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What Can We Learn From the Art of Pandemics Past?

By Megan O’Grady

Edvard Munch’s “Self-Portrait After the Spanish Flu” (1919).
© The Munch Museum
Edvard Munch’s “Self-Portrait After the Spanish Flu” (1919).

When the pandemic hit, we began gathering around the hearths of our screens, for news, or in solidarity with friends and family, for the cold solace of a cocktail-hour booze-Zoom, even for preschool, the grid of domestic scenes and small, hopeful faces meant to relieve us of our isolation somehow only succeeding in reinforcing it. (Even those of us who tend naturally toward solitary endeavours find ourselves running low on interiority these days.) Under normal circumstances, illness is a largely private event; even a common disease is suffered individually. But a pandemic isolates us collectively, as the grid illustrates almost too perfectly; we aren’t alone in our loneliness. When we Zoom, we “connect” along our metaphoric edges. We’ve existed in such grids for a while without really acknowledging it, one might argue, imprisoned in our small geometries of perspective. Grid life seems all too easy a metaphor for a society stripped bare, exposed for what it has become. But that’s the thing about the grid; live with it long enough and one forgets it’s there, until the next catastrophe.

© Museo Nacional del PradoPieter Bruegel the Elder’s “The Triumph of Death” (1562-63).
Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “The Triumph of Death” (1562-63).

We will all have our own metaphors and images to make meaning of this time: art or reportage or our own witnessing, the visuals that endure, reflecting us back to ourselves. We don’t yet have the image, the one that stands for everything that went wrong — the equivalent of the little migrant girl weeping as her mother is arrested, or the young black woman in a flowing dress holding her hands out to a mass of advancing policemen. It seems important that the most potent images of this time thus far have showed us what our world looks like without us in it: New York’s Brooklyn Bridge. Paris’s Place de la Concorde. Rome’s St. Peter’s Square. The streets of Wuhan, a city of millions, emptied out. The Manhattan skyline slowly dimming as office buildings switch off their lights. The eerie images of abandoned thoroughfares hit us hard because they show us a glimpse of a possible future, a post-human universe, the built world without those who built it.

Illness is, of course, all about the body, but what has been notable to me in the visuals of the past month is an absence of bodies. We see evidence of them: the countless coffins in Italy headed for the crematory; a pop-up field hospital in Manhattan’s Central Park, with its endless rows of waiting beds; exterior shots of the Spanish ice rink turned morgue; the satellite footage from Iran of mass graves. Those bodies we do see are obscured, on stretchers, encased in masses of translucent plastic sheeting. We know there’s someone alive inside, breathing with a ventilator; the image is terrible in its suffocating solitude. These pictures remind me of Thomas Struth’s photograph of a high-tech surgical theatre, “Figure, Charité, Berlin, 2012,” the living person depicted — his or her identity and humanity — incidental (and yet still essential) to the image itself.

Egon Schiele’s “The Family” (1918).
Egon Schiele’s “The Family” (1918).

Often it’s the unseen terrors that provoke the imagination. The invisibility of the virus (under a microscope, it resembles a malevolent cat toy) leads one to think about the many perils of our late capitalist age that were initially invisible to us, from the nuclear contamination of Fukushima to the tainted water in Flint, Mich., but also things like apathy and oppression, perversity and regressive fear, the kinds of things it inevitably falls to the teachers and artists and journalists to try, often futilely, to make us see and react to. Art, like clean water and access to quality health care, is a marker of civilised society, which is maybe why, of all the doomsday imagery playing in my head right now, it’s a scene from Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film “Children of Men,” adapted from the 1992 P. D. James novel, that’s the most vivid. It is 2027, infertility is the medical scourge of the day, and society is in chaos. Clive Owen’s character visits his cousin, an art-hoarding cultural minister, in the quiet chill of his guarded London home: Michelangelo’s “David,” missing its lower leg, stands in his entryway; Picasso’s “Guernica” hangs over the dining table. Decontextualised, the art is meaningless, the grossest of status markers. “I just don’t think about it,” the bureaucrat says, asked what he gets from surrounding himself with such works, given that no one will live to see them.

