As Edvard Munch’s work has gone viral a century later with the COVID-19: shutdown, to make sense of today, here’s a look at artworks — Western and Indian — that drew on diseases.
John Singer Sargent’s Gassed. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Edvard Munch, the artist whose work so well expressed the terror and solitude of modern life, spent a lifetime battling anxiety. He was five when his mother died of tuberculosis. Nine years later, his beloved sister succumbed to the disease. The artist’s childhood was also marred by ill-health. When he caught the Spanish Flu at his country house in Ekely, Norway, in 1918, his chances of survival were slim. But he made it. That experience found space in two works — Self Portrait with the Spanish Flu (1919, oil on canvas) and Self Portrait after the Spanish Flu (1919). In both, he appears emaciated, but the colour returns to his face in the second, and he looks straight into the eyes of the viewer.
A century later, as the COVID-19 pandemic shuts down the world, Munch’s work is being shared to sum up our present. The experience of being battered by waves of disease is not new to humanity — and has shown up in the work of artists before. In looking at the art of pandemics past, we search for resonances and answers that can make sense of today.
Art has also been shaped by the power of pathogens. As early as the 2nd century, the outbreak of smallpox across the Silk Road led to the worship of goddess Hariti, believed to have the power to cause and thwart the disease — and resulted in numerous sculptures of the deity in the Gandhara region (present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan). In India, the legends of Shitala Mata, who had the powers to heal fever and smallpox, and Oladevi, the goddess of cholera, have been painted by folk artists for a long time.
Hans Holbein the Younger’s Danse Macabre. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Medieval Europe was radically altered by the bubonic plague that likely arrived in Sicily in 1347 with the Genoese merchants on ships that sailed through the Black Sea. Its horrors were reflected in the art of the times. It took the lives of several prominent artists, including Giotto di Bondone and Bernardo Daddi, who were rejecting Italian-Byzantine traditions for more realistic figures. More importantly, it altered the course of art history. The pestilence that killed about a third of Europe’s population coincided with the beginnings of Renaissance. As existing rigid hierarchical structures became more flexible with the decline of feudalism, there also emerged a new class of patrons and support for artists such as Filippo Lippi, Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo.
The plague and its profound experiences of suffering and loss led artists to create haunting imageries. While initially plague was feared as God’s punishment for sin, the sufferers later began to be associated with Christ. The Danse Macabre — dancing skeletons accompanying kings and commoners — became a medieval allegory for the inevitability of death. One of its best-known depictions is by German artist Hans Holbein the Younger in a series of woodcuts that begins with the appearance of Death in the Garden of Eden. Holbein died of plague in 1543, as did the Italian master Titian, who painted Pieta when the disease swept Venice. Italian baroque artist Salvator Rosa’s L’Umana Fragilita (Human Frailty, 1656) showed his newborn son, who lost his life to plague, signing an agreement with Death.
In 2005, the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts, USA, attempted to “examine the response of visual art to the plague” through the exhibition “Hope and Healing: Painting in Italy in a Time of Plague” through 37 paintings in the baroque style by masters such as Van Dyck, Canaletto and Tintoretto, who were active in Italy during the plague years. One of the show’s objectives was to “provoke discussion about the role of today’s art in providing a remedy against modern ‘plagues’. How will art continue to inspire and give perspective to the human condition in times of disaster?”
Dayanita Singh’s photograph of a nurse at an HIV clinic. (Photo by Dayanita Singh)
Though artists are still grappling with that question, in the last few months we have seen Turner prize winner Damien Hirst pay tribute to the United Kingdom’s National Health Service with a Butterfly Rainbow, and influential British artist David Hockney lift our spirits with drawings of the blooming spring flowers in Normandy, France. Many of us have been amused by rats causing mayhem in a bathroom painted by street artist Banksy. Delhi-based artist Pallavi Paul is collecting sounds of the lockdown from across the world — the project Share Your Quiet has birds chirping in Lucknow, the UK and Delhi, the sound of medical equipment at a nursing home in Mumbai and of wind blowing in Auckland, New Zealand. Mumbai-based Dhruvi Acharya, meanwhile, reflects on the isolation of lockdown, and the plight of migrant workers in her watercolour series Painting in the Time of Corona.
“Every period produces works of art that moves us in different ways. This time will be no different…There are artists who work more quickly and offer a more immediate response . . . There are several projects in different places in the world where photographers have shot people in their homes, from outside their windows. Street and graffiti artists are always quick to respond. There are also artists who are looking at the pandemic through a more politicised lens — protesting the lack of planning and infrastructure that has hampered our ability to respond to this novel virus. But I am most curious about what the slower artists will develop in the coming years. Will they still be reflecting on the creative power of boredom, the intensity of isolation and our deep human need to connect with each other despite everything?” says Trevor Smith, curator at Peabody Essex Museum, US, and co-curator of “Spit Spreads Death”, an exhibition that opened in October 2019 at Mütter Museum in Philadelphia to commemorate the 101st anniversary of the 1918 pandemic. “We worked with various forms of ephemera, patriotic and public health posters, personal belongings, liberty loan parade buttons and so forth. One of the challenges was that there wasn’t a rich archive of objects to choose from in telling the story,” says Smith.
