11 March, 2021
Although it may be hard to imagine another scenario where the world was brought to a halt by an infectious disease, it’s important to remember that humankind’s history is far from being bereft of pandemics. In fact, the memory of past pandemics can even be found in contemporary culture; for example, the childhood rhyme Ring Around The Rosie is said to have arisen from the bubonic plague - the roses being a euphemism for round rashes on the skin caused by the disease. To understand how populations have dealt with pandemics and isolation, scholars have been looking to history, especially art history. What can art created in previous pandemics tell us about surmounting Covid-19? In an attempt to answer this, we’ve looked back at two of the most famous pandemics in history: the bubonic plague and the 1918 flu pandemic.
“At times of great crisis it is natural to look to the past for precedents.” - Tom Holland, quoted in The Times
The Bubonic Plague/ Black Death (1347)
Arriving on Europe’s shores in 1347, the Black Death was without a doubt one of the worst pandemics in history. It is said to have killed 25 to 50 million people in just five years, and is often cited as one of the worst case scenarios of an epidemic. Europe suffered tragic outbreaks of the Black death from 1347 until the late 17th-century; yet, while the effects were devastating, art during this time flourished.
Imagine being an artist at the time of the plague. One could guess that death would be a central theme throughout your work, in addition to despair, hopelessness, misery. And yet, when we look back at Renaissance art, it is surprising to see that, while death is ever-present in the imagery, there is a pervasive sense of optimism and hope. As Jonathan Jones writes of the artists of this time, “Far from being driven to despair by pestilence, it is as if they were spurred to assert the glory of life.”
While the Black Plague may be treatable today, medical practices against it at the time of its outbreak were unknown, and so, people turned to religion and faith for protection. Diseases and death were considered to be divine retribution for sins, and saints and priests were esteemed to be the only ones who could offer forgiveness and a cure. For this reason, much of the art from this time was full of religious symbolism and iconography.
In fact, the most frequently depicted saint during the course of the Late Gothic and Renaissance period was Saint Sebastian, who was believed to be the protector against the plague. Saint Sebastian was often depicted as being shot with arrows, which was considered to be his first martyrdom. The link between him and the plague is said to derive from the Greek myth of Apollo, who would sometimes destroy his enemies by shooting plague-ridden arrows at them, but simultaneously, was seen to be the deliverer from pestilence. The fact that Saint Sebastian was able to miraculously recover from his first martyrdom and escape death was seen as hopeful for many at a time when death was omnipresent.
Josse Lieferinxe, 'Saint Sebastian Interceding for the Plague Stricken', 1497-99, The Walters Art Museum
Indeed, death became a dominant theme in art created during the time of the bubonic plague. One of the paintings to have perhaps best depicted this nightmarish reality was Pieter Breugel’s ‘The Triumph of Death’. While it does show aspects of everyday life in the mid-sixteenth century (the clothes, games, instruments, etc.) when the plague was dominant, there is a sense of inescapable impending doom brought about by “death’s army” or the legions of skeletons depicted, characteristic of the overwhelming fear felt by populations during this time.
Pieter Breugel the Elder, ‘The Triumph of Death’, c. 1562
The 1918 Flu Pandemic or Spanish Flu (1918-1920)
To understand the extent of the losses during the Spanish Flu, one of the best artists to turn to is Egon Schiele. In 1918, Schiele looked to his muse (and mentor), Gustav Klimt for inspiration. However, rather than visiting him in person, he was forced to draw him from the morgue at the Vienna General Hospital, where Klimt had passed away from a stroke, which many physicians believed to have been a result of the Spanish Flu. That same year, Schiele worked on a painting, titled ‘The Family’, which depicted him, his wife and their soon-to-be child. Before he could finish the piece, however, his wife passed away from the flu. He followed her three days later.
Egon Schiele, ‘The Family’, 1918
While such portraits of the Spanish Flu are rare, another artist worth mentioning, who actually caught the flu and survived, is Edvard Munch. In his series of portraits on the Spanish Flu, he directly confronted his vulnerability as well as his frailty. Looking at his portraits, we can feel the sense of isolation in his personal struggle with the disease, a reminder that grief and struggle with the influenza was often private, despite the fact that pandemics are said to represent collective suffering.
Edvard Munch, ‘Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu’, 1919
Although the 1918 Flu Pandemic is said to have infected around one-third of the world’s population and killed around 50 million people worldwide, according to the CDC, the memory of the influenza has long been overshadowed by World War I, and even at the time, many governments downplayed the seriousness of the disease, in order not to distract from war efforts.
