Terrible Tuesday Reads: Illness, Death, and Art

Gustav Klimt Death and Life

Good Morning Sky Dancers!

Today’s post is illustrated with paintings by two artists who died of the Spanish flu in 1918, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, and one who survived his terrible bout with the disease, Edvard Munch.

BBC Culture: Klimt and Schiele, the Artists Who Shocked Europe.

At first glance there is little to suggest a connection between Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. Klimt was the archetypical sensualist who portrayed Vienna’s elite in gilded finery whilst Schiele, almost three decades his junior, was a tortured egoist whose twisted depictions of the human body shocked and scandalised contemporary audiences. And yet the two men shared a lifelong mutual appreciation and friendship, determined to follow their own artistic visions whatever the cost, until the flu epidemic of 1918 claimed both their lives.

Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait

Klimt turned his back on the conventions of academic painting. Disillusioned with the stifling restraints of the Künstlerhaus, the artists’ society which all Viennese artists felt obliged to belong to, he and a number of other artists broke away to form the art movement known as the Vienna Secession.

His new attitude was provocatively outlined in the 1899 work Nuda Veritas, which Sandra Tretter of the Klimt Foundation sums up as “the Künstlerhaus versus the Secession.”  A naked woman holds up the mirror of truth while the snake of falsehood lies dead at her feet. Above her in gilded letters is a quotation from the German dramatist Schiller: “If you cannot please everyone with your deeds and your art, please a few. To please many is bad.” […..]

Klimt’s uncompromising attitude appealed to the young Schiele, who sought out the artist in 1907 when he was still a student at the Academy of Fine Arts and finding the academic discipline frustrating.

A precociously gifted artist, Schiele had revealed his talent as an adolescent by sketching his younger sister in the nude, much to his parents’ horror. For Leopold, also a trained psychotherapist, this fascination with adolescent girls was in part a reaction to his ambivalent relationship with his mother, and would go on to cause great scandal.

Schiele’s undoubted talent appealed to Klimt and he took the young man under his wing, providing models and inviting him to exhibit at the 1909 Kunstchau, although Schiele’s four paintings, all very much in the style of his master, failed to make much impact….

Seeking new means of expression Schiele turned to his own body for inspiration in a manner unprecedented in the history of art. In his first nude self portrait from 1907, based on the notorious female figure in Medicine, he had portrayed himself as helpless and fragile, isolated from the rest of humanity.

Read much more about these artists at the BBC link.

From Sage Journals:

Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait with Spanish Flu

Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was another great artist who contracted influenza. He was a contemporary of Klimt and a leader of the modernist school and is best known for his painting(s), The Scream. His patron was Dr Linke, an ophthalmologist who lived in the Northern German city of Lubeck, which now has UNICEF World Heritage listing. Munch visited Lubeck on at least 17 occasions and painted pictures of the gardens of the Linke home and the Linke children, and perhaps these visits helped in Munch’s lifelong battle with depression. In 1919, Munch contracted the “Spanish Flu,” and although he was very ill, he survived. He painted a self-portrait of himself with influenza (now in Oslo) and another of himself recovering from influenza, which hangs in Lubeck in the Behnhaus Museum. As you stand in front of this portrait you see a man suffering from profound depression, perhaps due to a post viral syndrome compounding his long-standing disease. He later wrote that he was fortunate to survive the infection.

This article at Wellcome Collection provides more background on Schiele, Klimt, and Munch as well as other artists who were impacted by the 1918 flu pandemic: Spanish flu and the depiction of disease. It’s quite interesting. This bit about Schiele is heartbreaking:

In 1918, Austrian artist Egon Schiele was at work on a painting of his family. [The painting appears at the top of this post] With his unflinching attention to the human form, he completed the three figures: Schiele himself is at the far back, his sinewy nude body hunched behind his wife, Edith, who looks off to the side, while a child is curled between her feet.

Egon Schiele, Family

Earlier that year, the rising young art star had been featured in a solo show with the Vienna Secession artists’ association, and, even better, his works had actually sold. That new financial security was particularly important, as Edith was pregnant.

The only thing that disrupts the harmony of the 1918 painting ‘The Family’ is Schiele’s melancholic gaze directed at the viewer. Its sombreness seems in contrast to this scene of domestic tranquillity.

The painting would never be finished. By the end of that autumn, both Edith and Egon were dead; their child was never born. They were two among millions who succumbed to the Spanish flu pandemic. The incomplete painting was transformed into a portrait of loss.

And on Munch:

Among the artists who caught the flu and survived was Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, whose lifelong self-portraiture found a harrowing match in the disease. While many of his early self-portraits have morbid fantasies of his mortality, including the 1895 ‘Self-portrait with Skeleton Arm’ or the 1902–3 ‘Self-portrait on the Operating Table’, his Spanish flu series plainly confronted his frailty and vulnerability.

His 1919 ‘Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu’ has Munch wrapped in a gown and blanket, sitting in a cane chair, his tousled bed in the background. Hues of a sickly yellow surround him; his mouth gapes open like a corpse. There’s a feeling of isolation in this personal struggle. Later that year he painted its sequel, ‘Self-Portrait after the Spanish Flu’, in which he leans toward the viewer, swirls of paint creating circles around his eyes, but colour returning to his sallow face.

