Over the past several months, artists have been applying their craft to pieces related to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, using the challenges of quarantine and gallery closures as an opportunity to put in extra work in the studio. But this isn’t the first time that the art world has dealt with a worldwide health crisis.
This week, I reached out to SCAD Art History student Halie Hall, who is currently completing her senior thesis on the visual culture of disease. She’s been researching and writing on the topic for over two years, and offered her insight on how artists have reacted visually to prior epidemics, as well as giving her take on our current dilemma.
The Black Death
Perhaps the most well-known global epidemic, and the one most people can bring to mind when thinking about artists and their response to such a situation, is the Black Death. Killing over 20 million people in the mid-1300s, and returning again and again over the following centuries, this wave of bubonic plague (to which the grim moniker refers) inspired many notable artists to compose works, including Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Anthony van Dyck.
"A lot of it was depictions of death as the apocalypse," said Hall. "And so when artists were responding to the Black Death, they didn’t really understand what this disease was and how it was spreading. So it was believed to be God punishing humanity for its sins.
"There was a lot of God raining arrows of pestilence down on humanity," she added. "A lot of depictions of just the apocalyptic scenes of death and sick and chaos."
Artists working on commission, often times by the Catholic Church, did most of the well-known pieces depicting the epidemic. Painter Nicolas Poussin, for example, was hired to create his famous work "The Plague of Ashdod" by the wealthy Sicilian merchant Fabrizio Valguarnera.
Hall explained that Poussin’s painting is "biblical in nature, but it was painted during this time when he was experiencing a reoccurring outbreak of bubonic plague. And so even though he’s depicting a biblical plague, and going back to more historical times, what he’s depicting is something he’s experiencing."
Most importantly, "The Plague of Ashdod" ended up reaching a wider audience.
"It was eventually engraved and printed, and so it was kind of disseminated into the more public sphere," Hall told me. "And images like that would have been something the art world could relate to and the viewers could relate to, because they were seeing the same death and sickness that was being depicted."
Tuberculosis and Cholera
Tuberculosis has been menacing the world’s population for thousands of years, whereas cholera didn’t emerge as a global threat until the 19th century. But there is a similarity in the way that artists have depicted the diseases.
"What’s interesting within my research I found is that as the centuries continue, the mediums that the art would be created in change with how information is being shared and disseminated," Hall explained. "So thinking about the Black Death…it’s a lot of fine art and painting and religious commissions."
But by the time tuberculosis and cholera came to be the subjects of artistic influence, the printing press had become ubiquitous and "a lot of it was illustrations in newspapers and magazines, depicting ways to contain the disease," noted Hall. "A lot of it started to be public health campaigns."
Similar to the present-day push to wear masks in public and to maintain a safe distance of at least six feet, health officials of the time were looking to encourage the public to adapt safe practices.
"With tuberculosis there was a lot of anti-spitting campaigns," said Hall, "because the men at the time would just spit in the street. And so there [were] a lot of posters and advertisements and campaigns against that, saying please don’t do that, that could spread disease."
There were also graphics urging parents to avoid kissing their children because it could infect them, with the goal of ensuring the health of the public at-large.
"They were trying to warn and help people with these depictions," assured Hall.
Comparable programs were enacted when it came to cholera. In that case, however, not everyone was convinced that those in power had the best of intentions.
"Cholera is really interesting and I think there are a lot of parallels that can be drawn with the reactions to [it] and what’s happening now," Hall said.
"They started hygiene campaigns to clean up the streets, to clean up the water. They were starting to build organizations and groups of people to make up rules about how people should act to start to avoid this disease. And so a lot of the time people were a little questionable about this governmental or political involvement in everyday life and culture."
This lead to artists utilizing satire to lampoon officials, such as with illustrator George J. Pinwell’s scathing "Death’s Dispensary" from the August 18, 1866 issue of "Fun" magazine. It depicts a church parish fountain operated by a skeletal figure giving water, which came to be recognized as a major vector of the disease, to the poor.
There were also the Cholera Riots in Russia, a response to the government’s anti-cholera measures, which imposed quarantine and limited migratory movement within the country. Sound familiar?
"It’s a definitely a similar comparison [to now] because we’ve seen a lot of protest and some pushback to what the health initiatives are for COVID-19," agreed Hall.
Unlike the other historical epidemics Hall and I discussed, AIDS continues to wreak havoc on the world’s population, particularly in third-world countries. It’s also a virus that came about in many of our lifetimes, so the way in which our society has dealt with both the virus and who it has impacted is still fresh in our memories.
"With the AIDS epidemic, it’s really interesting, a little different than the historical ones, is there were artists who were suffering from AIDS who were making art responding to it," Hall pointed out. "So with AIDS there were a lot of artists who understood it first-hand and were making really moving pieces of artwork, responding to what they were experiencing. And kind of the discrimination and isolation that they were feeling."
Much like cholera and tuberculosis, there were early marketing efforts aimed at preventing the spread of AIDS. Because of the intimate connection between many artists and the epidemic, however, there is much more of a disparity between the images used to inform the public and those used by artists who were suffering from its effects.
Hall pointed out that when AIDS first struck there were "advertisements about ways you should conduct yourself as to not get it, such as don’t share needles. [But] that was a totally different message and a different world from what artists who were suffering from it and responding to it within their own personal expression were kind of trying to say and to convey to people."
New York-based artist Keith Haring was one artist who succeeded at using his art to bridge the gap between his personal struggle with the virus and the need to increase awareness amongst the most vulnerable. His painting come poster "Ignorance = Fear" remains perhaps the most iconic image of the era. Haring died of AIDS-related complications in 1990.
COVID-19 and Artists Today
During the Black Death the great masters were commissioned to paint elaborate works depicting the plague by wealthy patrons. In the times of tuberculosis and cholera, newspapers and magazines spread artistic imagery to the public, oftentimes criticizing those in power. In the early years of the AIDS epidemic, artists added posters to their repertoire in expressing their response to the health crisis. And just like their predecessors, today’s creatives are making use of the latest technology to get their messages across.
"A lot of it is through the internet and social media," said Hall. "A lot of the visuals that are being created are shared that way because in our contemporary society, that’s how we share information."
"I think a lot of this is new for our society," she added, "and the more casual way we spread our information. It’s not by commission anymore. So artists can express their own personal idea about it. And one thing I’ve noted recently is it is a lot of positives. It’s not the apocalyptic stuff that’s being created during the plague. It’s positive reinforcement and something reminding people it’s what you can do to help prevent [the spread of the virus] and help save others. And honoring a lot of the people working on the front lines as well.
"It’s less targeting those who are ill and more helping to show the resilience and strength of humanity," concluded Hall.
Listen to my entire conversation with Halie Hall discussing the history of art during times of epidemics embedded here. Next week I’ll be speaking with Pam Longobardi about Plastic Free July and the role of artists as environmental activists.
Tune in to "Art on the Air" every Wednesday from 3-4 p.m. on WRUU 107.5 FM in Savannah, and streaming worldwide at www.wruu.org.
Art off the Air is a digital-only column that is posted every week on dosavannah.com as a companion piece to the WRUU 107.5 FM show "Art on the Air."
Rob Hessler is an artist, host of the radio show Art on the Air on WRUU 107.5 FM Savannah, and Executive Director of Bigger Pie, a Savannah-based arts advocacy organization.