Updated: May 25
by Ranjan Kaul
We live in troubled times and Covid-19 has only exacerbated our sorrow, distress and misery. The pandemic is referred to as the “novel” virus, but history has seen several infectious diseases and outbreaks, ranging from the bubonic plague, which also affected India, and cholera to the Spanish Flu, smallpox and the AIDS virus. So, much of what we’re going through has been experienced in the past; there’s nothing that is altogether new and perhaps some “distancing” in time will be needed to fully assess the social, economic and, importantly, psychological impact of the Covid pandemic.
Amidst suffering and loss, great works of art have been and will continue to be created, far exceeding the lifespan of their creators. While we’re already seeing contemporary artists expressing their anguish and turmoil at the ongoing pandemic, others have withdrawn into their shell-studios to reflect and heal and just survive to create art about these traumatic times. Meanwhile, it would be insightful to look at how artists responded to similar events over the centuries.
In the sixteenth century, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted an apocalyptic canvas titled Triumph of Death depicting the end of all life on earth. Painted around the time of the Black Death, a helicopter view enabled Bruegel to portray a panoramic landscape of death and destruction with skeleton-soldiers carrying crusader shields. The Black Death affected poor and rich alike and strongly reinforced realism in art with the fear of hell horribly real and little promise of heavenly salvation. As we will see in this article, a few centuries later, art changed considerably – artists shifted from realism and resorted to abstracted figuration and symbolism to express their inner turmoil, suffering and death.
Triumph of Death by Peter Breugel the Elder, 1562
The Black Death killed millions – estimates of the number who died vary, but the pandemic is generally believed to have killed between 50 million and 125 million people. The pandemic was essentially a bacterial plague caused by the Yersinia pestisis bacterium carried by fleas on black rats (hence called the Black Death). The pandemic peaked during 1347-52 CE and has been well documented. Here is one work by an unknown artist depicting a scene of the citizens of Tournai, Belgium, burying the dead.
Citizens of Tournai burying victims of the Black Death by an unknown artist, 1353
There have been few significant artworks during the period following the Black Death – the earliest known representation of the danse macabre (dance of death) dates back to 1424 and was painted on the external walls of the Cemetry of the Holy Innocents in Paris. While the walls and paintings have been destroyed, the images were preserved in Guyot Marchant’s edition of the Danse Macabre published in 1485. Though the artist has not been conclusively identified, the illustrations have been ascribed to Jean Gerson, Chancellor of the Sorbonne, particularly owing to their didactic tone reminiscent of Gerson’s sermons. We see a contrasting depiction of the living and the dead – the bishop and squire juxtaposed against the two skeletal corpses. There is a noticeable fluidity in the postures of the corpses while the two living persona are stiff and immobile. The corpse in the middle, with one leg raised, is portrayed in a dance-like pose even as the unwilling living refuses the invitation of their “partners”; the squire leans away and raises his hand in a futile gesture of refusal.
Another macabre woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle called Dance of Death created by Michael Woglemut around the same time tried to show that death "unites" all people irrespective of their station in life with the the skeletons holding hands as they dance and play music, while one rises from the dead to join them.
The Bishop and the Squire, woodcut from Danse Macabre by Gyot Marchant, published in 1485
The Medieval Dance of Death, 1493, by Michael Wolgemut, from the Nuremberg Chronicle of
Arnold Bocklin was a Swiss painter who in 1898 painted Plague. Some critics have conjectured that he probably drew inspiration from the bubonic plague that infected Bombay about the same time. The bubonic plague struck the city of Bombay in the late nineteenth century, killing thousands; several citizens deserted the city leading to a sharp fall in the population. Known for introducing symbols in his art and having an obsession with death, pestilence and war, Bocklin depicts Death astride a flying bat-like monster with humans dying in his wake on the streets.
Plague by Arnold Bocklin, 1898
Czech painter and art critic Bohumil Kubista’s Kiss of Death (1912) is another painting that foreshadowed the Spanish Flu. Known for his expressive still life, portraiture and figurative works, Kubista (1884-1918) was one of the founders of Czech modern art. Painting around the time of World War I, Kubista was trying to understand the phenomenon of death. He developed his ideas studying Cezanne and geometrical construction and was later influenced by the cubism of Picasso and Braque and later by expressionist painters such as Edvard Munch (discussed below). In Kiss of Death we see a skeleton holding a human in a gentle embrace while the human struggles to pull away. Painted in his typical abstracted cubist style of broken and disfigured planes, the painting is free of gender markers perhaps because Kubista wanted the viewers of both sexes to see themselves in the work and accept the inevitability of death. Anticipating his own death, as it were, ironically Kubista too succumbed to the Spanish Flu in 1918.
Kiss of Death by Bohimul Kubista, 1912
Covid-19 is being compared to the Spanish Flu owing to the uncanny similarities – person-to-person transmission, global transmission, and fatalities. Over a period of two years, as many as a staggering 500 million people were infected with the virus while an estimated 100 million died – way more than the number of deaths of soldiers and civilians during World War I. Unfortunately, the flu was not given the needed priority (as we’ve seen in many cases across the globe more recently where many countries have accorded economics precedence). Winning the war was considered more important. Thus, despite the human disaster of the 1918 flu pandemic, its cultural legacy was overshadowed by World War I and artists seem to have been more concerned with depictions of war rather than the bedridden infected patients.
