Thursday 29 November 2018

Art Review: It’s Alive! Frankenstein at 200, Morgan Library & Museum, New York City

In the summer of 1818, twenty-year-old Mary Shelley (then Mary Godwin, although living as ‘Mrs Shelley’ with Percy Bysshe Shelley in Geneva) wrote one of the most culturally influential stories in the English language. Her Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus has spawned countless adaptations across multiple media and has come to be a definitive part of the Gothic and Romantic movements.

The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli (1781)
To mark the bicentenary of the novel’s creation, the Morgan Library & Museum has unveiled a major exhibition dedicated to the work and its influence.

Three Witches, Henry Fuseli (1783)
I began my visit by exploring the Gothic art that inspired Shelley and her contemporaries. Many of these paintings draw upon or suggest narratives, such as Henry Fuseli’s 1781 The Nightmare, in which a demon crouches atop a prostrate woman’s chest, and his 1783 Three Witches, which has influenced subsequent depictions of Shakespeare’s weird sisters. There are also skeletal depictions of Death, such as John Hamilton Mortimer’s drawing of Death on a Pale Horse (c.1775) and multiple instances of men and women attempting resurrections by an open grave.

Death on a Pale Horse, John Hamilton Mortimer (c.1775)
In the next section of the exhibition it’s easy to see synergies between the Gothic imagination and contemporary scientific advancements. Doctors and anatomists are depicted as grave robbers, while artists show their instruments destroying and restoring life, as well as extending it.

The Anatomist Overtaken by the Watch, William Austin (1773)
Parts of the Frankenstein manuscript are on display, as well as letters between the Godwins, Shelleys and others. The romance of the Frankenstein’s creation, and the characters of Shelley, Shelley, Byron and Keats, seem to add to its mystique and appeal, as much as the story itself.

The manuscript
In a second room we move out of the nineteenth century and into Frankenstein’s afterlife in film and graphic novels. We trace the monster’s evolution from reanimated corpse to superhuman villain to participant in superhero-style showdowns. The movies become weather vanes for the sensibilities of their time. For instance, the creature’s accidental child killing appalled audiences in 1931 and so the moment was cut from the film. The bride of Frankenstein (a creature Viktor chooses not to animate in Shelley’s original tale) becomes part of our cultural inheritance—here you can observe her wig, listen to her blood curdling screams.

A poster for the 1931 adaptation
At the centre of the exhibition is Richard Rothwell’s 1840 portrait of Mary Shelley. She watches over proceedings serenely as movie buffs, bibliophiles, and lovers of the macabre file through. I couldn’t help but wonder what she’d think of how Frankenstein and his monster have outlived her and evolved and how amazed she’d be that a tale born out of her time has come to represent so much about generations since.

Mary Shelley, Richard Rothwell (1840)
Which NYC exhibitions should the Secret Victorianist visit next? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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