Art has always had something to offer when it comes to understanding difficult times, or calming a much agitated mind
We’ve passed a few days in March and most of April in lockdown. I lost my dear childhood friend to this killer virus during that time, a truth that I still find very difficult to come to terms with, let alone accept. Even though the lockdown has been eased since the start of May, zone- and area-wise lockdown is still in place. So we continue to live in fear, we stay at home and in all likelihood, it seems we’ll be living with social distancing measures for a much longer time to come. That’s why I try not to think much about the darker sides of this pandemic. Instead, I turn my attention to art.
The salving effect of art
Art has always had something to offer when it comes to understanding difficult times, or calming a much agitated mind. I started my online journey to look for artworks that were created in or around the times of previous pandemics or epidemics in recorded history. After a few hours of search, I was left with an even heavier heart. There are a lot of artworks that relate directly to the subject of pandemics. A thorny fact hit me that our world had had indeed many upheavals in the realm of diseases. The artworks I found are mostly paintings, some sculptures and some contemporary stuff (especially relating to the Aids Epidemic of the 1980s). I struggled with how to look at what I found? How to make sense of them? Not that artworks offer any grand solutions but maybe they’ll bring about a shift in my perspective, which will really be helpful in these crazy times.
The 20th century: from Klimt to Sargent
Obviously I turned my attention to artists I’ve always favoured. I selected only a handful of artworks that I thought would help me lead this conversation with myself. The fact that Gustav Klimt, one of my favourite painters, died at the age of 55 of the Spanish flu in 1918 especially piqued my interest. I am very fond of his excessively gold and silver leaf paintings in which he, often dealing with erotic subject-matters, offers Art Nouveau styled vivid, luminous and decorative patterns. Consider, for example, his most famous painting entitled “The Kiss”, depicting an intense passionate moment of a couple kissing each other. The image has been reproduced many times to make popular souvenir or posters to enliven any room or space. The original painting is on display in a museum in Vienna.
Not that Austrian painter Klimt (1862-1918) painted a canvas representing the pandemic, but the fact that he had died of the flu pandemic led me to look through his paintings, an exercise which thankfully became a distraction that was necessary to lighten my otherwise dark mood in these times. Then I found that there was more to Klimt’s story.
Klimt was indeed a mentor to another much younger Austrian painter—the very talented Egon Schiele (1890-1918). Schiele painted in a very distinct style and exhibited his works in many artistic centres in Europe, including his own city Vienna.
Schiele drew portraits of his friend and mentor Klimt upon the latter’s death. He also sketched portraits of his own pregnant wife Edith who, too, died of the flu. Days after the death of his wife, he himself died at the age of 28. Which means the portraits of his wife were done within three or four days between his wife’s death and his. An extraordinary passion for one’s love of creation can only be the reason behind these hauntingly striking drawings.
Another of Klimt’s contemporaries, the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944), well-known for his role in the Expressionist Movement of the early 20th century, also contracted the flu. Although he became very ill, he survived. His 1919 self-portrait “With the Flu” shows a man suffering illness and depression. The use of sweeping brush strokes, along with the garish use of yellow and an intense sea-green, exaggerates the mood. Munch was particularly known for his use of complementary colours that intensified the mood of his paintings (for example, his use of orange and blue, or red and green, or purple and yellow). In a second self-portrait titled “After the Spanish Flu” you can see the interiors with similar colours, but remarkable changes in the artist’s face and figure are evident. These oil-on-canvas paintings are now on display at the Norwegian National Museum, Oslo. It is interesting to mention here that Munch is the painter of one of the most iconic modern artworks, “The Scream”, which he had painted in 1893. In the first pandemic self-portrait, one can easily trace echoes of the very similar skeletal face from “The Scream”.
Speaking of portraiture in art, one of the most prolific painters in the portraiture genre is American painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). Sargent was a master in representing a person, but here we see his depiction of a makeshift hospital during the Spanish flu pandemic which overlapped with the final months of World War I.
Having caught the influenza while sketching soldiers for his famous painting “Gassed”, Sargent had to spend one week under a hospital tent in Roisel, northwestern France, in the autumn of 1918. The haunting calmness captured in this painting highlights the plights of the wounded and the sick. The painting is preserved in the Imperial War Museum, London, as it was the artist’s gift to the Museum along with several other paintings done during the same period.
