Just Some Interesting History
Art, in some capacity, always seems to aim at the expression of its creator’s existence, often acting as a descriptor for a period that an artist is living through and bridging a sort of gap between personal experience and one’s own existence in a society. This week, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some specific themes and examples of art that have been a direct reaction to changes and tragedy similar in scope to what we may currently face. Plus, I think researching art that shares this commonality will help inform my own artistic process, individualism and coping skills during this time and I hope it does for you too.
Amidst the horror of the Bubonic Plague outbreak, new themes began to emerge in art during the mid 15th century. Imagery depicting the tragic and macabre side of death took hold and continued to grip Europe for years to come, echoing all the way through to contemporary art. However, while these new concepts were being explored, artists and viewers alike were also drawn to humorous topics, often using it as a co-occuring theme to accompany images of death and despair.
German artist Hans Holbein, while not the sole creator and proprietor this idea, is often credited with the popularization of “Danse Macabre” (The Dance of Death) in visual art. In fact, “Danse Macabre” likely started as a literary device, gaining traction in play-writing before being exposed in the form of early religious Renaissance frescoes in France during the mid-to-late 15th century. Holbein’s Danse Macabre manifested this theme into a series of woodblock prints done in Germany between 1523-1525, each one energetically depicting a scene where one or more members of a particular class (sometimes multiple classes) interact with death incarnate…always in the form of a skeleton that teases its potential victim in a nearly coquettish-like fashion, typically tugging or dragging the subject’s clothes or limbs.
This imagery remains influential and present to this day, always representing the dichotomy of life and death, and the relationship they share with each other. Not only would this add an element of levity to an already grave situation, but in many instances, these pieces acted as commentaries to the class system of the time, and the façade of security that came with additional resources and wealth. Nobody was exempt from Death’s dance in Holbein’s prints and everyone from peasants to the pope can be seen tangoing with the skeletons, with the more gruesome deaths reserved for those Holbein saw as morally reprehensible. The influence that the Black Death would have on 15th-16th art was widespread and the Danse Macabre is only one minute aspect of the way the artistic landscape of ideas an imagery would change due to the plague.
Hans Holbein the Younger, Danse Macabre, ca. 1523-25, Published in 1538
Shifting from the Bubonic Plague to the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, the early 20th century flu outbreak was a relatively quiet time when it came to reactionary art, at least in reference to the Spanish flu. *Side Note* I largely disagree with referring to the 1918 outbreak as the “Spanish flu,” due to the ethic connotation it has and the fact that this particular flu strain likely didn’t even come from Spain, rather it’s thought to have originated in the United States, France, China or Britain (in fact Spanish people would often refer to it as “The French flu” during the outbreak). However for the sake of readability I’m going to refer to it as such.
During the years after the outbreak, the world was still reeling from the impact of World War I, which would claim over 40 million lives – 10 million less than the estimated global death count as a direct result of the 1918 flu. Edward Munch was among the artists who left us paintings that directly reference the outbreak, such as Self Portrait with the Spanish Flu (1919) and Self Portrait After the Spanish Flu (1919). Both pieces have a feverish elements to them, couple that with the dark atmosphere of the works and you’re left with an honest impression of Munch’s weathering of the illness. Munch had faced the pestilence of illness his entire life, watching himself and his immediate family struggle with tuberculosis which would claim the lives of his mother and sister, so his bout with the Spanish flu was of a particularly intense nature.
Finally, I wanted to take this space to pay homage to one of my all time favorite artists who perished as a result of the 1918 Flu pandemic. Egon Schiele was a master of line, twisting an contorting them into intriguing and erotic shapes. Like Munch, much of his work was deeply psychological and, earning him a spot amongst the founding members of early expressionism. Here we see an unfinished self portrait of him placed in a family setting. Titled The Family (Self Portrait) and painted in 1918, it remains unfinished because he would die alongside his wife shortly after contracting the illness, doing only a few sketches of her in the three days between her death.
On a lighter note, I think it’s important that we recognize the influence this event is having on us, and how we can honor it and care of ourselves and each other in this time, because you never know what kind of lasting legacy, whether it’s individual or collective, can be left by doing so.