Susan Sontag warned us off thinking about and describing illness metaphorically, first in her landmark 1978 essay “Illness as Metaphor,” inspired by her own experience with cancer, then in its 1989 follow-up, “AIDS and Its Metaphors.” In both, she addresses the punitive charge we bring to the language we use to describe certain sicknesses and how we ascribe a moral laxity to those who suffer from them (for Sontag, the very word “plague” is a distortion suggesting a kind of biblical judgment on society). Illness, she explains, comes to stand for the fears of the day — in the case of AIDS, which killed 18,000 people in the United States alone, it was the fear of sex, particularly homosexuality. The early days of Covid-19 — “the Chinese virus,” as America’s hapless, xenophobic president has called it — dovetailed neatly with one of Trump’s favourite tropes, a fear of immigrants and foreigners. Metaphors have a way of depersonalising, dehumanising. And yet, metaphors help us to envision abstract ideas. Albert Camus (“The Plague,” 1947), José Saramago (“Blindness,” 1995) and, more recently, Ling Ma (“Severance,” 2018) have all used contagion as a metaphor for the irrevocable infectiousness of repressive groupthink. For those of us finding it hard not to think of Covid-19 as a judgment on American arrogance, it’s a metaphorical readymade.

Left: Photo by Clare Gemima. Right: Courtesy of Raptis Rare BooksLeft: Izhar Patkin’s “Unveiling of a Modern Chastity” (1981). Right: A first edition of Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” (1925).
Left: Izhar Patkin’s “Unveiling of a Modern Chastity” (1981). Right: A first edition of Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” (1925).

Maybe we prefer our illnesses as metaphors because the physically sick body itself is so distressing and confining, the antithesis of the rigorous, unbound creative mind. Lovers have Shakespeare, Donne and Keats, but for headache sufferers, “language at once runs dry,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her 1926 essay “On Being Ill.” “Novels, one would have thought, would have been devoted to influenza; epic poems to typhoid; odes to pneumonia, lyrics to toothache.” Woolf, who had witnessed the devastation of the 1918 flu pandemic that killed millions worldwide, made the titular heroine of her 1925 novel “Mrs. Dalloway” an influenza survivor embracing life and togetherness with flowers and friendship and a dinner party. After so much trauma, Woolf understood what it meant, this coming together of shell-shocked survivors of the 20th century. “This late age of the world’s experience had bred in them all, all men and women, a well of tears,” Mrs. Dalloway reflects. “Tears and sorrows; courage and endurance; a perfectly upright and stoical bearing.”

In that description I can also see those terrifically eloquent selfies of medical workers at the end of their shifts, the doctors and nurses and volunteers treating patients, their exhausted faces striped red where goggles have cut into their skin, eyes that have seen too much. The era of the coronavirus selfie, ushered in by Tom Hanks, one of the first boldface names to test positive for the disease, has an illustrious pedigree, as it turns out. Edvard Munch’s 1919 “Self-Portrait After the Spanish Flu” captures the jaundiced isolation and hollow face. Munch survived the flu, but Gustav Klimt, whose face Egon Schiele sketched on his deathbed in 1918, did not; nor did Schiele, whose 1918 portrait “The Family,” a future vision of himself and his wife with the child they were expecting, turned out to be his last: Schiele’s pregnant wife died later that fall, three days before the painter did.

Therese Frare/Bruce Silverstein PhotographyTherese Frare’s “Final Moments” (1990).
Therese Frare’s “Final Moments” (1990).

A marked silence surrounds illness in our culture, and yet it was always there, buried in our cultural consciousness, long before the advent of photography, in concepts that illustrate our sense of death’s inevitability — motifs that act almost as woodcuts of the mind, such as the Danse Macabre, or the Grim Reaper, connecting us across time with the living and the dead. As children, we join hands and chant “Ring-around-the-rosy” without understanding its possibly deadly message, sent by other children, witnesses to the bubonic plague over a century ago. Illness is written into the imagery of our greatest poetry — “I have seen the eternal footman hold my coat and snicker, and in short, I was afraid,” T. S. Eliot wrote in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915). It can be found in this spring’s unexpectedly resonant literary hits, back-ordered on Amazon: Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron” (1353), in which a group of Florentines flee the plague-infested city, telling stories to entertain themselves, and Daniel Defoe’s “Journal of a Plague Year,” a fictional account of London’s 1665 epidemic of the same plague. (The bubonic plague, a.k.a. Black Death, killed so many millions of people, in so many different waves of infection, history lost count.) The numbers reported in the weekly Bills of Death were low at first, Defoe writes, but then grew exponentially. The wealthy fled the city.