The Spanish Flu, also known as the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, killed over 50 million people all over the world till the summer of 1919. One can imagine the horrendous impact of a deadly global flu, which coincided with the World War I in its tail end. Anti-viral medicines were yet to be discovered and practiced. As a student of art history, when I read about the Dada Movement, it was clear the calamities of World War I had heavily influenced the arts in post-war times. Artists criticised the cruel, senseless killings. Many of them having been drafted to fight in the war were disoriented and demoralised. That’s why they responded through a conceptual anti-art movement which gradually came to be known as Dada Art. Now I fully realised that millions of deaths brought about by the flu had also contributed to the artists’ vision of Dadaism.
From the 14th to the 17th century
Moving back in time, starting from the14th century, various forms of plague ravaged Europe. The Bubonic plague, what later came to be known as the Black Death, broke out in western Europe in 1347 in Sicily and eventually spread throughout the continent. A terribly contagious and pulmonary disease with fever and pain, the plague still kills about 3,000 people annually in the world.
A whole lot of artworks portray the frightful and graphic scenes of the plague pandemic of various types, which struck Europe in several waves for about 400 years. One very freakishly iconic image presents the mask of the so called “plague doctor” with his long gown and other protective gear, which was the medieval version of what we now call PPE (personal protective equipment). We have often seen representation of this image or the like in theatres or movie settings before. The plague doctor’s protective attire consisted of a waxed fabric gown, a bird-beaked mask, goggles, hat, gloves and a stick so he can stay at a distance from the patient. The sharp beak-like part of the mask was right on the nose and was filled with fragrant herbs and hay as a buffer against the “miasmic” air, believed to be the bad air carried by the illness. Mostly, these doctors of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries didn’t cure much. In many cases, they were not real doctors or only second-rate doctors appointed by municipal authorities to tend to the sick. For them keeping a good account of the “age” and “number” of the deceased was more important than to heal or cure.
According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, about one-third of Europe’s entire population perished as a result of the Black Death, with some areas of the continent suffering far greater losses than others. I have chosen one painting that represents a quintessential Bruegel image where a collapse of time and space is often experienced, where he constructs on the canvas a fusion of the past and present, sometimes termed as “historical imagination” of Bruegel.
The painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1526-69), entitled “The Triumph of Death”, depicts people of different social backgrounds— from peasants and soldiers to nobles including a king and a cardinal—being taken by death. A master of complex composition, the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painter Bruegel represents a barren earth devoid of any life as far as the eyes can see. Only dead bodies and skeletons are seen.
Although his other genre paintings teem with life’s joyous moments as well as harsh realities, the “Triumph of Death”, speaks to us about the terror in the face of death still after 450 years. A close look at the painting reveals that the atmosphere, endlessly grizzly, is without an iota of respite from suffering. The various figures and elements give the impression of many paintings within one painting, the enormous number and variety of the characters, their clothes and all the other meticulously drawn details engage one to look more intently at it.
Following the Black Death, a genre of painting emerged in medieval Europe, known as “Dance of the Death”, where skeletons would be seen dancing or performing routine tasks. Perhaps this genre had influenced Bruegel and another 15th century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch.
Lessons through the art
I have already mentioned that Gustav Klimt didn’t really represent the Spanish flu pandemic in his paintings of the late 1910s. But before he died of the flu, a painting entitled “The Bride” was retrieved along with many other unfinished paintings from his studio. This particular painting brings me back to why I began this journey of looking at artworks during the trying times of the Coronavirus pandemic. Because art, in addition to confronting us with harsh realities, inspires us to go on with life in times like this. Just consider the “The Bride” by Klimt. Due to his sudden demise, the painting remains unfinished but does it take away the beauty or the glory from it? I think it doesn’t, it rather adds to it, because what came before the end is what matters. Only through these artistic expressions from 450 or 100 years ago are we able to connect to the lives of those who had lived before us. I feel we owe it to our predecessors to carry on through our hard work and hopes as they did in difficult times.
Shaheen Rashid teaches contemporary art at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. Trained as a Museum Specialist with degree in Art History and Education from the University of Cincinnati, USA, she worked at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.