It’s alive!

(Flânerie, strolling from one thing to another in Victor Frankenstein’s neighborhood — and, as it turns out, in mine too.)

At the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford, the exhibition “Betray the Secret: Humanity in the Age of “Frankenstein””, 4/4/18 – 8/5/18, which I viewed yesterday, as a Memorial Day treat. The image for the show:

(#1) Beth Van Hoesen, Stanford (Arnautoff Class),  1945 (graphite and ink on paper)

Just one part of a larger Frankenstein celebration at Stanford.  A mid-sized show, easily graspable within an hour or so — the Cantor is very good at this — and, thanks to its dependence on existing collections at Stanford, offering many works and artists you wouldn’t have predicted and might never have heard of (I’ll write about one of these artists below). In any case, thought-provoking, in line with the Cantor’s mission as a “teaching museum”.

From a San Jose Metro piece about the show on 4/18/18 by Avi Salem:

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 … 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?

The four themes: Vulnerability of the Flesh, Philosophers & Monsters, The Laboratory and its Effects, Anatomy Lessons. The framing texts for the four sections are nicely done and I wanted to include them here, but I wasn’t able to find them on-line. I was especially impressed by the Philosophers & Monsters section, which tracked the growing sense of Nature, not as a balancing, benevolent force, but as a repository of mysteries — dangerous, possibly demonic.

Victor Frankenstein speaks:

Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.

These are things Man was not meant to know, as the pop-culture slogan puts it (see the elaboration of this idea in pop culture on the TV Tropes site). (The Cantor exhibition doesn’t go into popular culture, but I’m always ready to digress there.)

But Victor pressed on, and using his knowledge of medicine, chemistry, and electricity, defied Death itself by animating his creature.

[Digression. Moments from the two great pop re-workings of the Shelley story: a TCM movie clip from Frankenstein (1931), leading to the “It’s alive!” moment, which you can view here; and, very briefly, the same moment of deranged joy in the story played for laughs in Young Frankenstein (1974), a moment you can watch here.]

More from the San Jose Metro story:

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.”

… 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 [by her art professor Victor Arnautoff] 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 skeleton appears to have been caught in mid-gesture while speaking to us, perhaps at a cocktail party. Touching, even charming , but also deeply uncanny.

Two bits to come. First, about Van Hoesen and Arnautoff, because their lives and work take us to Stanford, to the Castro district in San Francisco, and to my neighborhood in Palo Alto; because Van Hoesen’s work is playful and done with affectionate attention to details; because she made prints of California plants I love; and because I’ve admired her work for about 40 years.

Then, something completely different, from the Anatomy Lessons section of the Cantor show: the often wildly eccentric Frederick Sommer, who (among many other things) did a series of collages made from volumes of anatomical illustrations. (Sommer was new to me.)

Beth Van Hoesen. I saw her name on the publicity for the Cantor show and immediately thought, “Oh, the rabbit. And all the other animals.” The rabbit:

(#2) Van Hoesen rabbit (her pet) with an attitude: Sally (1979)

And a Matilija poppy:

(#3) In my 6/20/13 posting “Poppies, lilacs, and lilies”, #5 Romneya coulteri, the Matilija poppy; re-visited on 5/11/18 in “The poppies of summer”

And the book about her flower and animal prints:

(#4) Pomegranate Press book Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna & Flora (2014)

Wikipedia notes on her life:

Beth Van Hoesen (1926 – November 26, 2010), sometimes known as Beth Van Hoesen Adams, was an American artist who was best known for her prints and drawings of animals and botanical subjects.

… Although Van Hoesen is best known for her animal portraits, her other subjects ranged from people to landscapes, still lives, and botanical subjects. She worked mainly in print media, especially etching, using drawings extensively for preparatory work. Her style is lively and playful, with attention to the telling detail.

She got her BA from Stanford in 1948 and was then part of the San Francisco art scene for nearly 50 years, living in the Castro.

Victor Arnautoff. Spin-off from Van Hoesen. From Wikipedia:

Victor Mikhail Arnautoff (1896 – 1979) was a Russian-American painter and professor of art. He worked in San Francisco and the Bay Area from 1925 to 1963, including two decades as a teacher at Stanford University, and was particularly prolific as a muralist during the 1930s.

… Arnautoff’s first significant work after returning [to San Francisco from Mexico, where he worked as an assistant to Diego Rivera] was a mural on the wall of his studio, which he opened to the public. Shortly afterward, he completed his first mural commission, for the Palo Alto Medical Clinic [PAMF] in Palo Alto (where he had been a patient) in August 1932. The unveiling of this mural caused a traffic jam and some controversy, in part because the mural showed a doctor examining a female patient whose bare breasts were at eye-level.

(#5) Sir William Osler examining a patient (one of a set of murals at PAMF)

Like his other works in the Bay Area, the murals were frescoes. [In 1934 he painted one of the murals, depicting San Francisco city life, at Coit Tower in San Francisco.]

(#5) Detail from Arnautoff’s city life mural, with a self-portrait of the artist

The old PAMF building is just around the corner from my Ramona St. house. (I’ve been intending to post about it for some time.) The old building is to be made into a historical museum for the city of Palo Alto, but it’s been mouldering away for years now, awaiting approvals and funds. The Arnautoff murals are still there, but they desperately need restoring.

Frederick Sommer. Back to the Cantor’s Frankenstein show. From Wikipedia:

Frederick Sommer (September 7, 1905 – January 23, 1999), was an artist born in Angri, Italy and raised in Brazil.

… Considered a master photographer, Sommer first experimented with photography in 1931 after being diagnosed with tuberculosis the year prior. Early works on paper (starting in 1931) include watercolors, and evolve to pen-and-ink or brush plus drawings of visually composed musical score. Concurrent to the works on paper, Sommer started to seriously explore the artistic possibilities of photography in 1938 when he acquired an 8×10 Century Universal Camera, eventually encompassing the genres of still life (chicken parts and assemblage), horizonless landscapes, jarred subjects, cut-paper, cliché-verre negatives and nudes. According to art critic Robert C. Morgan, Sommer’s “most extravagant, subtle, majestic, and impressive photographs — comparable in many ways to the views of Yosemite Valley’s El Capitan and Half Dome by Ansel Adams — were Sommer’s seemingly infinite desert landscapes, some of which he referred to as ‘constellations.'” The last artistic body of work Sommer produced (1989–1999) was collage based largely on anatomical illustrations [Abstract Arrangements of Anatomy].

… He saw [musical scores] not as music, but as graphics [and seems to have viewed anatomical illustrations in much the same way], and found in them an elegance and grace that led him to a careful study of scores and notation. … He made his first “drawings in the manner of musical scores” [in 1934].

Two of his anatomical collages (not from the Cantor show):



The collages lie disturbingly in some area between human anatomy and designed artifact. Are they alive?


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