Art of Pandemics Past: Mental Health, Politics and Representation
Disillusionment, detachment and distress are unfortunately not unique phenomena to this current pandemic. Global crises drive people to question governments, societal values and ourselves exponentially. Throughout history artists respond directly to diseases which affected them directly while equally questioning establishment. From Pieter Bruegel envisioning a dystopian world of torturous monsters devouring people in his response to the Black Death in the 16th Century in The Triumph of Death, pandemics and art have a rich visual connection.
This trend seemed an inevitable continuation in the early 20th Century with the eminent Spanish Flu of 1918-19. Emerging in both the age of the metropolis and warfare, the Spanish Flu specifically remained nonetheless a marginal theme in art and literature. With WW1 winding down and the reality of the atrocities transpired in the first widely mechanised and chemicalised warfare in history settling in, artistic responses at the time were ones of political critique and social commentary. In the age of the bohemian alternative avant-garde, the pandemic was rarely addressed. War related works included themes of shock, fear, anxiety and distress, coincidentally perhaps mirror those experienced in a pandemic.
Artists respond in similar ways to wars as they do pandemics, congruent with the same approach governments take. Militarised language is rampant in campaigns to maintain a calm public with statements such as “we are at war” from Emmanuel Macron or describing a virus as an “enemy” from Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. This not only normalises war but can evoke nationalistic frenzy.
Artists responded in 1918 to the surreal and absurd truth of death and conflict caused by both warfare and pandemics though despite this, the pandemic is widely cast aside in art histories seen as an event only exacerbating themes of isolation, anxiety and irrationality in artworks but not causing them like WW1 did. Dada poet Richard Hülsenbeck asserts, “Death is a thoroughly Dadaist affair”.
Those who did suffer from the disease, depicted it in their work. Perhaps coincidently however, these artists were commonly associated as the painters of ‘anxiety’ in the early 20th Century - Egon Schiele (1890-1918) and Edvard Munch (1863-1944). Directly referencing the pandemic, both showed suffering from the flu as physical as well as psychological. The psychological affects of the pandemic however were rarely emphasised due to their oeuvre already established as addressing psychological discord as focal, rendering it less primary in relation to the pandemic.
This imagery of physical malady is ubiquitous with the visualisation of pandemics and disease. From the Spanish Flu to the HIV/AIDS Crisis, many battling the illnesses are shown on TV as weak and frail individuals with little acknowledgement of the mental distress caused. Physical health concerns are clearly salient, yet there are permanent effects on the stigmatisation of groups and individuals in a very concrete way often overlooked. COVID was denoted the ‘Chinese Virus’ and hate crimes against Asian communities rose drastically while the Spanish Flu is really a misnomer only named so because the Spanish media chose not to censor accounts of illness in their press unlike Britain or Germany.
Art plays an incredibly important role in constructing visual legacies of peoples. From how we envision monarchies to indigenous cultures, art constructs histories that can be constructive or conversely deeply reductive. People with AIDS were pictured on the news and in art as frail victims, for example in the photography work of Nicholas Nixon. This sparked a wave of AIDS Activist Art in the 1980s with groups like Gran Fury and artists like David Wojnarowicz, Keith Haring and more. These artists actively counteracted the visual victimisation of carriers of the disease and a stigmatised LGBTQ+ community entirely by showing alternative imagery to raise awareness and address AIDS head on in response to a mute, passive, absent government who felt unpropelled to address the matter themselves.
This sentiment is unlike COVID though, where today governments are extremely vocal and ready to point fingers, though I suspect it has less to do with lives lost and more concerning the economic and political impact of the disease.
Pandemics are to be fought physically and mentally. Disease manifests in physical symptoms however the long-lasting effects of living through a pandemic which ravages community close to home can severely damage mental health. With this past Monday marking the worldwide Mental Health Awareness week, it is important to note the effects of this disease on mental health and that should be something as shielded and maintained as physical measures are.
It is difficult to compare the artwork being made in every pandemic as each are intrinsically linked to their wider social epoch in which they were produced, not just in a vacuum of the disease. Munch addressed the mental setbacks he experienced dealing with the pandemic, but he also addressed the psychological tension and anguish felt in the era regardless of illness with relation to an alienation from society and nature. The AIDS activist Art of Gran Fury responded more directly the politicisation of a disease, producing their awareness raising agit-prop whilst criticising the appropriation real loss and grievance to push agendas among right-wing groups. The pandemic is however the sole focus of many societies at this moment. Despite the disproportionately larger percentage of BAME groups passing from COVID in the UK compared to white people, it is still pegged as an ‘enemy’ which does not discriminate.
Artists are engaging with their audiences in ways unlike the previous generations with a wider global reach to all of those with the privilege to have internet access sequestered in their homes and unable to experience art in the conventional ways. Likewise, propelled by online technologies and globalised audiences, institutions are also aiming to maintain a presence with a flurry of online programs and events. You may feel a desire to check out the online programs of galleries in South Korea, Lagos, or Buenos Aires. In the internet age there are no ‘local’ galleries or artists to support so this may be a blessing for a chance to experience art outside of the western canon. Whoever reads this is lucky enough to have internet access, so consume art works at this rare opportunity of reduced elitism! Art is not only accessible and produced for those with degrees in art history or of a certain class and upbringing. It is a response to human experience and a probing of society, thought and convention. I think we can all learn and be inspired from that sentiment to perceive our surroundings in a new light and not take everything at face value.