Culture writer Rebecca O’Daly looks to the pandemics of the past to see how art has been a mode of expression during times of crisis
Pandemics of bygone eras have often brought the silver lining of a kind of artistic awakening. The most prominent example of this is how the bubonic plague in Europe prompted the emergence of one of the most pivotal epochs for art, the Renaissance. Any kind of generational upheaval often inspires a seismic shift in cultural mindset, a pandemic especially. There is something about daily life becoming changed beyond recognition that often gives rise to the most profound artistic revelation. When everything around you has become chaotic, losing yourself in the mindless pleasure of creating can be a simple way of restoring some sense of tranquillity. The following artists’ works were born out of various pandemics of the past, and whether they use the medium of visual art or literature they speak to the current moment.
Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron (1353):
Boccaccio’s Decameron contains 100 individual narratives told as short stories. These are narrated by seven women and three men, with a backdrop of the Black Death, as they take refuge in a deserted village just beyond Florence. The work was devised shortly after the epidemic of 1347 and finally came to fruition in 1353. The title of the work pays homage to Boccaccio’s admiration of Greek philosophy and combines the Greek words for ‘ten’ and ‘day’ to refer to the ten days over which the narrative takes place. The framing narrative focuses on the group who have escaped plague-stricken Florence to the countryside for two weeks. This bears an uncanny resemblance to the fact that in our present pandemic Italy was the first majorly affected European country. However, escaping to one’s country retreat would of course no longer be advisable.
With time to pass, each narrator tells a story in the evenings, over the course of ten days, culminating in one hundred stories. The tales range from life lessons to moral musings on the pitfalls of vice and of virtue and happiness and advocate for a kind of ‘narrative prophylaxis’ as described by Martin Marafiot.
In escaping towns in favour of retreating to the countryside and entertaining oneself with storytelling, we can now see Boccaccio as advocating for what we understand in modern times as isolation. Importantly, the prologue to the piece notes that his purpose in writing Decamareon was primarily to bring comfort and entertainment to his friends, something that is in keeping with the overall optimistic message of the piece.
Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death (1842):
A similar product of a pandemic is Poe’s famous short story ‘The Masque of the Red Death’. The narrative has an underlying message of the inevitability of death, prompted by the confrontation with one’s own mortality that a pandemic often causes. In the story, Prince Prospero, the protagonist, is taking refuge from the plague in his abbey. To pass the time, he and some other affluent nobles put on a masquerade ball, with each of the seven rooms in the abbey decorated in various different colours. Prospero and the other nobles are indifferent to the sufferings of the rest of the population beyond the abbey walls. This elite minority passes the time in luxury, having fused the doors shut.
However, the celebrations are interrupted by someone disguised as a Red Death victim, who is discovered as the clock strikes midnight. The intruder is pursued through all six of the rooms until Prospero confronts him in the final black room with a dagger. Upon directly facing the intruder Prospero falls dead. When the intruder is stripped of his mask and robe by the enraged nobles, they find to their consternation that nothing lies beneath. The story ends with the nobles all succumbing to the disease and dying, an ironic end given their attempts to barricade themselves away from it.
It is far from being a cheery story of perseverance in the face of pandemic. This macabre tale is especially resonant in our present moment because of the notion of the rich hiding themselves away, while the poor are left to succumb to the disease. This is redolent of course of many a headline during our COVID-19 of the uber-rich jetting off to holiday homes to isolate in luxury, whilst others are holed up in a single bedroom flat with no green space. Clearly, the disparity between the have and have-nots has changed little from the 19th century.
Edvard Munch, ‘Self Portrait after the Spanish Flu’ (1919):
The Spanish flu of 1918 and 1919 is perhaps one of the deadliest outbreaks of modern times and an estimated 100 million died, with a total of over 500 million infected. The ramifications upon that generation were manifold as so many had been lost, artist Gustav Klimt amongst them. However, many survived such as Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, artist Georgia O’Keefe and Walt Disney to name but a few. Like pandemics of the past, it inspired a great deal of creative output, however, it was largely literature with a few exceptions such as Edvard Munch’s Spanish flu series.
Edvard Munch, the renowned Norwegian painter most famous for his painting ‘The Scream’ was no stranger to a self-portrait and produced two during his infection with the flu. ‘Self Portrait with the Spanish Flu’ and ‘Self Portrait after Influenza’ depicts the artist’s suffering and the aftermath it wreaked. Death and sickness were two constants in Munch’s life and were reflected in his work, often characterised by dark surroundings and murky figures representing the Angel of Death. The symptoms of the Spanish flu were akin to that of COVID-19 and the shortness of breath that was commonplace is shown in the painting. Both portraits are haunting, Munch appearing pale and drained. The painting depicting the aftermath highlights the exhaustion wrought upon the artist’s body. However, he diverges from his previous depictions of sickness in not featuring the Angel of Death or any similar references, suggesting perhaps a note of optimism.
While we might not be on the cusp of a second Renaissance, ( and the collective urge to bake incessantly, or rediscover discarded hobbies does not translate into the same kind of profound artistic pursuit), it is clear that in times of crisis, people often turn to creativity for solace. The artistic mode of expression may have diverged towards more modern phenomena, such as TikTok dances, but the seeking comfort in creative enterprises remains constant – from one pandemic to the next. When we emerge from our isolation as the pandemic stabilises, there is comfort in having a large body of artwork to immortalise both the hardship endured and the strength of the human spirit.
For more on the arts during a pandemic:
Camus’ ‘The Plague’: Humanity in the Face of Existential Threat