However, a watercolour by John Singer Sargent titled Interiors of a Hospital Tent (1918) strikes a balance. The painting was based on what he was witness to while suffering from the Spanish Flu in a military hospital during World War I. The scene bears an eerie resemblance to the temporary shelters and tents we are seeing in India. The different coloured blankets (red for contagious patients and brown for those not infected but wounded in battle) indicate the extent of infection. The artist himself is in the fourth bed, propped up reading a book. The painting has assumed significance for its simultaneous depiction of World War I and the flu pandemic.
Interiors of a Hospital Tent by John Singer Sargant, 1918
Another artist who’d fallen victim to the flu was the Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch. He was 56 years old then; being of sound health, he survived long enough to leave behind a couple of self-portraits to portray his personal experience while he was infected before finally succumbing to the flu. The first self-portrait was done when he was infected, sitting on a wicker chair with a sallow face. In a way his iconic work The Scream painted in 1893 foreshadowed this evocative painting, which I’d discussed in an earlier essay in artamour a few months ago. [ Sense and Sensibility of Contemporary Art - Part One ] While Munch in The Scream was depicting his anxiety over the human condition, we can see a similar interpretation of anguish and dread in the face in the self-portrait.
Self-portait (after the Spanish Flu) by Edvard Munch
Self-portait (with the Spnaish Flu) by Edvard Munch
The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1893
In the second self-portrait done shortly after the first, Munch is now able to stand up – the colour has returned to his cheeks and has allowed his beard to grow – but he looks completely drained and miserable. For the benefit of those who may not know, Munch had been a student of psychoanalysis and created expressionistic works that unravelled the human psyche. His personal history of neuroses and tuberculosis had made him despondent and therefore many of his works portray loneliness and despair. In the painting, the unsteady deportment, puffiness in the face and spatial blanks in the canvas rendered with quivering lines highlight the hopelessness, isolation and lack of air, which mirror with contemporary pandemic times.
Death of a Maiden by Egon Schiele, 1914/15
Another contemporary of Munch, Egon Schiele painted Death and the Maiden, which eerily portended his own death because of the flu. In the work we get a vantage top view of two embracing figures writhing and clinging to save themselves from their imminent death with the landscape in the backdrop mimicking the forms and agitation. The work may be seen in the context of his own condition where he was on the eve of his conscription, and his dread of being taken away into the arms of death – also he had just chosen between two women in his life – one, whom he had married and the other, a model, whom he had jilted. The patterned dress of the woman in the painting reminded me of Munch's mentor, Gustav Klint whose masterpeice,The Kiss (1908), is considered one of greatest works of art. The world lost Egon Schiele tragically to the flu on 31 October 1918. Six months earlier, he had lost his six-month pregnant wife, Edith, to the pandemic. The Family (Die Familie) was one of the last paintings he was working upon before he died of Spanish Flu and was therefore left unfinished (for instance, see the man’s left hand). The artist and a woman are seen crouching naked with a child wrapped in a blanket; the woman is not Edith who was then carrying and according to his biographers was probably his former lover Wally Neuzil.
The Family by Egon Schiele
Contemporary visual artists I’m sure are grappling with answers that can help us cope and come to terms with the aftermath of Covid through their paintings, sculptures, installations, films, photographs and multi-disciplinary art projects. A few decades ago, on the eve of 1987’s Second National March for LGTB rights, surviving families and friends of those who died of the AIDS virus prepared panels of a large-scale NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, which has also been made into a documentary film. Typically, the individual panels were 3 feet by 6 feet and used a variety of fabrics, plastic and metal. It is a continually growing monument and constitutes the largest piece of community art in the world to act as a reminder of the deadly AIDS virus. The project is currently warehoused in San Francisco under the stewardship of the National AIDS Memorial in the US.
NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt (Image courtesy of the National AIDS Memorial/NAMES Project)
Historically, pestilence and pandemics have changed the course of art dramatically, inspiring artists to create disturbing works that expressed loss, loneliness, suffering, fear, death. We have seen above how art has always responded to crises; while Breugel, the Elder, reinforced realism in art, artists such as Munch, Kubista and Schiele used symbolism and expressionism to portray their personal emotional response. The imagery of the skeleton was frequently resorted to as a reminder of death.
As in the past, we will see artists responding to Covid-19 pandemic each in their own ways to tell the tragic story of the pandemic, depicting their inner turmoil, distress, helplessness and rage. We are already seeing artists documenting the pandemic throughout the world; specifically in India, there will be more subjects and themes for artists to work upon: the plight of migrant workers, untimely deaths due to shortage of beds and oxygen, floating corpses, joblessness, state callousness, humanism, and so on.
Art thus becomes the vehicle for conveying emotion, shared as well as personal, to help us understand events and happenings that are difficult to comprehend, process our fear and provide a healing touch. Artists have not been the only ones affected in the art world; galleries and museums and auction houses have been compelled to swiftly transform themselves to do digital marketing, online selling and host virtual exhibitions; new platforms catering to new technologies and those using cryptocurrency such as NFT are also making rapid strides. Not only art gets altered owing to such health crisis; history tells us that these horrific events, though they affect us intensely in the short run, can also transform society and polity and become a catalyst for positive change in the future.
(All images are in the public domain and reproduced courtesy of Wikimedia Creative Commons, Google Art Project and respective sources unless otherwise stated.)
Ranjan Kaul is an artist, art writer, author and Founding Partner of artamour.