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Dealing with Disease through Art

The coronavirus pandemic has altered how we live: where we go, how we work, how we socialise. But what will it do for art? What mark will the world of today leave on our processes and modes of expression? 

In times of crisis, humanity repeatedly turns to art as a lens through which to express, to protest, and—crucially—to process an unreal reality. With ever-increasing levels of anxiety, frustration and grief, when each day is more unbelievable than the last, art is a way to represent, document, and manage our fear. Now, perhaps, we need art more than ever: to provide inspiration and comfort. We can look back to the art of pandemics’ past, not only to recognise the similarities in our own experiences, but also as a way of understanding how this pandemic may become a part of our cultural zeitgeist once it has passed.

Nearly 700 years ago, from about 1346-1353, the Black Death ravaged Europe and killed an estimated 25 million people (roughly 1/3 of Europe’s population at the time). Outbreaks of the plague continued to cause mass death until the 1600’s, when some experts theorise that methods of quarantining the disease had been improved. Symptoms included fever, chills, aches, and swollen lymph nodes. Interesting, then, that the more graphic physical features of the plague were rarely the focus of art created during the crisis. 

This is certainly the case with Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio’s 1353 short story collection, Decameron, which depicts a group of people quarantined together in a villa outside Florence. There, they began trading anecdotes and tales, which ranged from the comical to the philosophical. Considered to have influenced Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which was written about 30 years after, Decameron also gives insight into life during the pandemic by detailing its effect on everyday life. 

"...the artist is entirely focused on the feelings of the labourers, whose faces are etched in pain, sorrow, and fatigue."

The Black Plague also made its mark on visual art. One of the more well-known works from the period is by French artist Pierart dou Tielt, and is called Tournai Citizens Burying the Dead During the Black Death. It shows people lifting caskets with bodies inside, but the most striking aspect about the piece is that, instead of showing the bodies of the dead or the physical effects of the disease, the artist is entirely focused on the feelings of the labourers, whose faces are etched in pain, sorrow, and fatigue. They are, effectively, grieving. Such details suggest that the living experienced deep emotional trauma, and call to mind photographs of mourners today.


Citizens of Tournai bury Black Plague victims. Pierart dou Tielt, 1340-1360 (Public Domain) 

In Pierart dou Tielt's piece, the effect of the pandemic is examined through the pain of its survivors, suggesting that our psychological response to disease is as relevant as the physical. For a culture steeped in religion and sacrality, artists and survivors had to not only wrestle with a reality saturated by mass death and illness, but also with a world seemingly (and suddenly) abandoned by God. 

Six centuries later, another disease was paralysing the world. In 1918, a strain of influenza dubbed the “Spanish Flu” (after the first report of the strain was published in a Spanish newspaper), brought society to a standstill. A tragedy often overshadowed by World War I (due to their brief overlap during the final months of the war), it killed more than 50 million people and infected 500 million. The overlapping timeline even led some to blame wartime enemies for the strain, with American rumours flying that the Spanish Flu was strategically carried to America by German spies—rumours so tempting to believe that the head of Health and Sanitation with the U.S. War Shipping Board during WWI blamed German U-Boats for the spread of the pandemic. 

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Edward Munch’s Self-Portrait With the Spanish Flu (1919) and Self-Portrait After the Spanish Flu (1919-20) © Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design.

Possibly the most well-known works of art to come out of the Spanish Flu were Edward Munch’s Self-Portrait With the Spanish Flu (1919) and Self-Portrait After the Spanish Flu (1919-20). The former sees Munch in an armchair near his bed, wrapped in blankets and looking at the spectator with tired eyes. The colour palette conveys sickness; phlegmy green, pus yellow, and rust orange all imbue the work with the look of disease and decay. In the latter work, Munch captures himself from the chest up, highlighting his swollen face in greens and blues, suggesting that though the danger of the pandemic has passed, the trauma has not. In his face are those same tired eyes. 

