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Traces of Human Folly in the Alpine Landscapes that Inspired Frankenstein

British photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews explored the Alps where Mary Shelley imagined Frankenstein, and the nuclear bunkers there that recall a modern dark side to scientific progress.

Photograph from the series In Search of Frankenstein (© Chloe Dewe Mathews)

A pivotal scene in Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus occurs in the Alps, when Victor Frankenstein wanders into the mountains to find some peace from his guilt and terror following the escape of his monster. It’s there that he witnesses “the figure of a man, at some distance, advancing towards me with superhuman speed”; it’s his creature, his experiment in giving life. Yet instead of the “mortal combat” Victor anticipates, the creature asks for his love: “I am thy creature: I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed.”

In the summer of 1816 Shelley conceived of Frankenstein, sparked by a ghost story writing challenge instigated by Lord Byron. Bone chilling rain had kept their group, which also included Percy Shelley and John Polidori, confined inside the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva. The terrible weather was attributed to the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, its ash contributing to cooling temperatures that caused crop failure around the world, and what’s known as the Year Without a Summer.

Photograph from the series In Search of Frankenstein (© Chloe Dewe Mathews)

Two centuries after Shelley, British photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews journeyed through the same Alpine landscapes for her series In Search of Frankenstein, on view through July 1 at the British Library in London. A book, In Search of Frankenstein – Mary Shelley’s Nightmare, recently published by Kodoji Press, features her photographs alongside what’s known as the Geneva Notebook, the first half of Shelley’s original manuscript. The author’s scrawled handwriting, with crossed-out words and inky additions, contrasts in its spirited energy to the stark mountains and human-made tunnels that bore through the landscape.

Dewe Mathews worked on the project as part of a 2016 Verbier 3-D Foundation residency in the Val de Bagnes, Switzerland, carrying an old copy of Shelley’s book to read as she explored the glaciers and summits. She not only photographed the towering peaks, but also journeyed inside the mountains to document the hidden nuclear bunkers. These were built by the Swiss government in the 1960s with the capacity to protect the country’s entire population, and have the kitchens, beds, and classrooms all waiting for some possible apocalypse.

“Instead of retracing [Shelley’s] footsteps, I was using the themes in the novel, which are the fear of technology and what people will do that will come back to haunt us or come back to destroy us, to look at this contemporary landscape,” Dewe Mathews told Hyperallergic. “I was thinking about climate change and our effect on the glacial landscape, and also looking at that interior landscape of the bunkers as it’s the ultimate manifestation of the things that we have created in science that will have such immediately devastating effects if they’re put into use.”

Photograph from the series In Search of Frankenstein (© Chloe Dewe Mathews)

Dewe Mathews’s photographs are very different from the postcard visions of Switzerland. Skeletal trees burst from spectral mountains, whose jutting forms dwarf the small human settlements nestled on the slopes. “I overexposed the film a lot to create these whitened-out, disintegrating images rather that the classical monumental mountainscapes that you might be used to seeing, something that feels much more fragile,” she said. These reinforce the contemporary dangers to these imposing vistas, where climate change is causing glaciers to recede and snow to melt.

Like Dewe Mathews’s series Shot at Dawn, in which she photographed sites where World War I army deserters were executed, In Search of Frankenstein considers these unseen human relationships to a place. Frankenstein, or its pop culture distillation into a metaphor for human folly, has new resonance against the ominous scenes of mountains and nuclear bunkers. The long tunnels leading into these mountain shelters are haunted by the dark side of scientific progress, just as the mountains themselves are shadowed by the human hubris that continues to drive climate change. Although there are no direct references to Frankenstein in the images, or even any human figures, these narratives are there. As Dewe Mathews stated, “I think there is something very powerful in looking at a landscape with the idea of a story, sometimes the absence makes the story all the more present.”

Photograph from the series In Search of Frankenstein (© Chloe Dewe Mathews)
Photograph from the series In Search of Frankenstein (© Chloe Dewe Mathews)
Photograph from the series In Search of Frankenstein (© Chloe Dewe Mathews)

In Search of Frankenstein: Photographs by Chloe Dewe Mathews is on view through July 1 at the British Library (96 Euston Road, London). 

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