ART REVIEW: "IT'S ALIVE: FRANKENSTEIN AT 200"
“It's Alive! Frankenstein at 200” at the Morgan Library and Museum looks at the Frankenstein story on the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. It does so using two large galleries with exhibits including paintings, prints, posters, and film clips as well as portions of the novel's manuscripts and artifacts from various Frankenstein films.
The exhibition is in two parts. First, it looks at Mary Shelley's life and the creation of her novel. Second, it looks at how the Frankenstein story has evolved since the novel.
Mary Shelly's life is perhaps as shocking as her novel. She was born in 1797, the daughter of the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the philosopher William Godwin. Her mother died in childbirth and so she grew up with her father and a stepmother. Departing from the usual practice of the day with regard to girls, her father gave her a good but informal education. She became free-thinking and interested in writing.
At 16, she met and fell in love with the radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. He was estranged from his wife but apparently their separation had not been all that long as she was pregnant. Nonetheless, Percy eloped with Mary to the continent where they traveled, read philosophy and wrote. Their traveling companion was Mary's step sister Claire Claremont, who was also probably Percy's lover. They did not believe in exclusive relationships.
Such scandalous behavior was too much even for Regency England so when they returned home in 1814 neither Mary's father or Percy's family would have anything to do with them. After Shelley's wife committed suicide, Percy and Mary were married, in part to make their relationship more acceptable to Percy's family. However, that move was to no avail and they were essentially penniless, making some money from writing but also dodging creditors.
Mary's child died shortly after birth. However, s second child was born in 1816. By then, an inheritance from Percy's grandfather relieved some of the financial stress.
This enabled Percy, Mary and their son to return to the Continent. In the summer of 1816, they took up residence by Lake Geneva in Switzerland along with Lord Byron and Claire Claremont, who was now Byron's mistress. It was a very rainy summer, which forced the group to spend much time indoors. They amused themselves telling ghost stories and Byron proposed that they each write a ghost story. This challenge led Mary to write Frankenstein.
Mary did not invent the Gothic novel. As the Morgan exhibition documents, Gothic horror stories were quite popular at the time. In addition, there was much interest in the scientific advances that were taking place. Mary merged these two popular themes together creating what may be considered the first science fiction novel.
Upon their return to England, Percy, who was a published poet, found a publisher for Mary's Frankenstein novel. It appeared in January 1818, was three volumes and was mildly successful. The first edition producing some 40 British pounds for its author - - not a fortune but in those days, it was not altogether insignificant.
Mary's life after the publication of Frankenstein was as tumultuous as before. In 1818, Percy, Mary and Claire went to Italy in order to bring Claire's daughter to Lord Byron who had agreed to raise the child if there was no further contact with Claire. After making this delivery, the group lived in various parts of Italy along with various other friends and lovers.
Tragedy struck several times. Mary's second and third children died of disease. Then Percy was killed when his sailboat was caught in a storm off the Italian coast.
Mary eventually returned to England and spent the rest of her life writing. Her output included several more novels and several plays, which have been receiving more attention as interest in the works of female writers has grown. She was devoted to her remaining son but was also involved with various friends and lovers in sometimes complicated relationships. She died of a brain tumor in 1851.
Evolution of the story
Everyone knows the story of Frankenstein - - a doctor puts together a monster out of parts from dead bodies and brings it to life with science. Science assuming the role of creator.
But the monster that everyone knows is not the monster in Mary Shelley's novel. In the novel, the monster was articulate, well-read and even quoted Milton. In addition, he was not brought to life by lightning but by chemistry.
The Morgan exhibition documents that the story that we know really began to take shape in a stage adaptation in 1823. Six-foot tall actor Thomas Potter Cook played the monster as mute and with gray skin. His athletic performance terrified audiences in London and Paris. As a result, a second edition of Mary Shelley's novel was rushed into print and was very successful. So much so that she abandoned plans to revise the book. (Her copy of the first edition with the hand-written revisions she thought about making is included in the Morgan exhibition).
Since the 1820s stage play, there have been many adaptations of the novel both in the theater and on film. Many have added variations to the story. However, they all seem to have certain scenes - - the creation of the monster, the killing of a child and the monster's attack on the swooning heroine.
The best known production of the story remains the 1931 film starring Boris Karloff. However, there have been other films including the Bride of Frankenstein with Elsa Lancester. The exhibition has a number of film clips and relics from these films including Ms. Lanchester's wig.
Another medium that has had more than its fair share of Frankenstein stories is comic books. The exhibition also considers this genre.
But what about traditional visual art? The exhibition's focus is clearly on this literary masterpiece but it also includes fine art.
First, it includes Richard Rothwell's portrait of Mary Shelley, the definitive portrait of the author and one that conveys personality. There is also a somewhat less successful portrait of Mary's mother Mary Wollstonecraft by John Keenan after an earlier portrait by John Opie.
Second, there are paintings and prints to illustrate the popularity of Gothic horror stories during the period when the novel was written. These include Henry Fuseli's painting of the three witches from McBeth and “The Nightmare” by the same artist, which may well have been the model for countless swooning maidens in horror pictures.
Third, there is poster art from the first stage production in the 1800s to a giant poster for the 1931 classic movie.
Finally, there are prints of scenes from the Frankenstein story that were used in books and in comic books.
As is typical with the Morgan, this exhibition is well-researched and well-presented. However, what makes it successful is that it takes a familiar topic but leaves you thinking I didn't know that there was so much to it.
Above: Henry Fuseli's "The Nightmare".
Below: Richard Rothwell's portrait of Mary Shelley
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Art review - Morgan Library and Museum - "It's Alive: Frankenstein at 200"