Museum  October 15, 2018  Chandra Noyes

Resurrecting a Classic: Frankenstein at 200

Janny Chiu

Auguste Pontenier, wood engraving in Louis Figuier, Les merveilles de la science, ou Description populaire des inventions modernes, Paris: Furne, Jouvet et cie, [1867] – 1870. The Morgan Library & Museum, purchased on the Gordon N. Ray Fund, 2016; PML 196256.

Courtesy of Universal Studios Licensing LLC, © 1931 Univeral Pictures Company, Inc.

Carl Laemmle Presents Frankenstein: the Man who Made a Monster, lithograph poster, 1931. Collection of Stephen Fishler, comicconnect.com

Just in time for Halloween, the Morgan Library and Museum presents an exhibition to get bibliophiles, art, and movie lovers in the spirit of things. It’s Alive! Frankenstein at 200 explores the history of Mary Shelley's horror masterpiece and its continued cultural influence, examining its origins and its massive impact. Her story and its characters have come off of the page not only in innumerable tv and movie versions, but have become a metaphor, one that is seemingly universal and applicable across cultures and throughout two centuries.

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was published in 1818, written by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley when she was only 18. Considered the first science fiction novel, her tale introduces two now iconic characters: the mad scientist, and his Creature, who is at once his greatest accomplishment and worst enemy. Dr. Victor Frankenstein eschews ethics, and through unorthodox experiments, brings to life an ungodly Creature. Upon its animation, Frankenstein rejects his creature as a hideous monstrosity. The Creature flees, and the doctor realizes his mistake, as the monster wreaks havoc and Frankenstein spends the rest of his days pursuing and trying to regain control of his creation. Though violent, the Creature longs to be understood, and even loved, making him a symbol for misunderstood outsiders everywhere.

Dick Briefer (1915 – 1980), Frankenstein, no. 10, New York: Prize Comics
© First Classics, Inc. Used with permission granted by Trajectory, Inc.

Dick Briefer (1915 – 1980), Frankenstein, no. 10, New York: Prize Comics, Nov.-Dec., 1947. From the Collection of Craig Yoe and Clizia Gussoni.

Mr. T.P. Cooke, of the Theatre Royal Covent Garden, in the character of the monster in the dramatic romance of Frankenstein

Nathaniel Whittock (1791 – 1860) after Thomas Charles Wageman, Mr. T.P. Cooke, of the Theatre Royal Covent Garden, in the character of the monster in the dramatic romance of Frankenstein, between 1832 and 1834, lithograph. The Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations

Jean-François Vilain,Théâtre de la Porte St. Martin, Le monstre, acte premier, scène dernière,
Département des Arts du spectacle—Bibliothèque nationale de France

Jean-François Vilain,Théâtre de la Porte St. Martin, Le monstre, acte premier, scène dernière, ca. 1826, color lithograph.

In collaboration with the New York Public Library, the Morgan Library and Museum uses their diverse exhibition to explore the multitude of ways these themes have been interpreted since Shelley first articulated them. Through movie posters, comic books, manuscripts, prints, and paintings, we see Shelley’s archetypes take many shapes and forms, reflecting the changing world over 200 years.

A copy of the original manuscript will be on display, giving context to its original creation. Many iconic artworks are recognizable here, including Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare, on loan from the Detroit Institute of Arts. First displayed in 1782, the painting was a huge success, selling many print reproductions. The painting remains powerful and evocative, showing an elegantly draped unconscious figure, helpless beneath an incubus, representing a nightmare, perched on her chest. The gothic lighting adds to the drama and the horror we feel at the woman’s defenselessness. Shelley’s parents were friends of Fuseli’s, and her description of the murder of Dr. Frankenstein’s wife at the monster’s hands bears striking similarities to Fuseli’s scene.

Bridgeman Images

Henry Fuseli (1741 – 1825), The Nightmare, 1781, oil on canvas. Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase with funds from Mr. and Mrs. Bert Smokler and Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence A. Fleischman

While the characters and basic plot have been expanded upon and sampled from many times, the tale’s moral and its relationship dynamic remain largely the same. The terrible consequences of playing god get at our most basic human fears, as does our horror for the unnatural creation, even while it is tinged with sympathy for him. It’s Alive! shows the mastery of Shelley's original work, and that its lessons and characters will continue to be resurrected.

It’s Alive! Frankenstein at 200 is on view at the Morgan Library and Museum through January 27, 2019.

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra is managing editor for Art & Object.