, natural, and free, and emphasized play as an important element in the formation of an adult personality. As city infrastructure shifted to accomodate automobiles, children's street play became more dangerous. By the early twentieth century, these factors lead to the proliferation of playgrounds as dedicated children's space.
Playgrounds provide an outlet for physical energy, a safe space for children to explore and challenge themselves and the opportunity to socialize and interact with other children.Before the concept of playgrounds, working class children play on city streets and empty lots near their multifamily tenements and row houses. The creation of separate public space for the exclusive use of children was considered radical, particularly as these places contained facilities and equipment designed expressly for the purpose of play. In Central Park, Heckscher Playground (1926) was completed as the first of the many purpose-built children's spaces. It was considered controversial to set aside precious park area as recreational space dedicated specifically to youth activities. During the Great Depression, Robert Moses, the-then new Commissioner of Parks, turned the economic crisis to advantage. Between 1934 and 1936, his administration added eighteen playgrounds to Central Park.
Although Moses’s work creating myriad purpose-made playgrounds was important, his efforts are only part of the story of play in Central Park, which is not always choreographed by the purpose-built space it is in. A playground does not have to be physically built by adults or have an existing landmark/play structure. A playground is a space where children play amongst themselves or with adults; it is a place that children can make or designate for themselves. The Alice in Wonderland statue serves as an unofficial playground for many of the city's youngest residents. As Susan G. Solomon wrote in American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space, "the playground can effortlessly unite design with history, becoming an arena that cultivates collective memory.” It is within a playground where the boundaries, rules, and meanings are determined by the children who occupy the space.
Alice in Wonderland stands at East 76th Street and 5th Avenue, about ten blocks north of the Children’s District established by landscape architect and father of Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted. The statue is sited in the northern corner of the Conservatory Water model boat pond. The area around the pond contains a cluster of monuments to people and themes important in children’s literature, including  a fountain dedicated to social advocate, Sophie Irene Loeb (completed in 1936), and a statue of Danish fairy tale author, Hans Christian Andersen (completed in 1956). Although several figures from the Alice in Wonderland books are placed on the west side of the pond, it is the Alice in Wonderland sculpture that makes the stories of Lewis Carroll tangible. This area of the park was developed during Mayor John V. Lindsay’s tenure (1966-1974). Lindsay established the Mayor’s Office of Film and created a single permit process that made it easier for filmmakers to shoot in New York City. This was done to improve the economy and commercial opportunities in the city, and resulted in rethinking and cleaning various spaces in Central Park to appeal to film directors.
For his part, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses had become obsessed with orderliness and rules. In front of every park, signs were posted with long lists of activities that were not allowed. All of this changed after Moses retired and Lindsay appointed Thomas Hoving, to head up Parks. Hoving, who ordered that “Keep off the Grass” signs be removed, had new ideas about parks; he reimagined “the [A] park like a stage” and introduced a series of small-scale interventions to enhance scenic elements and bring the parks to life. Following the example of Alice in Wonderland, Hoving's office constructed the Adventure Playground to help revitalize the southeastern quarter of the Park. The adventure playground drew on architect Richard Dattner's idea of “participatory play." Dattner designed the first adventure playground in the park in 1966 as an alternative to the Moses-era playgrounds with their stand-alone metal equipment. When taking office, Hoving declared, “The old rinky-dink, hand-me-down stereotype of park is out, OUT!” The Alice in Wonderland statue may have been the inspiration and unwitting first step, the insertion that initiated a this new movement of play within Central Park.
In the 1930s, sculptor Isamu Noguchi started a conversation about a new approach to playground design, a more sculptured environment for play in a total composition. Regarding playgrounds, Noguchi noted, “I think of playgrounds as a primer of shapes and functions; simple, mysterious, and evocative; thus educational.” His ideas were incorporated in many playgrounds built in the 1960s. Playground design turned into the design of sculpture and forms toward understanding play. We see this in Noguchi’s playground proposals for the United Nations (1952) and Riverside Park (1960-66).  As you approach the Alice in Wonderland statue, the influence of this kind of design aesthetic and approach to planning becomes apparent.
During the era after the statue was constructed, Alice in Wonderland was the muse of in artists in different popular culture mediums. When teenagers and adults encounter the statue, nostalgia brings back childhood memories. Besides Disney's Alice in Wonderland, Carroll’s story was idolized in mid-century pop culture. In 1963, Neil Sedaka released the single, “Alice in Wonderland” which made it to the US Top 50 list. Salvador Dali released 12 sketches (1969) titled Alice in Wonderland. The most popular response was White Rabbit (1967), a song written and performed by The Jefferson Airplane that tells the story of a hallucinagenic trip. The song's now-famous lyrics conjure images of Alice, presenting a perhaps more mystical and less innocent variation of the character, "When the men on the chessboard get up / And tell you where to go / And you've just had some kind of mushroom / And your mind is moving low / Go ask Alice, I think she'll know.
Alice, through the eponimous book, movie, and statue, sanctions the breaking free of routine, the will to adventure and to nonsense. Japanese contemporary artist Yayoi Kusma used the Alice in Wonderland site in Happenings, part of her 1968 political demonstration against the Vietnam War. Over the years, Alice in Wonderland has inspired her life’s work. She refers to herself as the “real-life Alice," and has published a vibrantly illustrated version of Carroll's classic story. In an issue of Prospect magazine, Oxofrd University Classics Professor Richard Jenkyns said Alice in Wonderland is "probably the most purely child-centered book ever written" and that its only purpose "is to give pleasure."
The Alice in Wonderland is a dynamic site that is tied together with history, personal memory, liberation and an icon of freedom and amusement. After walking the parameter of The Lake in the park, I started to head east, or what I thought was east. The path sloped downwards towards another body of water. This site was quieter than the rest of the park. It was enclosed within the trees. I started to walk on the northern edge of the lake and noticed large shallow steps to a plinth enfolded by trees. The plinth was circular in shape and circulation moved in a spiral towards the center.
In the center the statue sits on this non-monumental landscaped plinth. The statue does not direct your view to a single point, the way most statues do. It does not tower over you if you are an adult. It is only three feet above of an adult’s height, at nine feet high. This horizontality over verticality of the statue invites the scale of the child to explore. The crevices between the mushroom stems are just large enough for a younger child’s body to crawl through. Older children are able to climb the mushrooms to then explore the niches on the characters’ bodies. The end goal of this play is sometimes to climb atop Alice’s head, the highest part of the statue. The bronze used is etched with dashed lines to increase friction and prevent children from slipping off the statue.
The placement of Alice within the arrangement of characters is very deliberate. She is the point of focus and the sculptor makes this clear with the posture of her body. She is centered on the larger mushroom with her arms opened for an embrace. Her face is kind and facing down as a mother’s face would, loving looking at the characters around her. It is assumed that Alice represents Margarita, the benefactor’s late wife and the characters surrounding her are the couples five children. Alice is one of two female sculptures in Central Park.
(May 2016)
Works Cited:
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"Detail of Jose De Creeft's Sculpture Alice in Wonderland in Central Park, 1959?" Detail of Jose De Creeft's Sculpture Alice in Wonderland in Central Park, from the José De Creeft Papers. Archive of American Art, n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2016.
"Central Park Conservatory Pond, Alice in Wonderland & Area by Hubert Steed." PBase. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2016.
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