"Humanity in the Age of 'Frankenstein'"

New Cantor Arts Center exhibit explores the vulnerability of our flesh
A detailed study of the muscles of the face by 18th-century French illustrator Arnault-Eloi Gautier-Dagoty.

When Mary Shelley published Frankenstein on Jan. 1, 1818, she had no idea that the bioethical questions she raised in her groundbreaking novel would still have relevance 200 years later.

Shelley's exploration of the human form—and the moral, ethical, scientific and spiritual questions surrounding technology and the body that still remain unsolved—are the subject of a new Cantor Arts Center exhibition, which asks viewers to consider what it means to be human, as the line between science and science fiction becomes increasingly blurry.

"Betray the Secret: Humanity in the Age of 'Frankenstein'" is one of the main visual attractions of Frankenstein@200, a year-long, universitywide celebration of the novel's 200th anniversary. Co-curated by Elizabeth Kathleen Mitchell, the Burton and Deedee McMurtry curator of drawings, prints and photographs at Cantor, and Alexander Nemerov, a professor and chair of the art and art history department at Stanford, the exhibition acts as a jumping-off point for viewers to further examine the bioethical issues raised in the book that we still wrestle with today.

"As they increasingly intervene in the body and our daily lives, science and technology have the capacity to alter and redefine what we think of as human," co-curator Mitchell explains in a phone interview. "The exhibition is looking at these intersections between humanity, science, and technology — which often meet at the site of the body—and seeing continuity in the ways artists have approached the subject of the body and its interior."

Comprising 38 works of American and European art from the mid-18th century to present day, the exhibition is divided into four subsections that all touch on aspects of the novel—from the vulnerability of the human body to the scientist's laboratory—and allow viewers to have up-close, contemplative moments with a range of very different images that all point back to the same question: how do we differentiate between the boundaries of life and death when machines intervene with natural bodies?

Although the novel was published in 1818, Mitchell and Nemerov purposefully chose to display a number of works that span back to the 18th century to recognize the intellectual context that the novel grew out of, and to show how similar conversations are being had today, Mitchell explained.

"These ideas didn't just magically appear in 1800. We wanted to trace back into the 18th century to get an idea of where some of the assumptions and ideas Shelley talks about were coming from," says Mitchell. "It was enlightening to realize we've been having the same conversation about the body for centuries."

One piece that stands out in particular—and a favorite of Mitchell's—is a graphite and ink drawing of a skeleton done by famed Bay Area printmaker Beth Van Hoesen when she was a student at Stanford studying painting. While assigned to draw a skeleton to better understand the body's structure and proportions, Van Hoesen brought an otherwise ordinary assignment to life by giving the figure movement and a personality, opening up a conversation about what is real and what is fantasy.

"The drawing sets you up to think about art, whether it's literature or the visual arts, as being completely fantastic but also grounded in the real world," Mitchell explains. "I think that's why some of the more imaginative works in this exhibition resonate so strongly and have a big impact: we are showing that visual artists are doing the same thing Mary Shelley had done, and it can be incredibly effective."

For Mitchell, the most exciting part of curating "Betray the Secret" has been placing a collection of otherwise disparate works together to create a uniquely cohesive experience for patrons, many of whom are coming to view the exhibit without any additional background context on the book or the Frankenstein@200 celebration. Instead of drawing viewers to a specific conclusion, she hopes that the exhibition will inspire larger questions about morality, ethics and the future of medicine in an increasingly digital world.

Betray the Secret: Humanity in the Age of 'Frankenstein'
Thru Aug 5, Free
Cantor Arts Center, Stanford

Find Art Events

Type: Area:
List your event with Metroactive