Class critique is often implicit in depictions of plagues past, though the human body — vulnerable, biological — is the great leveller, up to a certain point: in Pieter Breugel the Elder’s epic 1562 painting “The Triumph of Death,” an army of skeletons wreaks havoc upon a town’s inhabitants, and doesn’t discriminate between rich and poor. In Edgar Allan Poe’s 1842 short story “The Masque of the Red Death,” aristocratic partygoers seclude themselves for a masquerade ball only to find in attendance the masked pestilence itself; the story was inspired by the poet and journalist Heinrich Heine’s eyewitness account of a Paris society party a decade before, during a cholera outbreak that killed 18,000 people and marked the beginning of modern epidemiology. “Suddenly the merriest of the harlequins felt a chill in his legs, took off his mask, and to the amazement of all revealed a violet-blue face,” wrote Heine. “It was soon discovered that this was no joke; the laughter died, and several wagon loads were driven directly from the ball to the Hotel-Dieu, the main hospital, where they arrived in their gaudy fancy dress and promptly died, too.” Crucially, Poe wrote his story in poverty in Baltimore after being disinherited by his wealthy stepfather and while his wife was dying of tuberculosis.

© Artist or Artist's Estate. Photo: Brooklyn MuseumAndres Serrano’s “Blood and Semen V” (1990).
Andres Serrano’s “Blood and Semen V” (1990).

It is often said that AIDS changed art forever in its critique of the Reagan-era fog of silence. The art of AIDS was bold and brash and often overtly political, sparking debates about federal arts funding and censorship, and it didn’t flinch from the realities of the body: See Andres Serrano’s photographs of bodily fluids, including his 1990 “Blood and Semen V,” or Jenny Holzer’s 1983-85 series of condoms emblazoned with safe-sex messages like “Expiring for love is beautiful but stupid.” It seems important that one of the earliest artworks to address the AIDS crisis (created before the illness even had a name), Izhar Patkin’s 1981 painting “Unveiling of a Modern Chastity,” features crater-like sores made of latex and liquid rubber, conjuring the lesions, known as Kaposi’s sarcoma, suffered by AIDS patients. We tend to forget that some art from this time could be lyrical, too, like Nan Goldin’s haunting portraits of her friends, a couple named Gilles and Gotcho, taken before and after Gilles contracted HIV. But the image I tend to remember from this time appeared in, of all things, a Benetton ad: Therese Frare’s 1990 pietà-like photograph of a gaunt young man on his deathbed, surrounded by his grieving family. The fashion label’s appropriation and reworking of the almost unbearably intimate image — the black-and-white original had appeared in a more reportorial context in Life magazine — was understandably denounced by gay rights organisations at the time. Today, the ad is widely seen as a landmark in the history of AIDS imagery, an important humanising and mainstreaming of a disease that had been previously seen as distant and selective.

We don’t know yet what life will look like after we emerge from our grids, but surely this time has already changed us in all kinds of ways we can’t see yet. Covid-19 is anything but distant and selective: None of us really has the luxury of opting out, of just not thinking about it. The 2020 pandemic will change the way we see art forever, too, and artists and writers have already begun doing the work of illuminating new shifts and losses, documenting the small kindnesses and cruelties, the large failures of leadership, technology and society. One thing seems certain: We will never look at ourselves as a culture in the same way again. “When has any such thing been even heard or seen; in what annals has it ever been read that houses were left vacant, cities deserted, the country neglected, the fields too small for the dead and a fearful and universal solitude over the whole earth?” the poet Petrarch wrote to his brother in 1348 as the plague raged in Europe, having received word of the death of his beloved, Laura. “Oh happy people of the future, who have not known these miseries and perchance will class our testimony with the fables.”