Pandemic Art: Artists Making Sense of Pandemics over Years

Pandemic Art: Artists Making Sense of Pandemics over Years

Artists thrive during critical times. Social, political, economical, environmental – any complexity has been portrayed by the creative minds to address the issue in a more profound notion. This unprecedented pandemic, what we are going through now, hugely affected the people and the world beyond any border declaration. The whole world is currently going through a major transformation in terms of livelihood to adapt to the complex new situation. Like any other country, artists of Bangladesh are also expressing their emotions through visual interpretation. Their artistic language has been changed or transformed, reflecting on pandemic trauma and adaptation. The physical body has been converted into a virtual presentation. At the same time, the digital platform is the only means of showcasing the artists’ work and expression.

In Bangladesh, contemporary artists are going through a major shift while they are trying to cope with the new situation. Artists usually are in isolation while they work on their creativity and ideas. Hence for the last five months, lots of artists are in home/studio isolation. So they are creating the artworks based on this surrealistic yet pragmatic scenario. Perhaps they are creating art either from reality or from their subconscious. No matter how difficult this situation might be for the artists, their creations are the most important documentation to represent this unique time of the century. These pieces are and will be the manifestation of this crucial time. It is definitely an experience that an artist would never miss to narrate by visual interpretation because it is no matter what a life-changing story that they receive from mother nature. The important part is to realize that creating artwork is just not mere entertainment. It is the history that artists create through their contextual discourse of reality and imagination.

Artist Nazia Andaleeb Preema, Metamorphosis, mixed media on Canvas, 2020
Artist Nazia Andaleeb Preema, Metamorphosis, mixed media on Canvas, 2020

 

There is this prediction that the coronavirus outbreak will end up changing the world for good. Experts have offered theories, scenarios and projections about the possible transformative impact of this pandemic. There are even those who started comparing the coronavirus with previous pandemics and epidemics to see how influential the previous ones were. The SARS, MERS, Ebola, and H1N1 epidemics are most frequently used due to their timing and durations. With the time passes the nature of the pandemic we all are in will change and we may also hope that it will go away. What is going to stay is the art & literature that have recast the virus as something not quite as amorphous or unknowable. Similarly, throughout most of history, artists have depicted the grief of the epidemics from the profoundly social & religious framework within which they lived.

Edvard Munch's Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu, 1919. Credit: Nasjonalmuseet
Edvard Munch’s Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu, 1919. Credit: Nasjonalmuseet

 

Edvard Munch’s “Self-Portrait After the Spanish Flu” 1919. Credit: Munchmuseet
Edvard Munch’s “Self-Portrait After the Spanish Flu” 1919. Credit: Munchmuseet

 

When the Spanish Flu hit Europe just after World War One, Norwegian artist Edvard Munch became one of its victims. While his body was still grappling with the flu, he painted his trauma. The artist made Self-Portrait With the Spanish Flu and Self-Portrait After the Spanish Flu, detailing his own experience contracting and surviving the illness. These paintings, characterized by Munch’s obsession with existential drama, speak to feelings of trauma and despair that were widespread amid a pandemic that killed at least 50 million people.

Egon Schiele's Gustav Klimt on his deathbed, 1918 via Public Domain
Egon Schiele’s Gustav Klimt on his deathbed, 1918 via Public Domain

 

During the Spanish flu epidemic that swept through Europe in 1918 and claimed the lives of millions of people, the Austrian artist Egon Schiele looked to his mentor Gustav Klimt to be his muse. But this time, Schiele had to visit the morgue of Allgemeines Krankenhaus, the Vienna General Hospital, to make his drawings of the renowned painter. The day before, Klimt had died of a stroke that many historians believe was a result of the flu. Schiele’s visit resulted in three haunting drawings of a deceased Klimt’s head, showing his face deformed from the stroke.

Egon Schiele's "The Family," 1918, Credit: Belvedere Museum
Egon Schiele’s “The Family,” 1918, Credit: Belvedere Museum

 

That same year, Schiele was at work on a painting of his family, with his pregnant wife. “The Family”, which was meant to be a portrait of himself, his wife and their future child. But before he could finish the piece, his wife, who was six months pregnant, died of the flu. The small child shown in the painting represents the unborn child of the couple. Three days later, Schiele’s life was also taken by the flu.

Poussin painted The Plague of Ashdod in 1630-31, Credit: via Getty Images
Poussin painted The Plague of Ashdod in 1630-31, Credit: via Getty Images

 

In the 17th Century, many people believed that imagination had the power to harm or heal. The French artist Nicolas Poussin painted The Plague of Ashdod (1630-1631) in the middle of a plague outbreak in Italy. In a recreation of a faraway tragic biblical scene, which provokes feelings of horror and despair.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s 1892 artwork shows a warrior resisting smallpox demons, Credit: National Library of Medicine
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s 1892 artwork shows a warrior resisting smallpox demons, Credit: National Library of Medicine

 

The plague of smallpox devastated Japan over many centuries. An artwork created in 1892 depicts the mythical Samurai warrior Minamoto no Tametomo resisting the two smallpox gods, variola major and variola minor. The warrior, known for his endurance and fortitude, is portrayed as strong and confident, clothed with viscerally red ornate garments and armed with swords and a quiver full of arrows. In contrast, the fleeing, frightened, colourless smallpox gods are squeezed helplessly into the corner of the image.

In many years from today we also will see how we end up thinking about these days and how artists and writers chronicle the days of the coronavirus. We already have code words to remember these days such as, “social distancing,” “isolation,” “self-quarantine”. Such depictions of the time on artists’ canvas with paint brush will not will remind everyone about sickness and death, but will also be the evidence of the good and evil that are unleashed.

Leave a Reply