"Porter’s novella captures the essence of how pandemics increase the danger of (and desire for) human touch, along with a devolving sense of community and connection."

Writers also found inspiration from the mental, long-lasting effects of the pandemic. American writer Katherine Ann Porter wrote Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a novella (published in 1939) that looks at the relationship between a newspaper reporter and a soldier who both become infected by influenza—exhibiting, as the LA Review of Books puts it, “a life bereft of meaningful connections and estranged from community”. 

As Porter’s main character Miranda enters into a relationship with soldier Adam, the two try to ignore the pandemic and the war, but both catch up to them as Miranda becomes ill with influenza and Adam is deployed. When Adam subsequently dies of the disease, Miranda is left without anyone. Porter’s novella captures the essence of how pandemics increase the danger of (and desire for) human touch, along with a devolving sense of community and connection.

T.S. Eliot, the Modernist American ex-pat, is probably best known for his 1922 poem The Wasteland. The seminal work has often been seen as emblematic of a despondent post-war period, but we can also see in it the marks of the 1918 pandemic. The poem is plump with mentions of bodies, illness, and decay—a clairvoyante who has a “bad cold”, the narrator who later notes “the frosty silence in the gardens”, and at one point hears “the rattle of the bones”. 

Eliot himself and his wife Vivien contracted the flu in December of 1918 and, though both recovered, the psychological impact clearly lingered. For Professor Elizabeth Outka of the University of Richmond, the poem is “a powerful record of the pandemic’s enduring emotional and physical costs, as well as a record of the denial that surrounded it even as the culture remained mired in the guilt, suffering, and fear it produced”, as she notes in her 2019 book Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature.

Then a mere fifty-eight years after the Spanish flu, a new global health disaster arrived—the AIDS crisis, which reached its peak during the 1980s and ‘90s. Some experts classify the disease a pandemic, others an epidemic but, terminology aside, it claimed around 700,000 lives and still today continues to weaken the host body and kill if left untreated

AIDS differed from the Bubonic plague and the Spanish flu in many ways—here, there was no quarantine, no government shutdown, and no closing of businesses. In many countries, in fact, there was a deplorable lack of government aid or action. Suffering from the resultant lack of information, many believed that the disease was spread through homosexual intercourse, causing some to label it the “gay disease”. As a result, fears of contracting HIV/AIDS were used by some to justify homophobia, a bigotry all too similar to the racism exhibited by some today in falsely blaming Chinese people for coronavirus.

"...early AIDS victims were deprived of the very same thing many people are now—the comfort of human touch."

This belief that the virus transfers through gay sex was, of course, later proven to be untrue—HIV/AIDS spreads through the transmission of bodily fluids—but by then, it was too late for those gay and impoverished communities who, due to the lack of resources and awareness, were to become the most stigmatised and impacted groups. 

During the beginning of the crisis, too, it was falsely believed that AIDS could be spread by touch. In hospital rooms and wards, doctors wore hazmat suits, and loved ones were urged to keep their distance from the infected. A result, then, was that early AIDS victims were deprived of the very same thing many people are now—the comfort of human touch. 

As for artists, many communicated their emotional expression and political resistance through their work. Interrupting the predominant American art movements of the day—abstract expressionism by artists like Pollock and De Kooning, and the “pop” art of Warhol, Lichtenstein, and others—the AIDS crisis saw both the abstract emotion of the former, as well as the bright colours of the latter movement, used to represent the AIDS crisis. 

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Willem de Kooning’s ‘In The Sky’ 1982 © 2013-2020 Widewalls and Andy Warhol’s 1983 print ‘Ingrid Bergman With Hat’ Credit: ©THE GERI BAUER FOUNDATION.

American artist Keith Haring, who would later die from the disease in 1990, is best remembered for his colourful, pop artworks that addressed the crisis head on. One of his 1989 works, “Ignorance=Fear” shows bright yellow outlines of figures covering where their eyes, ears, and mouths would be, accompanied by text that reads IGNORANCE=FEAR, and SILENCE=DEATH FIGHT AIDS ACT UP. His piece called out those who ignored the crisis and demanded action from those in power. 

