On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organisation declared the spread of Covid-19, caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, a pandemic. The magnitude of this is a shock to us all. However, if we look at the history of mankind, it is clear that pandemics have been affecting us for centuries. Where better to find testimony than in art, which has always been the mirror of life. Works of art are often referred to as documents of our human history. In times of of crisis, this is more so the case as they open up to the viewer not only historical events and emotions, but also artistic poetry.
The Plague in Art
Hardly any other catastrophe shaped the collective imagination of powerlessness and misfortune as much as the Plague. According to a study, the bacterial strain responsible for the pandemic, Yersinia pestis, first spread from Asia to Europe and from there back to China. The deadliest pandemic to date ravaged the world’s population for a large part of the second millennium.
The outbreak of the bubonic plague (1629-163) in Italy was witnessed by French painter Nicolas Poussin, who was part of the Baroque Classicism movement. At that time, the artist was working in Rome on the commission Plague of Ashdod. This experience had a strong influence on the creation and implementation of his work. In the art of the 17th century, one finds only few artistic interpretations of the Plague. The reason for this was the belief that what was seen would manifest itself, leading artists to suspect that they themselves would fall ill should they portray the pandemic. Poussin’s account provides us with frightening insights. He impressively captures the chaos, helplessness and fear of the people.
The last great outbreak of the Plague in Europe occurred in 1720, with Provence and Marseille being among the worst hit. Michel Serre’s Plague in Marseille gives us monumental evidence of this. The historical event is the subject of numerous depictions. We see Chevalier Roze, a French aristocrat and general commissioner for the Rive-Neuve district in Marseille, in the center of the picture. During the Plague, he set up quarantines and organized the distribution of humanitarian aid to the population. On 16 September 1720, he led a group that buried corpses in the poor quarter of Marseille. As a result, Roze himself fell ill but fortunately survived the illness. Roze was lucky as the chances of survival without modern medicine were incredibly low. He is remembered for his courage and selflessness in providing humanitarian aid in inhumane times.
The Spanish Flu in Art
The Spanish flu was the first pandemic of the 20th century. It claimed millions of lives between the end of the First World War and December 1920. The cause was a virulent descendant of the influenza virus (subtype A/H1N1). According to researchers, it did not originate in Spain, as the name misleadingly suggests, but in the USA. This pandemic is also reflected in art. Its implementations are dominated by a strong poignancy and expressiveness.
Egon Schiele is one of the most important artists of Viennese Modernism and left us an unforgettable testimony containing a tragic fate. We learn from a letter from Schiele that his wife, then six months pregnant, fell ill with the Spanish flu on October 19. She died only nine days later. Just two days before, Schiele had made two intimate drawings of her: Edith Schiele and Mother and Child. These are his last works, because he also fell ill with the flu and died of it on October 31 at the ripe age of 28. His work is undoubtedly one of the most important achievements of Modernism, with an array of extraordinary artistic feats being unlocked in his much too short life span.
The Norwegian painter of symbolism, Edvard Munch, was able to recover from the Spanish flu unlike millions of others. In the format of the classical self-portrait, he looks back not only on his suffering but also on his triumph. In Portrait after Influenza he portrays himself sitting in an armchair. The vaguely painted facial features suggest that his eyes are closed. He may not yet be fully recovered, but is already wearing his jacket, trousers and shoes as a sign of his return to society. The work Self-Portrait after the Spanish Flu seems to be dedicated to an earlier stage of recovery. Munch is still wearing his dressing gown and the bed is visible in the background. The 56-year-old artist survived the Spanish flu and defied it by capturing it on canvas. These self-portraits provide exemplary insights into Munch’s work: the painter in self-reflection about illness, his life and possibly his work.
In Times of Covid-19
Our Singulart artists are dealing with this profound situation in various ways. Through their artistic realization they reveal to us different points of view on the crisis. Below you will find the perspective of two of our artists.
“As an artist, I can’t step away and not speak about my feelings and thoughts concerning the Covid-19 crisis”
Swiss artist Anastasia Vasilyeva is working on a documentary art project. Anastasia records news, thoughts, feelings and statistics about the pandemic on canvas. Through her art, she allows the viewer to participate in the ongoing journey in a partly subjective manner. The series begins at the end of 2019 with Introduction: The information we had in 2019 and currently ends with the work 15.04.2020 – Two Million. The artist’s aim with this series is not to create art that fulfils a decorative aspect, but to produce a document that allows later generations to understand our feelings during this time. This is also where the subtle difference lies between a mere historical source and art as a testimony of our time. Artistic creation makes it possible to document and at the same time to incorporate subjective feelings and to preserve them for later generations. The thoughts that are reflected in Anastasia’s works are the thoughts of many who are confronted with the coronavirus epidemic. Anastasia Vasilyeva’s works are testimonies of a historical situation in which we all find ourselves.
Kamile Lukrecija Lukosiute
“I’m always the one who probably will still be trying to have fun even at the most miserable moment. I always spot something that is funny and like to highlight it.
The young Lithuanian artist Kamille Lukrecija Lukosiute also deals with the Covid-19 pandemic. In her works we find a humorous and partly ironic examination of the crisis. Kamille remains true to her style and is not afraid to infuriate when she uses provocative slogans such as “BUY THIS. AND GET A FREE ROLL OF TOILET PAPER” with acrylic on canvas. The work CORONAVIRUS also goes on to suggest that “CORONAVIRUS HAS INFECTED THIS MASTERPIECE” – another sharp-tongued and amusing treatment of the profound situation. The artistic interpretation of the pandemic contains a deeper message than the whimsical tone would initially lead one to believe. In all the misfortune that the pandemic has brought, she manages to illuminate the humorous aspects, because “serious is life, cheerful is art” – Schiller already knew. As is well known, one should not lose their sense of humor in order to survive such situations in a spiritually healthy way.
Art lovers are experiencing difficult times and more than ever we at Singulart believe in the effectiveness of making art visible online. We believe in the power it gives and the comfort it provides. The artistic examination of Covid-19 has many different faces and its interpretations highlight different aspects.