Historical Pandemics and Art
In 1918, Egon Schiele began an oil painting entitled The Family, featuring himself, his wife, and his unborn child. Before he could complete it, his wife, six months pregnant, died of the Spanish Flu. His own life was taken just three days after, by the same disease. Though the Spanish Flu is often overridden in contemporary thought and collective memory by World War I, the pandemic did not go unnoticed by artists. The disease ravaging the globe in 1918 exacerbated feelings of chaos, upheaval, and meaninglessness, and these feelings were reflected in the art of the time.
Some of the most well-known pieces regarding the Spanish Flu were portraits.
Egon Schiele painted a portrait of his mentor, Gustav Klimt, from a morgue in Vienna after he died of complications related to the flu. Edvard Munch made two self portraits, Self-Portrait With the Spanish Flu and Self-Portrait After the Spanish Flu, depicting the artist’s experience surviving the disease. However, the influence of the disease was felt on a much broader scale. For example, prominent Dadaists endeavored to combine art and design to create simultaneously artistic and useful objects. Notably, architect Walter Gropius designed several pieces of furniture that -- unlike the heavy upholstery common at the time -- were minimalistic, and made of wood and steel. Historians believe those choices were heavily influenced by the flu, as their lightweight and moveable design met the new standards required for cleaning and sanitization.
During the Spanish Flu, collage also became a popular medium. The strategies of cutting, reassembling and remixing were appealing to artists coping with the hopelessness and absurdity that characterized the epoch. It was a time in which the Spanish Flu, World War I, the rise of communism, and many other globally significant events were combining to create an atmosphere of chaos and upheaval. The Spanish Flu killed at least 50 million people.
A pandemic that is more deeply entrenched in art history is of course the Black Death. Much of the imagery that is so firmly entwined with the ideas of death and disease stem from outbreaks of this disease. Michael Wolgemut’s Danse Macabre was a product of this plague. The iconic visage of a plague doctor, wearing a long beaked mask and heavy robes, also stems from this era. And in fact, it was popularized by artistic imagination, rather than by widespread use. Paintings of mass burials were common, like the piece by Pierart dou Tielt depicting the people of Tournai burying victims of the Black Death in 1349.
An interesting aspect of artwork of the Black Death is that there are no depictions of actual people suffering from the disease; likely because the sick were quarantined and artists were wary to get too close. However, this is largely unique in pandemic history. The art from this era dealt strongly with the inescapable pervasiveness of death. The Black Death killed between 75 and 200 million people.
This last painting on the left is a depiction of Dr. Edward Jenner performing his first smallpox vaccination in 1796. Smallpox was the first viral epidemic that was ended by vaccine. On the right, we have a photograph of
Margaret Kennan, the first person in the world to receive the vaccine for Covid-19. When we are faced with a worldwide death toll of over 2 million, it is easy to look at the imagery of the Spanish Flu and the Black Death and feel that sense of helplessness, to relate to the depictions of quarantines and social isolation, hospitalisations, deaths, and loved ones affected by disease. These images stand out as a glimmer of hope.
Historically, the art created during these historic pandemics are what we see when we think of these periods. However, often the instances were not widely recorded by artists. Throughout Covid-19, many artists all over
the world have worked on their creative pursuits to create a lasting image of what our lives were in this time, when we were feeling hopeless and meaningless and nihilistic, when our lives were full of turmoil and uncertainty, and so many have worked to create a message of hope. Everyone has been adapting to this new normal, and the tireless work of artists demonstrating the capacity of art to bring hope and joy in a time where these are so sparse, the unmistakable role of art in social movements and the passion it can inspire, has been a shining light in these challenging times.
That is what makes the art of this pandemic different from the art of past plagues. While we have unprecedented understanding of the physical symptoms of this disease, rather than focusing on the turmoil and death surrounding the issue, artists have been working to create a message of hope, unity, and strength in the face of fear and adversity.