Looking into the Future Through the Past: 7 Artists Inspired by the 1918 Flu Pandemic
Written by Davis Goldenberg, Vice President of Student Experience
As an Art History major, I find it interesting how artists become inspired by the events and general atmosphere of their time and how their works help us to understand the past. Currently, there has been much discussion about what effect the Covid-19 Pandemic will have on future generations in society. As art plays a large role in illustrating events of the past and present, I decided to investigate a previous time that shares similar circumstances to the ones we are living in now to discover what depiction, through art, future generations may receive of these current events. While the Flu Pandemic of 1918 is the obvious comparison to the pandemic we are experiencing today, it overlapped with the end of World War I, creating an overall uneasy and chaotic feeling in society. One event cannot be discussed without mentioning the other and collectively these events hindered the artistic community, as traumatic events tend to. Following these events, artists began to express their creativity again and began creating art to make sense of the post-war and flu era as well as reflect on the events of the past.
Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu, 1919, oil on canvas, 59 x 51 5/8''. National Gallery, Oslo. (left) Edvard Munch, Self Portrait After the Spanish Flu, 1919, oil on canvas, 59 x 73 cm. Munch Museum, Oslo. (right)
Interestingly, very few artists were inspired by the flu pandemic compared to WWI, even though it produced a greater number of deaths, and presumably greater impact on society, than WWI. This could be because WWI began in 1914 before the pandemic began in 1918, or this could be a result of the pandemic having such a personal effect on many artists that it was too morbid of a subject of which to draw inspiration. One key difference between WWI and the flu was that there was neither a visual person or object to blame for the destruction, nor was there a hero that came to save society from this illness (4). The only way to take inspiration from the flu pandemic was to draw from personal experiences, which may have been too private to share, or artists may have been too hurt by them to illustrate these memories. Edvard Munch was one of the few artists brave enough to use his experience of the pandemic in his work. He created two self portraits, one showing him ill with the flu and one showing him after he had recovered. His self portrait while he was ill shows him pale and sickly, isolated in his bedroom. His features are not distinct, as if to show that the flu had taken over his body and he was close to death. The self-portrait of him after he survived the flu shows his face full of color and the distinct brush strokes can be seen to clearly define his features. Also, he looks to be out of isolation in a common room of his home.
Egon Schiele, The Family, 1918, oil on canvas, 152 x 162 cm. The Upper Belvedere, Vienna (left) Egon Schiele, Portrait of the dying Edith Schiele, 1918, black chalk on paper, 17 3/8 x 11 5/8''. Leopold Museum, Vienna. (right)
Egon Schiele was another artist who used the flu pandemic as a source of inspiration for his art. Known for his emotional, thoughtful portraits, Schiele began painting The Family during the pandemic, but never finished it as he passed away from the flu. It is no surprise that Schiele would create art around the pandemic as he was not afraid to confront unusual subjects. In accordance with his style, in this painting he is seen in the nude in a contorted position, staring at the viewer. His pregnant wife is also seen nude in a strange position with their nephew between her legs. A few months after Schiele began painting this piece, his wife would die of the flu and Schiele himself would pass a few days later. This painting is a foreshadowing of the sadness to come when both of their lives are taken by the flu and they become victims of the pandemic. Also, Schiele created many drawings, one of which he drew of his wife while she was sick with the flu.
John Singer Sargeant
John Singer Sargent, Gassed, 1918–19, oil on canvas, 7' 7'' x 20'. Imperial War Museums, London. (top) John Singer Sargent, Interior of a Hospital Tent, 1918, watercolor on paper mounted on board, 15 1/2 x 20 3/4 ''. Imperial War Museums, London. (bottom)
During the flu pandemic, artists were not commissioned to create work regarding the flu, but there was, in fact, work commissioned to document WWI, such as Gassed by John Singer Sergeant. Sergeant became a war artist when he was commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee to work with other artists to create a painting for the proposed, but never built, national Hall of Remembrance for World War I (4). While on the front lines creating sketches for the final painting, Sergeant himself became sick with the flu and spent time in a hospital tent in France recovering where he painted Interior of a Hospital Tent and came into contact with many other flu patients (4). While this painting was not commissioned for Sergeant to paint, it shows the reality of the times when men were fighting a physical war as well as an invisible one: the flu. When placed side by side, these works create a whole picture of the tragic months when WWI and the flu pandemic overlapped and wreaked havoc on the world. Gassed shows the soldiers being led to the hospital tent after being injured by a mustard gas attack, while Interior of a Hospital Tent shows soldiers injured in battle and by the invisible enemy. Sargent even made this distinction in his hospital painting by highlighting the heads of the contagious flu patients and surrounding the patients recovering from other illnesses in darkness4. Although different sizes, when put next to one another, it is interesting to notice the ropes that hold up the hospital tent appear in both paintings, as if the soldiers on the battlefield are being led into the tent to join the injured and flu-infected patients inside (4).
