Anyone who thinks COVID-19 has claimed a huge number of lives should look at the Spanish flu of 1918-20. In Pale Rider (2017), a compelling history of that earlier pandemic, Laura Spinney writes: “Between the first case recorded on 4 March 1918, and the last sometime in March 1920, it killed 50-100 million, or between 2.5 and 5 percent of the global population – a range that reflects the uncertainty that still surrounds it.”
In trying to prevent a repeat of such horrors we have resigned ourselves to an extended public health crisis and an economic black hole. The alternative, as shown by the outbreak of 1918-20, is so unthinkable that even those who lived through this period seem to have struggled to accept the scale of the disaster.
In October 1918 Australia showed great prescience in introducing quarantine measures that forestalled the second lethal wave of the virus, allowing us to celebrate the November armistice without risk of infection. Pleased with this success authorities lifted the protections too soon, allowing in a third wave which cost 12,000 lives. Could history be repeating itself?
To forget the past is to risk making the same mistakes, but for what is probably the greatest human tragedy of all time, the Spanish flu has left a remarkably small cultural imprint. One obvious reason is that it overlapped the collective trauma of World War One. We are urged to never forget that manmade bloodbath, but the flu became unthinkable almost as soon as it was over.
Among artists, writers and composers, the pandemic’s two most famous strikes came in Vienna. Gustav Klimt, whose works now rank among Austria’s major tourist attractions, died at the age of 55 in February, 1918, after suffering a stroke and catching pneumonia in hospital. He is now thought to be an early victim of the virus, but this can’t be verified.
Klimt was visited in the morgue by his young admirer, Egon Schiele, who made sketches of his friend’s exhausted face. By October that year, Schiele’s wife, Edith, who was six months’ pregnant with the couple’s first child, had caught the flu. She would die on 28 October. Her husband would follow three days later, aged only 28. Their deaths are commemorated in Schiele’s painting, The Family, which he had shown at the Secession earlier that year. It depicts the artist, naked, skinny and jaundiced, sitting behind Edith – his “good angel” – who looks much healthier, displaying the serenity of a nude Madonna. The model for their own never-to-be-born child was Schiele’s nephew, Toni.
Although Schiele was known for his provocative, erotic works, The Family is an exceptionally tender painting. It marks the artist’s embrace of domestic stability, as he bids farewell to the turbulent, Bohemian existence for which he had become notorious. Because of his untimely death we’ll never know if he would have actually settled down, instead of remaining fixed forever as a wild child of the fin-de-siècle.
Other notable casualties of the flu included the British painter, Harold Gilman (1876-1919), and the young Portuguese modernist, Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso (1887-1918). Both had promising careers cut short.
Gilman, having fought his way clear of the dun-coloured influence of his mentor, Walter Sickert, had fallen under the spell of Van Gogh and begun painting with a bright, Post-Impressionist palette. In the work he was producing at the time of his death we see an Englishman with a feel for colour unmatched by any of his contemporaries. In Gilman’s hands, a staid subject such as Tea in the bedsitter(1916), becomes an orgy of blue and red.
As for Souza-Cardoso, a Parisian friend of Gertrude Stein, Modigliani and the Delaunays, he was a prolific painter in a range of styles. After his death at the age of 30 he seems to have been remembered only in his native Portugal, but in 2016 the French celebrated his rediscovery with a retrospective at the Grand Palais. The busy surfaces of paintings such as Pintura or Entrada (both 1917), suggest an artist of abundant energy willing to experiment with the Cubist, Futurist and abstract tendencies emerging around him.
Perhaps the most famous artist who contracted the illness and survived, was Edvard Munch. In Self-portrait with the Spanish flu (1919), one of several pictures on this theme, he shows himself in a dressing gown, slumped in an armchair by an unmade bed. Munch thought the end had come, but managed to resist the shadow of death that had haunted him since childhood. His most recent biographer, Sue Prideaux, imagines the artist sitting in his chair like a king on his throne, abandoned by all his habitual ghosts and visions. Munch’s neurotic youth had given way to a stoical middle-age. He would live on for another 24 years, dying in 1944, at the age of 80.
The greatest loss to Australian art was Ruby Lindsay, one of the more appealing members of that notable family of artists. Although never as famous as her brother Norman, Ruby was no slouch, being the first woman in Australia to work as a full-time illustrator and graphic artist. In 1909 she married the legendary black-and-white artist, Will Dyson, and the couple departed for London. It was there that she caught the virus and died, on 12 March, 1919, aged 33.
Ruby had shown tremendous determination to succeed in a male-dominated profession and carve out a career for herself in England. The virus, however, was as indifferent to this promising tale of female achievement as it was to the potential of artists such as Gilman or Souza-Cardoso, or indeed the young American modernist, Morton Schamberg, who died of the flu in October, 1918, in Philadelphia.
The pandemic also accounted for the composer, Hubert Parry, best known for Jerusalem, his memorable setting of William Blake’s poem. Béla Bartók survived, but was left with a severe ear infection that made him fearful of ending up as history’s second-most-famous deaf composer.
Amongst writers the virus didn’t discriminate between literary genres, taking out avant-garde poet, Guillaume Apollinaire, and playwright, Edmond Rostand, author of the immensely successful Cyrano de Bergerac. Among survivors, neither Raymond Chandler nor Franz Kafka felt compelled to write about the flu. It was left to Katherine Anne Porter to produce the best fictionalised account of the illness in her novella, Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939).
Porter was 28 when she caught the flu in Denver. Her black hair fell out and grew back white. One of the most striking symptoms she describes is an impaired colour vision: “…it was in itself a melancholy wonder to see the colourless sunlight slanting on the snow, under a sky drained of its blue.” It may be worth noting that the word “melancholy” appears six times in a story of roughly 90 pages, a testament to the depressive force of the virus.
Porter’s story paints a far more evocative picture of the Spanish flu than anything produced by an artist. When she writes: “The body is a curious monster, no place to live in, how could anyone feel at home there?” she shows how mere existence has become a burden of pain.
It may be impossible to understand another person’s pain but it’s no less difficult to convey the experience of severe illness in a work of art. Of the painters who recovered from the flu only Munch paused for reflection. Did the mind-boggling scale of the pandemic, joined with the carnage of war, make it too daunting or depressing a subject for most artists? It would have required a Pieter Bruegel to paint another Triumph of Death, but Bruegels were scarce in 1919.
Artistically, the years 1918-20 feel like a massive anti-climax – a return to earth after the feverish balloon ride of the Belle Époque. As the virus subsided the party would start again, but nobody wanted to think about the ordeal so recently concluded. The dance of death was over and it was time for the Charleston.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 1 August, 2020