Edvard Munch – Self Portrait after the Spanish Flu

More than 100 years later, we are in the midst of another terrible pandemic, and we have no idea yet how many people will die. Yesterday, Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx said that 100,000 to 200,000 deaths in the U.S. would be the best case scenario. CNBC: Dr. Birx predicts up to 200,000 U.S. coronavirus deaths ‘if we do things almost perfectly.’

The White House coronavirus response coordinator said Monday that she is “very worried about every city in the United States” and projects 100,000 to 200,000 American deaths as a best case scenario.

In an interview on “TODAY,” Dr. Deborah Birx painted a grim message about the expected fatalities, echoing that without doing any measures they could hit as high as 2.2 million, as coronavirus cases continue to climb throughout the U.S.

“I think everyone understands now that you can go from five to 50 to 500 to 5000 cases very quickly,” Birx said.

Somehow Birx and Anthony Fauci and advisers bearing poll results managed to convince Trump that he couldn’t loosen government recommendations without killing thousands of people. The New York Times: Behind Trump’s Reversal on Reopening the Country: 2 Sets of Numbers.

The numbers the health officials showed President Trump were overwhelming. With the peak of the coronavirus pandemic still weeks away, he was told, hundreds of thousands of Americans could face death if the country reopened too soon.

Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt on his death bed, 1918.

But there was another set of numbers that also helped persuade Mr. Trump to shift gears on Sunday and abandon his goal of restoring normal life by Easter. Political advisers described for him polling that showed that voters overwhelmingly preferred to keep containment measures in place over sending people back to work prematurely.

Those two realities — the dire threat to the country and the caution of the American public — proved decisive at a critical juncture in the response to the pandemic, his advisers said. The first of those two realities, the deadly arc of the virus, has been known for weeks even if disregarded by the president when he set his Easter target. But the second of the two upended Mr. Trump’s assumptions about the politics of the situation and restrained, for a moment at least, his eagerness to get back to business as usual.

The president’s reversal may prove to be an important pivot point in the effort to curb the pandemic, one that in the view of public health officials averted a greater catastrophe.

Right now Trump needs Fauci and Birx to provide some credibility to his public health policies. But how long before he turns on them? Former Assistant Director for Counterintelligence at the FBI Frank Figliuzzi has some advice for them at Vanity Fair: Hostage Survival Tips for Drs. Fauci and Birx.

Kidnappers can quickly come to regret taking hostages because, quite honestly, their care and feeding becomes almost unbearable. That’s when some hostages find themselves dumped alongside a road or come to an even worse fate. So, you must avoid upsetting the president to the point that he neutralizes you. You’ve already had success in convincing the president to back off the indefensible assertion that the nation can return to normal on Easter Sunday. Dr. Fauci, your minimizing of Trump’s nonsensical notion as simply “aspirational” was masterful in that it helped him to save face and to view you as less of a threat. Bravo. Similarly, Dr. Birx’s praise of the president as “attentive to the scientific literature and the details and the data” may have stroked the president’s planet-sized ego to buy you some time.

Photo of Egon Schiele on his deathbed.

Second, hostage negotiators must prepare for the abductor’s initial ransom call. Maybe that’s already happened. Maybe that first demand was to reopen the economy by Easter. If so, you handled it well. But more demands are coming. In fact, expect to see that first demand repeated. That’s why successful negotiators select a primary communicator to engage the captor. Two physicians coming at the president at once won’t work. The communicator must present a previously agreed upon message but maintain limited authority. In other words, let’s say you select Dr. Birx (the president seems to view her as less of a threat). Dr. Birx should already secretly know what Dr. Fauci’s position on things is, but when negotiating with the president, should always say, “Let me make sure we have Dr. Fauci’s opinion,” or, “I’ll have to get back to you after I consult the team.” This allows for the negotiator to establish a requirement for what hostage negotiators call a reasonable delay. In life or death hostage crises, reasonable delays can make the difference between the abductor doing something rash and emotional, or doing the right thing.

Third, a real hostage communicator is never a debater but more of an influencer and persuader. Hostage communicators maintain some control by scheduling set times to speak with the abductor. This also allows them to develop their objectives and rehearse responses with their larger team. Hostage negotiators work from a quiet, tucked away negotiation operations center. They plot out anticipated demands and scripted responses on white boards around the room. They have a plan even when the captor doesn’t. Got it? Drs. Fauci and Birx, we need you to have a plan. Our survival may depend on your survival. In a sense, we’re all being held hostage, and you are negotiating for our safe release. Hostages sometimes develop Stockholm syndrome when they start identifying with their captor and his causes as a survival mechanism. Don’t let that happen to you. Don’t let that happen to us.

Edvard Munch, The Smell of Death

Links to more Reads:

Must Read at Vox: Trump is mishandling coronavirus the way Reagan botched the AIDS epidemic.

The Washington Post: The National Security Council sounded early alarms about the coronavirus.

The New York Times: The Medical News Site That Saw the Coronavirus Coming Months Ago.