Wassily Chair, B3, design by Marcel Breuer at Bauhaus School
While very few paintings or drawings were distinctively inspired by the flu, the pandemic had a significant impact on architecture. Following the tragic pandemic, health and hygiene became a large focus of society and artists began creating furniture that was beautiful, but also practical in everyday life. The Bauhaus School in Germany was founded in 1919 and had a specific focus on merging art with practicality for household items (3). Marcel Breuer, who attended the Bauhaus School and later taught there, became inspired by the pandemic and began creating furniture out of hygienic wood and steel that were light and easy to clean (3). The “Wassily” armchair, as it became known, was minimalist, contrary to the heavy, frivolous furniture of the time, and easily mass-produced (5).
Image of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917
Due to the chaos and anxiety of the period, many art movements were created during and shortly after the pandemic and WWI in order for artists to try to make sense of the world they were living in. The Dada movement, beginning in 1916, was a direct reaction to WWI and the insanity of the event (1). Marcel Duchamp is a famous Dada artist who created the controversial piece Fountain in 1917. This work is an excellent example of art from the Dada movement because it aligns with the questioning of traditional values and beliefs for which this movement is known. Many people did not accept this work as art due to its ‘readymade’ nature and the fact that Duchamp did not really create anything new with this piece, he simply signed the pseudonym R. Mutt on an object that already existed (2). Duchamp disagreed as he had chosen to display this object and created a new use for the urinal that made people think; therefore, it was art (6). With this piece, Duchamp was testing the boundaries of art and the willingness of the art world to redefine what was considered art.
Salvador Dali, Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937, oil on canvas, 51.2 x 78.1 cm. Tate Modern, London.
Surrealism, beginning in 1920, was highly influenced by the Dada movement and also embraced the chaos and trauma of WWI and the pandemic while rejecting traditional standards of art. Surrealism focused on representing the inner workings of the mind, especially unconscious thoughts (9). Salvador Dali, a famous surrealist artist, is known for creating works which look otherworldly and dreamlike. His painting featured here, Metamorphosis of Narcissus, represents a Classical theme in an unconventional way. In this painting, Dali uses a technique which he described as ‘hand-painted colour photography’ (8) where he shows Narcissus dipping his hand into the water and shows a zoomed in image of it next to him. This strange, chaotic composition with unrealistic proportions is usually seen in Dali’s work and that of other surrealist artists.
Pablo Picasso, Seated Woman in a Chemise, 1923, oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm. Tate Modern, London.
In contrast to the Dada movement and Surrealism, a third movement arose in response to WWI. The ‘Return to Order’ movement was led by many artists who had been leaders of avant-garde styles of art, such as Pablo Picasso with Cubism, but after WWI decided to return to traditional styles (7). These artists favored reality and tranquility in their work and featured classicism (7). Seated Woman in a Chemise by Picasso is less abstract than his Cubism work and has a Classical statue-like element. Complementary to her statue-like figure is the hint of her nude body under her shirt with the top part draping over her shoulder. With the rebirth of Classical art during the Renaissance, the female nude became a popular subject featured in many paintings. Also, the plain background and three-quarter length portrait were popular in earlier eras of art history.
While we do not know the effect that Covid-19 will have on art in the future, looking at similar, past events shows us that there will be some sort of impact. Already, photographers have taken to the streets to capture the emptiness of cities due to lockdowns and, in contrast, the business of protests. Also, street artists have been leaving their mark by creating murals in cities around the world with the theme of the pandemic. Banksy, a popular street artist, dedicated a painting honoring health workers to a hospital and created wall art in his bathroom at home which he shared on Instagram. I believe that these forms of art will be highlighted in the future when studying this event, but I am curious about what type of art will come out of this time in the near future. We could see new movements representing the uncertainty and chaos of this time, or there is a possibility that the Covid-19 pandemic will not be much of a source of inspiration for artists, as the flu pandemic was not. I definitely believe that there will be a surge of new art created after the pandemic is over, as there was when WWI and the flu crisis ended. Only time will tell what will come of this crisis that we are living through, but I, for one, am excited to see what impact this historical event has on art of the future and I will be watching the art world closely to see what happens next.
1. "Dada – Art Term." Tate. Accessed June 20, 2020. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/d/dada.
2. Howarth, Sophie. "'Fountain', Marcel Duchamp, 1917, Replica 1964." Tate. April 2000. Accessed June 20, 2020. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/duchamp-fountain-t07573.
3. Kambhampaty, Anna Purna. "How Artists Tried to Make Sense of the 1918 Flu Pandemic." Time. May 05, 2020. Accessed June 20, 2020. https://time.com/5827561/1918-flu-art/.
4. Lobel, Michael. "Michael Lobel on Art and the 1918 Flu Pandemic." Artforum. April 21, 2020. Accessed June 20, 2020. https://www.artforum.com/slant/michael-lobel-on-art-and-the-1918-flu-pandemic-82772.
5. "Marcel Breuer. Club Chair (model B3). 1927–1928: MoMA." The Museum of Modern Art. Accessed June 20, 2020. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/2851.
6. "Readymade – Art Term." Tate. Accessed June 20, 2020. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/r/readymade.
7. "Return to Order – Art Term." Tate. Accessed June 20, 2020. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/r/return-order.
8. Riggs, Terry. "'Metamorphosis of Narcissus', Salvador Dalí, 1937." Tate. March 1998. Accessed June 20, 2020. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/dali-metamorphosis-of-narcissus-t02343.
9. "Surrealism – Art Term." Tate. Accessed June 20, 2020. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/s/surrealism.