The Depiction of Death: Art during The Spanish Flu

Art during The Spanish Flu

As we lock ourselves in our homes, social distancing ourselves from the world, I challenge everyone to look back at the most profoundly impactful plagues in history: the Spanish flu and the artwork that the artist of those times left us.

Art is an aesthetic object, made to be looked at and appreciated for its intrinsic value. The special qualities that set art apart often are placed away from everyday life. The place of Art is to be in museums, churches, or caves. It’s hard to depict death in words but an image gives us insight at the fragility that is human life. During these worrisome times, we can look back at some artists who did just that and dive into the idea of the depiction of death during the Spanish flu.

The Spanish Flu: Background

The Spanish Flu was named after Spain, due to its neutrality in World War I. Unlike its European neighbors, it didn’t impose wartime censorship on its press. In France, England and the United States, newspapers weren’t allowed to report on anything that could harm the war effort. This includes news that a crippling virus was sweeping through troops, this meant they could report on the severity of the pandemic. Other countries fought the war with the suppression of reports on how the disease affected their populations.

The horrific scale of this pandemic is hard to fathom. The virus infected 500 million people worldwide and killed an estimated 100 million victims. For perspective that’s more than all the soldiers and civilians killed during World War I combined. So, to say this virus was deadly is an understatement. However, artists like Edvard Munch and Egon Schiele made a great effort to depict the deadly flu. They gave us an idea of what death looks like, even 102 years later.

Spanish flu - Egon Schiele
Egon Schiele – Self Portrait, 1912 – Leopold Museum.

With a lack of public commemoration, grief, and recovery from Spanish flu were often private. And if a person recovered, it was hard to articulate or visualize this journey. It had symptoms of the normal flu: fever, nausea, aches, and diarrhea. Many developed severe pneumonia as well. Also, dark spots would appear on the cheeks, and patients would turn blue, suffocating from a lack of oxygen as their lungs filled with a frothy, bloody substance. Unlike the typical flu where the highest mortality is in infants and the elderly, the 1918 flu also struck down young, healthy adults much like that of Egon Schiele.

Egon Schiele

A protégé of Gustav Klimt, Austrian born Egon Schiele was a major figurative painter of the early 20th century. He eventually engaged with an unconventional depiction of the body and its imperfections during his brief but prolific career.

Early in 1918, Schiele began working on a painting of his family. With his resolute attention to the human form, he completed the three family figures. Schiele himself is at the far back, his brawny nude body hunched behind his wife, Edith, who looks off to the side, while a child is curled between her feet. The painting would never be finished, because, both Edith and Egon were dead, and their child was never born.

Egon Schiele – The Family, 1918 (unfinished) – The National Gallery, London

They were two among millions who succumbed to the pandemic. The incomplete painting was transformed into a portrait of loss. When Edith was on her deathbed, he captured her final hours in a haunting drawing on the 27th of October. Her face is striking, but exhaustion and pain radiate from her narrowed eyes. The next day she was dead. Three days later, Egon followed. Before his death on October 1918 at the age of 28, he mourned his mentor and friend, Gustav Klimt, the Austrian painter, who had also succumbed to the deadly flu that February at 55.

Schiele also sketched Klimt’s disease-decimated face, plainly rendering its distortions and hollows. In doing this, Schiele created an ever-lasting idea or picture of what the Spanish Flu looked like. These portraits of what it was like to suffer the Spanish flu are rare.

Egon Schiele – Sketch of Gustav Klimt on his death bed, 1918.

Edvard Munch

Among the artists who caught the Spanish flu and survived was Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. His lifelong self-portraiture found a harrowing match in the disease. While many of his early self-portraits have morbid fantasies of his mortality, his Spanish flu series plainly confronted his frailty and vulnerability.

spanish flu 1918 Munch
Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu, 1919.

In works like Self-Portrait After The Spanish Flu (1919), Munch appears gaunt, wrapped in a dressing gown and blanket. The tormented painter appears judge and victim of this pandemic killer. The curt yet erratic demeanor, the puffy discolored glare, the quivering lines of fever and chills, only highlight the despair and isolation of the grippe patient. Munch depicts death the way he felt it. That way he only knew how to describe it. Finally, the chilling painting reminds us how we could succumb to an illness in a blink of an eye.

The Spanish Flu vs Covid-19 in Art

Thus, we can see how easily artists’ depiction of death through artwork paints a picture of the darkest times for humans. Death has, without a doubt, been one of the most commonly represented subjects of art.

It comes as no surprise that something so imminent, and yet, unknown, has been represented in such a variety of creative ways throughout history.

Today, as we join forces in fighting the current Covid-19 pandemic, we can only hope for a better tomorrow. We can tell ourselves that humanity is no stranger to disease and outbreaks. Whether it be Schiele or Munch, who made art in uncertain times, art has always prevailed in times of pestilence.

Written by Karen Pasos.

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