Paintings and Pandemics - Part III, the Spanish Flu

April 13, 2020
Egon Schiele, The Family, Belvedere Museum, Vienna
Egon Schiele, The Family, Belvedere Museum, Vienna

In this the third of our series looking at how pandemics of the past have influenced art, I’ll be considering the pandemic popularly known as Spanish Flu, a disease which swept the globe at the end of the First World War with frightening loss of life.


Until the outbreak of the current Covid-19, the Spanish Flu pandemic had been known as the Forgotten Pandemic, and remarkably it left almost no imprint on the art world.


While previous large scale loss of life, natural and man-made, have had a profound impact on art, the body of artistic work depicting the impact of the Spanish Flu is to all intents and purposes non-existent. In researching this blog, I thought I would be trying to find the one piece of art from many that best encapsulated the pandemic – instead, I’ll be looking at why it seemed to have had so little lasting impact on art.


Estimates of the death toll from Spanish Flu vary widely, from 100 million at the top end, to 20 million at the bottom. However, what is generally accepted is that the pandemic – which raged across the world for the three years between 1918 and 1920 – killed more people than did the war to end all wars, World War I, which ended with the November 1918 armistice at the time the Spanish Flu was reaching its peak.


It is unclear where the virus started, other than the fact that it was not in Spain. The reason the virus became known as the Spanish Flu was that most countries – still on a wartime footing – censored and suppressed reports of the outbreak. Spain itself, neutral in the War did not, and thus was the impression given that it was particularly hard hit as a country.


What is almost certain is that the unprecedented mass movement of troops around the globe as part of war mobilisation and demobilisation rapidly communicated the disease internationally at a speed which had never been seen before.


The deadly influenza was also unusually cruel in that the majority of the victims were aged between 20 and 40. Flu normally hits the very young or the very old the hardest, and to have this pandemic afflict the very age group which had been so hard hit during the War itself added a horror upon a horror.


The flu came in three waves. The first was in the spring of 1918, when the virus was very contagious but not especially fatal. However, the second wave that hit in the autumn of 1918 was both highly contagious and highly deadly. It hit at the worst possible time – resources were stretched due to the war effort, the populace was weakened after 4 years of the war effort, and there was almost no effective treatment for a disease that could kill its victims very quickly. 


The third wave hit after the armistice, most likely exacerbated by troops returning home in large numbers. It was not as deadly as the second wave, and received much less attention. Perhaps people had become almost immune to the horrors of death, perhaps people wanted to move on from the war and the flu and look to the future with optimism.


Whatever the reason, the pandemic was essentially over by the end of 1919, perhaps exhausted by its own virulence.


In researching how artists depicted the pandemic, it was striking that there is essentially only one well known painting dealing with the subject – that’s it, just a single painting to emerge into the public consciousness after one of the deadliest pandemics in the entirety of human history, a pandemic which killed more than did its terrible contemporary the Great War. 


Even this single picture isn’t really about the Spanish Flu, with the disease being relevant but not determinative to the painting. It is by the Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch. He is best known for his iconic painting The Scream, which he painted in 1893.

Munch contracted Spanish Flu, and was one of the fortunate ones to survive the illness. In 1919 he painted Self-Portrait after the Spanish Flu depicting himself convalescing in a chair, covered with a blanket and looking gaunt. However, other than the subject matter, it is an unremarkable painting.


What is to explain this astounding lack of artistic output in the face of such chaos and death? Many theories have been put forward, but to me the most persuasive is that at the time of the most severe outbreak of the disease, the Spanish Flu – despite its death toll - was not the worst horror.


Instead people were dealing with the First World War and the unimaginable calamity it brought on the world.  The horrors of the war inspired some of the most memorable and moving art ever. Across poetry, literature, film and painting there is a huge body of work dealing with the impact of the war and the questions it asked about man’s inhumanity, which had hitherto never really been posed on such a global stage. The industrialisation of death for the first time, where soldiers and civilians alike could be killed by weapons fired from miles away forced people to face physical and mental nightmares that were new.


Against this backdrop, a deadly disease, despite its sheer scale, simply could not compete against the existential crisis of the War. It was as if all the artistic energy in the world had been consumed by the conflict.


Allied to this was the fact that it was not generally the flu itself which killed, but instead the way in which it weakened people, and the absence of effective healthcare, allowed complications – chiefly pneumonia - to claim its victims. A society tormented by the war did not need an additional reminder of its own vulnerability.


There is however one painting which I have chosen for the cover picture of this blog. It is not explicitly about the pandemic, but the painting itself is inextricably linked to it. The picture is the unfinished The Family by the Austrian artist Egon Schiele, now held by the Belvedere Museum in Vienna.


The painting depicts Schiele himself, his wife and their unborn child. Whilst he was working on the picture, Schiele wrote to his mother thus: “Edith fell ill with the Spanish flu eight days ago yesterday and is now also suffering from pneumonia. She is 6 months pregnant. The illness is exceptionally severe and critical; I am preparing myself for the worst.”


Shortly after this letter, Schiele’s wife – and their child – succumbed to the disease. Just 3 days after, Schiele himself also died from the Spanish Flu.  He died at the age of only 28. Despite this, his impact on the art world has been tremendous, sufficiently so that a record price for a Schiele work at auction is some $40m.


It is the sheer pathos of this picture that encapsulates the suffering of millions. The Spanish Flu was a series of individual family tragedies, magnified on a global scale. But it took place against the backdrop of a larger tragedy, and one which completely overshadowed it.


The National Archives and Records Association in the USA has commented:  “It is an oddity of history that the influenza epidemic of 1918 has been virtually overlooked in the teaching of American history.” 


It was also overlooked by the art world, but for wholly understandable reasons.


About the author

Richard Pulford

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