Déjà Vu? A Pandemic Alters the Art World — Again

John Singer Sargent, Gassed, 1918–19 © IWM Art.IWM ART 1460

The COVID-19 health crisis has had a tremendous impact on the world. In the U.S., school buildings have shuttered, jobs have been shed or altered, public life has vanished, and more. Although many have rightly called the pandemic an unprecedented event, Professor Michael Lobel (GC/Hunter, Art History) says we can look to the past to determine how such crises have shaped and will continue to shape the art world.

In a piece published in Artforum magazine, titled “Michael Lobel on art and the 1918 flu pandemic,” Lobel writes of how the 1918 pandemic’s influence on the world of art is similar to that of COVID-19 today. 

“Undeniably, COVID is going to have an impact on the art world across the board,” Lobel tells The Graduate Center. “History can help illuminate our current-day experience. And our present-day experience can help shed light on history and the past.”

The 20th century influenza pandemic — commonly called the “Spanish flu” — spread worldwide from1918 to 1919, killing at least 50 million people worldwide (675,000 in the U.S.), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Museums closed for weeks at a time, artists got sick and died from the illness, and, a few, Lobel argues, depicted its effects it in their work.

Today, museums around the world are closed as the health crisis continues. And Lobel says there will be a new normal for the art world (including art education) as a result.

“A lot of people who either teach studio art or take studio art classes are really struggling to figure out what it means to be an art teacher or art student online. How do you do that? Can you even do that online?” Lobel says. “What we’re going through right now is going to have a massive impact. If and when museums reopen, it’s going to have an impact on how they bring in the public and their audiences.”

In his piece, Lobel focuses on a painting by John Singer Sargent called Gassed, an oil painting depicting a line of soldiers enduring a gas attack. This work, Lobel writes, conveys the terror of both World War I and the flu pandemic, and, because of that, “has captured such great attention for so long.”

“It doesn’t take that great a leap, after all, to connect vulnerability to a gas attack with a similar susceptibility to an airborne, unseen contagion,” Lobel writes. He points out that the earliest influenza outbreaks occurred on military bases at the front, and Sargent was struck by the flu while working on the commissioned artwork. The masks covering the soldiers’ eyes in the haunting painting, Lobel argues, can be seen in Freudian terms “as repositionings of the cloth masks that, covering the nose and mouth, became a visual signifier of the 1918 pandemic, much like they have for us again today.”

Lobel finds similarities between Gassed and Sargent’s watercolor Interior of a Hospital Tent, which Sargent may even have painted from his own hospital bed. The painting depicts soldiers who were likely stricken by influenza lying in a row of cots.  

Lobel writes: “Tracking the impact of the 1918 virus on the art world of that time has something of the miasmic feel of that disease itself, unseen yet seemingly ever-present: Creeping in from virtually all corners, it makes itself felt piecemeal, here and there, such that to gauge its impact and extent requires one to connect the dots, a task not unlike the painstaking contact tracing by which public health authorities across the globe today are working to chart the path of illness from one person to another.”

Submitted on: MAY 15, 2020

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