DISCOURSE: PORTRAITS OF A PANDEMIC

Published May 3, 2020
The Triumph Of Death (1562), Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The Triumph Of Death (1562), Pieter Bruegel the Elder

“I create in order not to cry.” — Painter

A Paul Kleert induced by adversity is testimony to artists overcoming their struggles or succumbing to them. Today, as we wait to see how contemporary artists respond in the face of the coronavirus, art archives relating to previous pandemics provide us with insightful illustrations of the human spirit under duress.

We are far from the Middle Ages yet the 1562 painting ‘The Triumph of Death’, by Flemish Renaissance master Pieter Bruegel the Elder, is still the most chilling reminder of the medieval Black Death — one of the most devastating plagues in human history. Peaking in Europe in the mid 14th century, it spread around the globe and recurred as outbreaks in various corners of the world for hundreds of years. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, among the first great examples of artist as social observer and critic, painted mass death and destruction with nightmarish realism. As the coronavirus spectre mushrooms, the moralising stance in his acutely detailed landscape — a battleground ravaged by fires and strewn with dead bodies, skeletons, coffins and undertakers — gains deeper relevance.

Self-Portrait With The Spanish Flu (1919), Edvard Munch
Self-Portrait With The Spanish Flu (1919), Edvard Munch

Another extreme representation was the engraving ‘Birds of Plague: Der Doctor Schnabel von Rom’ (Doctor Beak of Rome), made for a broadsheet in 1656 by Paulus Fürst, an obscure print seller from Nurnberg. Wearing beaked masks and heavy leather suits coated in sticky wax, the plague doctors of Rome stalked the streets looking like carrion birds. Devised by Charles de Lorme — a French physician — this outfit protected the physicians from the miasma of plague. Its haunting beak was retro-fitted with a mixture of straw and fragrant substances such as mint, cloves or lemon balm, which filtered and purified the air. The copper engraving features a poem, written in a mixture of Latin and German, that details the story of Dr Beak, who “frisks cadavers like a raven does shit.” “Some believe” the poem continues, “that a black devil inhabits him; the purse is the name of his hell and money has taken his soul.”

Countless lives fell prey to the plague during the Renaissance. When Venice was struck, Titian and his son succumbed too. ‘The Pieta’ was Titian’s last and most sentimental painting. Painted as a survival prayer, it shows the master of light plunge into the depths of darkness. The dull metallic texture of the painting, the stony biblical statues resembling rigor mortis corpses and the pleading painter and his son portray a dramatic and nocturnal scene of suffering. ‘The Pieta’ illustrates the despair and hopelessness that accompanies the fear of impending death.

Unlike grand artistic works describing the plague, there are not many paintings depicting the Spanish flu of 1918-19, which killed more than 50 million people across the world, almost three times more lives than World War I (16 million).

Art archives from previous pandemics provide us with insightful illustrations of the human spirit under duress

Birds of Plague, Der Doctor Schnabel von Rom (Doctor Beak of Rome) (1656), engraved by Paulus Fürst
Birds of Plague, Der Doctor Schnabel von Rom (Doctor Beak of Rome) (1656), engraved by Paulus Fürst

Modernist painter Edvard Munch’s two works, ‘Self-portrait With The Spanish Flu’ and ‘Self-portrait After The Spanish Flu’ show the artist during his illness. While still recovering from the flu, he painted his first painting, picturing himself sitting in an empty room on a chair next to his bed, wearing a robe. He looks pale, exhausted and lonely. His tired face and open mouth remind us of the most frequently stated symptom of the Spanish flu, difficulty in breathing. The second shows a standing Munch. His posture is steady but not straight and his face expresses the despair and exhaustion that the disease generated.

Not as fortunate as Munch, Austrian symbolic painter Gustav Klimt, suffered a stroke, contracted pneumonia and died at the start of the flu pandemic. His painting ‘The Kiss’ is a priceless national treasure but it was the ‘Death And Life’ artwork that prophecised death and devastation.

Klimt’s face, hollowed and decimated by disease, was sketched by another famous Austrian artist, Egon Schiele, when he mourned the loss of his mentor. About the same time in 1918, Schiele was at work on a painting of his family in which his sinewy, nude body is hunched behind his wife, Edith, who looks off to the side, while a child is curled at her feet. The only thing that disrupts the harmony of ‘The Family’ painting is Schiele’s melancholic gaze directed at the viewer. Its sombreness contrasts with this scene of domestic tranquility.

The painting was never finished. By the end of that autumn, his pregnant wife Edith was on her deathbed. Egon also captured her final hours in a haunting drawing. Her face is striking, but exhaustion and pain radiate from her narrowed eyes. She died the next day. Three days later, Egon followed. They were two among millions who succumbed to the Spanish flu. The incomplete painting was transformed into a portrait of loss.

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 3rd, 2020

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