Three events that are repeated cyclically stain with dark colors and feelings of sadness the works of art that humanity has produced throughout time: Plagues, epidemics and wars. These three events of the apocalypse, of a violent, cruel and painful nature, generate a type of art in which we try to let off steam in that action which is to relate what happened.
At a time of pandemic like the present we ask ourselves, how has this art evolved? Closely linked to the society of each time, these pieces not only tell us about the tragedies, they also tell us about their actors and their attitudes.
We answer this question with the help of Nacho Ruíz, through his conference “The history of art from the history of pandemics” (spanish only).
Art of the guilty
Beginning this journey in chronological order we come across different works in which a representation of humanity as a sinner appears. Death appears, taking all those present indiscriminately, without distinguishing between social classes, wealth, or age. In the face of the ignorance by which these catastrophes occur, we are forced to think of these events as something divine, with God punishing us for our wrongdoing or lack of faith. As an example we observe the work of Pieter Bruegel “The Triumph of Death” (1562-1563).
An image with a skeletal death, riding on the back of a dead, rotten horse (1), and forcing people to enter a large late-medieval coffin (2). All this takes place in what seems to have been a great party over which tragedy ends up arriving, which as we see does not respect anyone. Not even the kings, with this character who dies while one of the deaths shows him a klepsydra and another kneads his fortune (3), which does not protect him at all. Nor to children, with one being devoured by a hungry dog (4), still in his late mother’s arms. Nor the service, which is imprisoned under the nets of two other skeletal figures (5). Death does not distinguish between social classes, does not respect either the rich or the poor.
In the background of the painting, war also appears, a motif associated with plagues, and which is warned by bells ringing (6). A superfluous warning, no one can defeat the troops of death. This representation of misfortune is made in great detail, just as the painter was observing the war at that time, in places like Flanders or the rest of Europe. Corpses on carriage wheels several metres off the ground (7), to keep them away from people and thus avoid contagion, corpses that gradually pile up, or burn, crowds trying to fight or flee that fateful fate…
Art of propaganda
After the Enlightenment, society gradually began to distance itself from religion, and art turned from a preaching element to a propaganda one. If before it was the clergy who financed most of the works, now it is the states and the different leaders who do it, who do not hesitate to show themselves replacing in many cases these divine figures, as heroes, healers, or champions of order. In comparison with previous works we see how tragedies are no less terrible, the history of this period leaves us with representations where new actors appear, or scenes where the events recounted are portrayed more closely. Among the works that Nacho selects in his conference we choose “Great Plague of Marseille” (1720) by Michel Apriete, and “Yellow Fever Episode” (1871) by Juan Manuel Blanes.
A performance where a new actor appears, power. It is portrayed maintaining its composure and dignity in a moment of horror and suffering. In the face of the crowding of corpses (1), with scenes in which it is not known how to treat the sick, or where corpses are thrown from the walls, power appears as an agent with the capacity to stabilize and give order in times of chaos (2). Likewise, references to the church are not forgotten in this period following the binomial plague-divinity relationship, representing a city where the church is illuminated (3).
At the dawn of the 20th century, we separated ourselves from this divine representation. The author shows us a terrible epidemic of yellow fever where schemes from other paintings are repeated. Dead parents (1) leaving behind a baby who still seeks the warmth of her mother (2) and a middle-aged young man who now faces the world alone (3). To his disgrace, this world looks with horror at the sick (4), as if they were the ones guilty of making it sick, by cutting them off from society. Finally, and in a similar way to the previous work, the authorities appear, who maintain the dignity and stability in time (5).
Art of relief
There is a drastic leap between the society of the end of the 19th century and that of the end of the 20th century. Art now turns to the individual and his perception. It is no longer a question of consolidating the role of a state, or proclaiming the misery of society. In this new artistic outbreak, denunciation appears, vindicating the individual as a patient, leaving aside that feeling of guilt and exile so rooted in previous centuries. Art turns to the personal and to sensations, the works change notably. As opposed to the classic pictorial works, new formats appear that allow other forms of expression with which to enrich the experience and the message to be told, new possibilities with which to make us reflect or participate in the work. A very representative work of this is “Untitled (Ross’ Portrait in L.A.)” (1991) by Félix González-Torres.
An impressive and overwhelming piece. A post-mortem portrait made with a mountain of candy of exact weight to the author’s partner, who died from complications due to AIDS. In this work the visitor would arrive and be able to take candy from it, making this piece lose weight quickly, similar to how the person portrayed lost it. This process continues until the work is reduced to nothing. However, this work also gave a positive message, every morning the museum replaced the candies, making the portrayed person be born again, to be consumed again. A cycle was established in which the portrayed person was reborn every day, as if art could brought back to life.
Technique, evolution and perspective; a way of telling the story from the point of view of each artist, of each generation. The result tells the story of a survivor who uses only those materials he has mastered to express his anguish and despair, and that this anguish and despair will transcend and warn future generations.
Thirty years after González-Torres thus sweetened the rawness in the scourge of an entire generation, we are facing our own black swan, the umpteenth situation of armageddon, which we admire from windows and balconies. From this front row seat to our particular end of the world we have the opportunity to leave our testimony, our layer in a story that must continue, but must also learn.