As history repeats itself, so will art. Revisiting the books, stories, and paintings created after past plagues can help contextualize our lives under the specter of COVID-19—and predict the stories we may tell as a result.”JANE BORDEN, Vanity Fair
A friend and mentor asked me today (April 17), “What is your opportunity in this crisis?” That got me thinking lots.
Those who know me, know that I’m not one to brag. I keep my achievements and my successes quiet, tucked at the back of my mind, contented that I have beaten myself at my own odds. Tenacity was something I learnt as an adult and making lemonade with the lemons you’re given something I didn’t do cos I’d always thought orange juice was better and I made lemon custard pie instead with the lemons life threw at me. And, I can tell you life has thrown me more lemons than I care to remember, and also lots of curve balls too. Sometimes, I miss out and other times, I make lemon custard pie. This post is not about being successful or being an opportunist. This post is about what this strange time, when we’re locked down, forced to work from home, made to stay socially distanced, is doing for us.
For me, it has created opportunities for more learning. It has extended the time that I get to spend with my adult daughter, who flew the nest but is now safely home from London, and my teenager, who finds every opportunity to keep mum at arm’s length. Having an aperitivo on the balcony is something that the Italian and I look forward to most evenings. The lock down has opened up more space and time to connect with friends in far away lands: we’re connecting more than ever online but really connecting through Zoom, Skype, Hangouts—whatever the mode—rather than posts and tweets when we don’t see faces. Don’t get me wrong, the twitters and the posters are still doing their thang all the same. But the rest of us who shy from social media, we’re taking to connecting through social media cos this is the option we’re given right now.
Human beings are made to connect. This is one of the many human conditions we live with. It’s vital that we stay connected to the people we care about and this goal is the impetus that drives us all online during this period.
Human beings are also made to communicate. Again, one of the many drivers that keeps us ticking. The channels of communication are varied. Some choose to write, others paint, while some others make films. Many are even doing this online, like I am.
Edvard Munch (born 1863 in Løten, Hedmark, died in 1944 in Oslo) needs no introduction to those dwelling in the art world. His most famous painting ‘The Scream’ has been shared virally in so many ways that nobody is counting anymore. But this painting, ‘Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu’ painted in 1919, is lesser known. Look at how the colour palette—an over-usage of greens—reflects the moment. There is a blanket draped on his leg, signifying the subject as an invalid. A gaping hole for a mouth, a gaunt blurry face are signs of a sick man.
Edvard Munch understood pandemics. He understood diseases. He understood loss. His mother, Laura Cathrine Bjølstad, died from tuberculosis when Edvard was five. The year was 1868. After her death, Edvard and his siblings were cared for by his aunt from his mother’s side. Tuberculosis claimed Sophie, his sister, in 1877. Edvard himself was a bronchial child, suffering from chronic asthmatic bronchitis. These traumatic experiences would influence the way he made art.
Munch was a prolific Norwegian artist. He was part of the Symbolist Movement in the late 1800s, a pioneer of Expressionism from the 1900s onwards, and he was tenacious in experimenting with different art genres—sculpting, graphic designing, drawing, even photography and film—throughout his long career (60 years). Munch took all the opportunities proffered to him at every uncertain moment to advance his craft. He made crises his premise for self-reflection and expression.
Munch did train as an engineer but his focus was art and he chose to make art his career. He travelled widely and made many friends in the art world. He networked with intellectuals, literary luminaries, philosophers, and musicians. His long and prolific life as an artist is outlined here.
In 1919, Munch was infected with the Spanish flu. [See the connection to the self-portrait?] This pandemic destroyed millions of lives world-wide and the current pandemic is being compared to it. Out of the Spanish flu came this self-portrait. This was Edvard Munch’s opportunity. Then, more opportunities would follow his way. In 1930, he took to photographs as an art form, taking a series of self-portraits while convalescing from eye disease. The thing is that Munch never let down turns or pandemics stop him from creating. He found opportunity in the worst of times and made the best out of his time. Munch wasn’t the only artist who did this. Before Modernism in art was developed, artists in the Renaissance were documenting the Plague through art.
But art for art’s sake isn’t what making art is about. Art is a conduit for expressing other connected issues. This article explains the situation well for what opportunities COVID-19 will produce in the near future. Our world has turned upside down but we can turn it around again because the learnings that we will take from the virus will change us and lives.
My life has changed since December 2019. I returned from a wonderful family Christmas in Italy to not knowing when I’ll be seeing them again. First I was disappointed, then I was despondent, and finally after despairing, I calmed down and hunkered down. I thought I would follow in Munch’s footsteps: find opportunities in this crisis to create, to innovate, to make art. I’ve started to document these various confluences of art-making on social media: picture book reviews, teaching the craft of writing picture books, and talking, talking to people about art and writing. You can find me on Facebook and Instagram doing this. Remember, it’s not about being an opportunist. It’s about finding the opportunities to help you move forward and stay positive (sans virus) in these COVID times.