The New York Times: They Survived the Spanish Flu, the Depression and the Holocaust.

Jewish Journal: 101-Year-Old Holocaust And Spanish Flu Survivor Just Beat COVID-19.

The Local: Italian 101-year-old leaves hospital after recovering from coronavirus.

The New York Times: For Autocrats, and Others, Coronavirus Is a Chance to Grab Even More Power.

ProPublica: He Was Ordered to Self-Isolate. He Didn’t. Now He’s Facing Criminal Charges.

The Guardian: Astrophysicist gets magnets stuck up nose while inventing coronavirus device.

The Daily Beast: Rodney Howard-Browne, Megachurch Pastor Who Flouted Virus Rules, Arrested.


34 Comments on “Terrible Tuesday Reads: Illness, Death, and Art”

  1. bostonboomer says:

    Greg Gonsalves was an AIDs activist in the ’80s and is now a Yale researcher and epidemiologist. He was interviewed in the must read article at Vox listed in my post.

    • dakinikat says:

      • NW Luna says:

        Hope we get this soon.

      • palhart says:

        The Mayo Clinic gained my attention and respect when I was researching hip replacement, arthritis, and a myriad of other health conditions and problems. I’m not surprised they on working on such a test.

  2. dakinikat says:

    I’ve never seen that Klimt at the top … it’s really compelling and I understand immediately where he’s coming from. Beautiful art work!

  3. dakinikat says:

  4. dakinikat says:

  5. palhart says:

    Thanks, bb, for some great reads that give me hope. I can cope with the future better if I’m told the truth. Helen Branswell, at STAT, writes that it will not be over soon and the passage will be very painful, but we will get through it.

    • bostonboomer says:

      You’re welcome. I was afraid it might be too depressing, but I was fascinating by those paintings.

      • NW Luna says:

        I feel there is something therapeutic in looking at the reality of illness and death. Recognize the condition, acknowledge it, investigate one’s responses to it, and realize also that it’s not something unique to one as an individual. Great art can help us look at things in a different way.

    • NW Luna says:

      From Nicholas Kristof:

      A Poem for our Time

      This is a lovely poem by John Donne that I first encountered as a teenager reading Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” The poem has to do with the old practice of ringing the village church bells when someone dies.

      No man is an island entire of itself; every man

      is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

      if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

      is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

      well as any manner of thy friends or of thine

      own were; any man’s death diminishes me,

      because I am involved in mankind.

      And therefore never send to know for whom

      the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

  6. bostonboomer says:

    • NW Luna says:

      The labeling is still right way up. It could just mean he wasn’t paying attention, and we know he rarely pays attention to anything but himself. Not sure we can read anything more into it.

      You’d think they would have rehearsed him, but he’s so used to everything being done for him that he doesn’t care.

      • quixote says:

        That’s the same appearance where subsequently he was carefully positioning the machine so it lined up with the package.

        He’s very clued in to how things are going to look on TV.

        For all we know, he had it wrong way up on purpose, because in his tiny mind it looked better that way. The concept of noticing which way was up is generally foreign to him.

  7. dakinikat says:

    Well, we’re heading up that asymptotic rise …

  8. bostonboomer says:

    Latest numbers for Massachusetts:

    State public health officials reported Tuesday that the death toll of the coronavirus in Massachusetts had increased from 56 the day before to 89.

    The number of positive cases rose by 868 to 6,620, with nearly 47,000 people tested to date.

    One death and 19 confirmed cases now in my little town.

    • roofingbird says:

      I was looking for MA. today in the .gov list and couldn’t find it.

      • NW Luna says:

        I could see MA on this site: https://covid19.healthdata.org/projections
        Or were you looking for something else?

      • bostonboomer says:

        The state posts it every day at 4PM on the public health site. I usually get it from my local Patch. I would like to read the Globe, but as far as I know they are still charging more than $27 a month for subscriptions.

        • bostonboomer says:

          It is getting really bad in Indianapolis now. That’s where my Mom’s assisted living facility is. They are not allowing any visitors and residents are eating meals in their rooms now.
          I’m really worried about her getting isolated. She is going to be 95 in June. I want her to die peacefully of natural causes, not from a pandemic that Trump could have contained if he gave a shit about anyone other than himself.

          • quixote says:

            Oh, bb, what an awful worry to have. My heart goes out to you.

            And this: “a pandemic that Trump could have contained if he gave a shit about anyone other than himself.” Exactly.

          • roofingbird says:

            You’ve done your best, I know, to get a good spot for her and to stay in contact. Is the facility offering any suggestions?

  9. bostonboomer says:

    • bostonboomer says:

      • palhart says:

        I would inspect those Putin supplies very, very carefully for the virus because, you’ll remember, if Putin says he didn’t contaminate the supplies (masks), Trump will have no reason not to believe him.

        • NW Luna says:

          Beware of Russians bringing gifts. I’m remembering something about the Greeks and a horse.

  10. palhart says:

    Did I hear what Pence just said correctly? He called Medicaid recipients, or those eligible for it, “unprivileged.” You can be sure this administration won’t adequately help the poor needing healthcare. They’ve refused to extend AHC enrollment.