In the two centuries since its publication, Mary Shelley’s ground-breaking novel Frankenstein has become part of our cultural landscape.
The book, published in 1818, has inspired numerous stage and screen adaptations and its themes are as relevant today as ever. It has also informed an acclaimed new photography exhibition, In Search of Frankenstein, which was first shown at the British Library in London and opened at Bradford’s Impressions Gallery last week.
Photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews went back to the novel’s genesis in June 1816 when the then 18-year-old Mary Godwin was holidaying on the shores of Lake Geneva with her husband-to-be the poet Percy Shelley and friends including Lord Byron. Famously the group were confined to the house by the unseasonably wet and gloomy weather and amused themselves by telling each other ghost stories. Byron then set a challenge that they should each write one. And so the tale of scientist Victor Frankenstein and his monster was born.
Dewe Mathews’ series of beautiful, eerie, atmospheric, thoughtful and thought-provoking images are the outcome of an artist residency at Verbier 3-D Foundation in Switzerland.
“The theme was pretty open but they said they would like me to think about the glacial environment and that I could bring in whatever I felt connected with that,” she says. “I talked to the curator and I was interested to find out that in 1818 one of the glaciers built up a great wall of ice and it crashed through the valley destroying villages in its path and while I was reading about that I found out about the Year Without a Summer.” That year was 1816 which suffered severe climactic disruption as a result of the huge volcanic eruption in 1815 of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies. “I was interested in the cultural consequences of that, one of which, of course, was Mary Shelley’s amazing novel,” says Dewe Mathews. “So when I went out for that first trip I took my copy of Frankenstein with me and I thought I wonder if there is something in this?”
Going up into the mountains with her camera, Dewe Mathews stopped every so often to read bits of the text. “Frankenstein has been reinvented or repurposed so many times, I was really keen to find a way to keep coming back to the book. I was also thinking about climate change and the environmental issues connected with that area in the glaciers. Frankenstein’s creature is a manifestation of human folly, the quest for knowledge that has gone too far, and I thought about the ethical questions raised by that.”
Having photographed the mountains from the outside, Dewe Mathews then got the unexpected opportunity to explore them from the inside when she discovered that they contain a network of bunkers built during the Cold War, designed to shelter the entire population of Switzerland in the event of a nuclear war. As she explored them, she found she was drawn back once again to the central theme of Shelley’s novel.
“I started wandering through the rooms and corridors and it felt so sinister – these places waiting for disaster,” she says. “And it struck me that this was another example of knowledge having gone too far. In the nuclear bomb, humanity had created the ultimate killer.”
In Search of Frankenstein is at the Impressions Gallery, Bradford until January 7, 2019.