Collection Talk: Henry Simon “Industrial Frankenstein” (1932) [Video]

Throughout 2020-21 The Block Museum is reflecting on artworks from the collection that explore ideas of excess, consumption, and the environment, and offer an interdisciplinary perspective on the climate crisis. Our project is inspired by The Story of More by Hope Jahren, Northwestern University’s 2021-2022 One Book One Northwestern (OBON) selection. This online talk by Melanie Garcia Sympson, Curatorial Associate, was presented in partnership with The Alumnae of Northwestern University. The talk examines the history of the work Industrial Frankenstein (I) and the way that artists have questioned the American promises of technology and progress.

Watch the Art Talk

When selected to design panels for one of the fair’s pavilions, Chicago-based artist Henry Simon chose the theme of an “Industrial Frankenstein,” an icon that loomed large in pop culture but also subverted the fair’s narrative of progress. In the bold preparatory drawing, an android with smokestacks at the crown of his head emerges from a smoggy cityscape. Tiny, shadowed men in suits and top hats tinker with and admire the robotic figure. Tensions around class and labor were especially heightened during the Great Depression. At the time, Simon was an active member of the John Reed Club, a leftist organization of intellectuals and artists who believed that, in time, the working class would destroy the capitalists that unjustly profited from their labor. Appropriately, in the third drawing of this series, Frankenstein rises up, shakes off the shackles of his scaffolding, and sends the businessmen scurrying. The image serves as a warning for a society that allows profit to dictate action, a caution echoed throughout The Story of More. As Jahren noted, “There is only one problem: driving less, eating less, buying less, making less, and doing less will not create new wealth. Consuming less is not a new technology that can be sold or a new product that can be marketed….”

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