Art in the time of Influenza

As the Covid19 Coronavirus epidemic rages on, infecting and disrupting millions of lives across vast parts of China, Italy, Iran and many other countries across the world, governments and public health organizations are struggling to grasp with this new, sneaky and deadly nemesis. it would seem that the end is nigh and this is the horsemen of the apocalypse that our scriptures had warned us of.

But Pandemics have been around with us since the dawn of mankind itself. Its footprints and imprimatur are clearly visible in our genetic footprints. Mentions of the Plague, polio, leprosy, tuberculosis is everywhere across literature, indicating its commonplace existence. But what about its depictions in Art? It is worthwhile exploring this topic.

Let us start with the most recent deadliest pandemic that killed millions. No, I am not talking about SARS, Ebola or the Swine Flu that plagued humanity in the early years of this millennium. They were deadly and disruptive, but their impact can hardly be compared with their predecessor in the early 20th century - the Spanish Flu. The influenza epidemic of Spanish Flu, raged across the world, between 1918-20. It is estimated to have infected around 500 million people (more than a quarter of humanity) and killed around 20-50 million people. Highly contagious and unusually virulent, the deadly flu caused its worst havoc amongst the youngest and healthiest.

Today, We look in depth at a painting by the famous Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944). He is best known by his famous painting, The Scream, which has become one of the most iconic images of world art. We focus on one of his lesser known self-portraits, self-portrait with the Spanish fly, which is apt to the current circumstances.

Munch’s childhood was overshadowed by illness, bereavement and the dread of inheriting a mental condition that ran in the family. “Illness, insanity, and death…kept watch over my cradle and accompanied me all my life,” noted Munch. He was deeply affected by the untimely death of his mother when he was 5 and his elder sister within a few years. He devoted his early artistic efforts to painting their predicament and the ravages of tuberculosis - “…the wan face in profile against the pillow, the despairing mother at the bedside, the muted light, the tousled hair, the useless glass of water” .

Munch Image

Disease and death, which traumatized Munch’s early years in the form of tuberculosis, continued to rule his life and influenced his art and preoccupations on the vagaries of the human condition. In ”Self-Portrait after the Spanish Flu”, the tormented painter appears judge and victim of this pestilence that was ravaging the societies of the day. His terse yet tentative bearing, the pale and tired glare, the skin lined and creased showing the torments inflicted by the fever and chills, highlight the despair and isolation of the patient. A sense of helplessness, resignation, fatigue, listlessness, oppressive dread and stupor hangs heavy in the air.

Munch’s emphasis on suffering in this self-portrait is instructive to those who study the Spanish flu pandemic. Appearing during the end of World War I, this Influenza pandemic reinforced the era’s nihilism and apocalyptic visions of despair. Much of the disease’s origins, its diagnosis and effects were shrouded in a haze of insufficient knowledge and despair. Medicine was then only beginning to understand infectious diseases and to take modest steps towards diagnostics and therapy.

Management and treatment of pandemics has come a long way since, however, Munch’s spectre of the flu is alarmingly current. As can be witnessed in the recent epidemics, in short order, of SARS, Swine Flu, Ebola, MERS etc epidemics are still frequent and strains arising from rapid viral evolutions and transfer to humans keep the next flu pandemic just around the corner.

Last edited on : March 10, 2020