COVID-19 isn't the first pandemic to inspire art. Just as artists today are weighing the effects of isolation and the response of our leaders, Rembrandt ruminated on the plague in the 17th century, questioning in one artwork if a rat poison vendor was helping or hindering the spread of disease. German Expressionist artist Christian Rohlfs contemplated how the double whammy of influenza and World War I decimated Europe.
During the Black Death era, artists often focused on saints who might intercede, or city scenes of people escaping the bubonic plague. Artwork about the 1918 influenza tended to focus more on the body and disease. But quarantine is one thing all these pandemics have in common. It was invented in the 1300s after the plague arrived in Europe, killing an estimated one-third of the continent's population or more. The 1918 influenza pandemic claimed approximately 50 million lives worldwide. COVID-19 has taken nearly 600,000 lives since December.
How do artists reflect such devastating losses? To find out, I talked with Tom Rassieur, head of the Prints and Drawings Department at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), and Bob Cozzolino, the museum's curator of painting. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Q: There were several waves of the Black Death, or bubonic plague, from the mid-1300s through the late 1600s. What are some recurring themes you see in art from those times?
Rassieur: I see broader stylistic changes happening throughout art, reusing iconography and meaningful images and refashioning meaningful themes in the styles of the time. There are certain through-lines, such as appeals to saints who are [seen as] the express messengers to God. They appear over and over again, and therefore become very easily recognizable and wind up with a degree of universality. There is a great deal of empathy in these images; often the saints that are being appealed to are not heroic, but they are people who are similarly afflicted, like St. Roch. St. Antony [a hermit who became the patron saint of plague victims] is often shown carrying a bell, which is a warning device to keep social distance.
Q: Did you notice any similarities with this ongoing theme of isolation?
Rassieur: I think that the feeling of facing terror by oneself is felt in "The Temptation of St. Antony," a 1635 engraving by Jacques Callot. There is also an element of loneliness there. [With his bells,] St. Antony is warning people not to come near him.
It is an interesting situation in terms of the function of art, especially sculpture. With saints there is a tradition of touching and kissing the sculpture, and here you have a saint telling you to back off. And that gets to the feeling we are all having today, of wanting to help one another but not being able to go near one another. I see these images of these relatively isolated figures and I think that there is a profound emotional understanding in the art that was being made at that time.
[Nowadays] you see all these pictures of people coming up and touching the two sides of a windowpane. The other common trope now is isolated togetherness. The images of people out on the balconies, making music and applauding front-line responders. I don't know if there are any instances of art that would reflect that from the past. But today a lot of people are posting themselves with pets in isolation, and pets have become best friends; what you see with St. Roch is he is alone but accompanied by his dog.
Q: How do you think the theme of isolation is playing out in art and visual culture during COVID-19?
Cozzolino: People are seeing celebrities and their co-workers in domestic environment in ways that are maybe unguarded. But then people are becoming more conscious about how they are being seen in those spaces, and then framing their shots in Zoom calls. There was a story in the New Yorker about the Twitter account Room Rater. People critique what they are seeing and what is being revealed in reporters' and celebs' Zoom calls. That's an aestheticization of what people are doing [in quarantine].
Rassieur: There's a degree of dark humor at this time. Compare that to the Christian Rohlfs woodcut "Death As Juggler" (1918-19). Or Rembrandt's "The Rat-Poison Peddler." Rembrandt's take on it is that, in a sense, the guy who purports to be helping — the exterminator — is probably doing as much to spread the disease as anyone else. That relates to [criticism] of our leadership today.
Q: The body is so much more present in images coming out of the 1918 influenza and World War I, whereas it seems absent in images from the coronavirus pandemic.
Rassieur: Bodies go in bags and we don't really see them, whereas the art of the past revealed what people were really witnessing [firsthand]. Images of people take on new meaning when they die prematurely. In Mia's collection, we have this Jean-Antoine Houdon "Portrait of Madame de Sérilly" bust [from 1780]. She died of smallpox, this horribly disfiguring thing. You have this incredibly smooth, porcelain-looking figure who then dies this horrible death. [It's similar to the way] people now post pics of loved ones in happier states.
Cozzolino: Images about the 1918 flu are deathbed scenes, or people sort of waiting, having vigils. World War I was so overwhelming already as a mass extermination of people.
Q: Minnesota artists are making work about COVID-19, but since we're still early on in the pandemic, it reads as reactionary to me. When do you think we'll see art that is more reflective?
Rassieur: Even though we live in a moment where it seems like things can happen fast and quickly, I don't think we are going to see a lot of art about this too soon. People are reflecting on their experiences, especially of loss. For responsive art, I think it will take awhile. In terms of reflexive art, in editorial cartoons, there is a lot going on. That for right now is the productive area, the visual first draft of history.
Cozzolino: English artist Sue Coe is making art about the pandemic. She has a linocut print called "Dr. MAGA." It's an image of a famous plague doctor wearing a MAGA hat. It connects her long interest in animal rights and the environment but also targeting our president and his nonresponse to the pandemic.