Another artist processed his personal pain through more abstract measures: Cuban artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres grieved the death of his partner to AIDS in his 1991 work “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A)”. An interactive exhibition, the exhibit invited visitors to take from a massive pile of candy in the corner of the room. The candy pile, as a representation of Gonzalez-Torres’ boyfriend Ross Laycock, was gradually taken by visitors who effectively acted as the AIDS virus, depleting the “body” bit by bit. The artist directed that the candy pile should be continually replenished to symbolise eternal life. 

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Keith Haring’s Ignorance = Fear 1989. Photograph: © Keith Haring Foundation; Gonzalez-Torres’ 1991 workUntitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A)” © Felix Gonzalez-Torres.

The AIDS crisis and its effect on the poor and marginalised was also immortalised in theatre. RENT, Jonathan Larson’s rock musical, premiered in New York in 1996. Set in New York’s East Village during the AIDS pandemic, RENT was itself loosely based on an 1896 Italian opera, La Bohème, in which the young artists battled tuberculosis rather than AIDS. Larson’s play deals with the AIDS crisis directly, showing the spread of not only the disease, but its effect on friendships and romances, pulled apart by the culture of fear, helplessness, and death that surrounded them.

Another dramatic work, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, examined the AIDS crisis, homosexuality, and community. Through the intertwined lives of his characters, the 1991 play showed the effects of both the disease itself and the stigmatization of the gay community at the time. The play’s insistence on looking at not only the graphic physical effects of the disease, but also the debilitating psychological impact of terror, self-loathing, and helplessness, put on full display the extent to which victims of the pandemic suffered, partially in retaliation to Reagan-era governmental inaction.

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Beth Malone and Andrew Garfield in Marianne Elliot’s 2018 revival of Kushner’s ‘Angels in America’. Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg;

Jesse L. Martin, Anthony Rapp and Taye Diggs in the original Broadway production of RENT. Credit: Joan Marcus.

Throughout history, art has been used to foreground frustration and sadness, including and especially during pandemics. As art from previous pandemics shows us, we are not the first to wrestle with our confusion over this changing world, with our frustration over unheard calls for more action, or with our grief over lost lives. Whether referenced explicitly, like in Angels in America, or implicitly, as in Tournai Citizens Burying the Dead During the Black Death, past pandemics have played a role in the evolution of our art and culture.

" remains vital that we, too, create—as a means of remembering, as a means of resisting, and as a means of processing the effects of this pandemic." 

During the 1918 influenza pandemic, across many countries, public gatherings and events were cancelled and at-risk individuals and infected persons were urged to stay home. School years were cut short, hospitals were overrun—looking back, it’s clear to see that what we are experiencing today is, despite all headlines to the contrary, precedented. 

Whether documenting the suffering of the infected, displaying the emotional toll on the living, exposing the strain on friendships, romances and family relationships, expressing the loneliness of a new reality, or demanding action and awareness, artists of the past were driven to create for reasons not so different from our own.

Those living through past pandemics also exhibited a very human inclination to seek someone to blame in circumstances of distress and frustration. The Europeans of the Black Plague blamed sinners; Americans in the Spanish Flu accused the Germans; public officials and private citizens alike scapegoated the gay population during the AIDS crisis. Thanks to artists of pandemics past, we can see all too well the effects of inaction and ignorance on those who lived in similar circumstances as we now face. 

Perhaps it is natural—inevitable even—that we search for a guilty party, and we shouldn’t necessarily be quick to dismiss this impulse. Ignorance and inaction are political choices and we must hold those governments who have failed to act adequately in the wake of this crisis accountable. Artists creating during pandemics should be lauded not only for their attempts to express the ineffable but also for imparting a most salient and timely reminder: that today, and in all the coming days, it remains vital that we, too, create—as a means of remembering, as a means of resisting, and as a means of processing the effects of this pandemic. 

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