" Tracking the impact of the 1918 virus on the art world of that time has something of the miasmic feel of that disease itself, unseen yet seemingly ever-present." - Michael Lobel, Professor of Art History at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY
But for the artists of the time, many of whom were sent to war or died prematurely from the disease, it did not go unnoticed. In fact, art movements attempted to highlight the absurdity and sense of hopelessness that characterised the moment. Nothing seemed to make sense; trust in the government crumbled; and there was an overall feeling of chaos. So, artists tried to explore these themes and demonstrate how people all around were trying to cope with uncertainty.
Dadaism (c. 1916) is the perfect example of one such movement, inspired by the ridiculousness of WWI as well as the trauma of the pandemic. Dadaist artists struggled to make sense of the world around them, creating art that seemed itself to be nonsensical, and set about destroying traditional values in art. Their art took a hellish feel, which would later inspire surrealism.
Dada artist, George Grosz, for instance, depicted a nightmarish scene in ‘The Funeral’, showing distorted figures with a skeleton perched on top of a coffin drinking from a bottle. Of the painting, he said:
“In a strange street by night, a hellish procession of dehumanized figures mills, their faces reflecting alcohol, syphilis, plague … I painted this protest against a humanity that had gone insane.” - Grosz, quoted in Time
George Grosz, ‘The Funeral’, 1917-18
Whereas Dadaism took a more pessimistic, confrontational approach to exploring the tragedy of war and disease, other movements sought to adopt a more hopeful approach. It was with this goal in mind that architect Walter Gropius, for example, created the Bauhaus School in Germany, in 1919. His intention was to bridge art and design, in order to shift the focus from frivolity to practicality, helping to create a new world order. One of the students at the school at the time was Marcel Breuer. Historians believe that his work was directly inspired by the flu, as he created minimalist furniture made of hygienic wood and tubular steel, which was easy to clean. It stood in sharp contrast with the heavy, upholstered furniture which was popular at the time.
Cane-bottomed cantilever chair designed by Marcel Breuer
As Covid-19 still continues to wreak havoc in our societies and lives are tragically lost, we must remember that pandemics have existed since the beginning of humanity. If we look back at art during the Black Death, we can sense the raw fear people experienced at this time and the notion that death was all-around. Yet, even in the darkest of times, artists continued to work and art prevailed, in order to tell the story of those who witnessed the most mortal plague in history. Artists looked to saints and everyday comforts, such as music and games, for hope and to communicate a sense of optimism. During the years of the Spanish Flu, artists were also creating art to chronicle this important time in history and give a voice to the victims of the disease. While some artists, such as the Dadaists, communicated the chaos and absurdity felt by people, others, such as those of the Bauhaus School, proactively set about creating a more optimistic and practical world order, which would reshape art to fight the disease. Both of these periods in art history tell the tale of human resilience and humankind’s pervasive ability to choose hope over despair.
Artists today are also aiming to unite people and offer optimism in the face of the devastating impacts of Covid-19. They are the ones who will decide how the current pandemic will be remembered in years to come.
Aurelia Clavien - November 2020
Allison C. Meier, ‘Spanish flu and the depiction of disease’, 2019, Wellcome Collection, https://wellcomecollection.org/articles/XabLWhAAACEAnUH2
Anna Purna Kambhampaty, ‘How Art Movements Tried to Make Sense of the World in the Wake of the 1918 Flu Pandemic’, Time, https://time.com/5827561/1918-flu-art/
Jonathan Jones, ‘Brush with the Black Death: how artists painted through the plague’, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2012/feb/15/brush-black-death-artists-plague
Megan O’Grady, ‘What Can We Learn From the Art of Pandemics Past’, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/08/t-magazine/art-coronavirus.html
Michael Lobel, ‘Close Contact’, Art Forum, https://www.artforum.com/slant/michael-lobel-on-art-and-the-1918-flu-pandemic-82772
Michael Regnier, ‘Pandemic art: how artists have depicted disease’, The Art Newspaper, https://www.theartnewspaper.com/analysis/art-pandemic
Tom Holland, ‘Things could be much, much worse: Tom Holland on the horrible history of plagues’, The Times, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/things-could-be-much-much-worse-tom-holland-on-the-horrible-history-of-plagues-68kh6bslc
Wikipedia, Saint Sebastian, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Sebastian#cite_note-23