Munch’s Self Portrait with the Spanish Flu. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The art that emerged from the 1918 pandemic proved that the losses were collective but not the memories. “The Spanish Flu is
remembered personally, not collectively. Not as a historical disaster, but as millions of discrete, private tragedies,” writes Laura Spinney in her 2017 book Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World.
One such tragedy was recorded by German artist Egon Schiele, who sketched his friend and mentor Gustav Klimt in his dying days. Months later, in October 1918, Schiele and his pregnant wife, too, had died of the flu — like Klimt. His last unfinished canvas, The Family, immortalised his cherished dream — it is a portrait of him seated behind his wife and their unborn infant. At the age of five, Indian artist Amrita Sher-Gil, who was in Hungary at the time, was also infected by the virus but survived. Like Schiele, the flu took the lives of several other masters of the period, including Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso, Niko Pirosmani and Morton Schamberg.
The impact of the 1918 flu on art might not have been as evident as the plague, but cities ravaged by the war and disease saw the birth of great art movements. Spearheaded by designer Walter Gropius, Germany saw an emphasis on minimalism in the Bauhaus movement. Artists such as Marcel Breuer and Paul Klee were proponents of its rational approach. Across the great seas, in the US, Dadaism challenged capitalism and existing political and cultural norms, finding resonance in the works of artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Francis Picabia.
Egon Schiele’s The Family. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
American art historian and critic Michael Lobel argues that since the Spanish Flu “overlapped” with the end of World War I, it is probably difficult to clearly distinguish the anguish brought by either. He ascertains how John Singer Sargent’s 1919 oil painting Gassed, which depicts the aftermath of a mustard gas attack during the World War I, probably also borrowed from the artist’s own battle with the Spanish Flu — he was infected on the warfront. “Even those dressings over the soldiers’ eyes can be regarded. . . as repositionings of the cloth masks that, covering the nose and mouth, became a visual signifier of the 1918 pandemic, much like they have for us again today,” wrote Lobel in an article in Artforum in April.
In more contemporary times, we have seen art being used as a means to fight for justice during the HIV epidemic. While several prominent artists including Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe and Felix Gonzalez-Torres died from the illness, the homophobia and stigma that prevailed became a subject for several artists in America in the ’80s and ’90s, many of whom also addressed the government’s indifference to AIDS in the Reagan era. If Jenny Holzer’s 1983-85 series Untitled (Protect Me From What I Want) comprised packaged latex condoms with safe-sex messages, Keith Haring’s Ignorance = Fear/Silence = Death was printed on T-shirts and posters, and became a popular motif to emphasise the urgency of AIDS awareness. “AIDS is the single most potent force shaping the development of American art over the last several decades…,” said curator Jonathan Katz during a lecture in Vancouver in 2016.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Triumph of Death. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Several Indian artists were part of the 2008 travelling exhibition “Make Art/Stop AIDS” that debuted at Fowler Museum in America. On display, among others, was Gurugram-based artist duo Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra’s oil painting Let’s Play Safe, which focussed on safe sex practices, and Dayanita Singh’s photographs of caregivers working with HIV/AIDS patients.
Loss and melancholy has found expression through art, but so has black humour. English caricaturist Isaac Cruikshank got a few laughs for his 1808 print that cast doubts on physician Edward Jenner’s smallpox vaccine, with Jenner warding off his opponents with a knife. The current crown-shaped virus acquires an eye and long tongue in Bhaskar Chitrakar’s Kalighat patuas, where it enters the home of a Bengali babu. While Indian artist Gagan Singh is sharing comic sketches of his lockdown experience, also trending are Turkish artist Ertan Atay’s re-imagined portraits of masters if they were alive in the present. Each of them wears a mask — Klimt’s is painted with the motif of his iconic work, The Kiss (c 1907), and Salvador Dali has his mustache jutting out from it.
“Art being art will find a way to continue. At the same time, its scale is bound to change. I think the book as a form will be something many more artists will be forced to explore, while we all think a lot more about the huge shipping and travel costs of exhibitions. Instead, we send some PDFs and 3D drawings over. It might become more about collectives rather than big individual artists. Art would address the inner lives of people as it always does — yet, never before have we realised the need for community. So I imagine art as small, about care, community, collectives. I think the gurudwara model of sewa might be a model to look to for some artists,” says Singh.