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.

 


Thursday Reads: “They Are Not That Smart.”

Michelle Obama speaks at The Royal Festival Hall on December 3 in London. Jack Taylor, Getty

Good Morning!!

The title of this post is a quote from Michelle Obama. In an interview in London, Obama discussed “impostor syndrome,” that feeling many women struggle with that we are undeserving of success. From Newsweek:

The former first lady opened up about how the struggle with self-doubt “never goes away,” during a sold-out talk with Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in London, which drew lines of tens of thousands of people.

Asked at the event how Obama felt about being seen as a “symbol of hope,” she said: “I still have a little imposter syndrome, it never goes away, that you’re actually listening to me,” according to the BBC.

“It doesn’t go away, that feeling that you shouldn’t take me that seriously. What do I know? I share that with you because we all have doubts in our abilities, about our power and what that power is.”

“If I’m giving people hope then that is a responsibility, so I have to make sure that I am accountable,” Obama said.

But here’s the quote I just loved:

Obama offered a “secret” to young women everywhere: “I have been at probably every powerful table that you can think of, I have worked at nonprofits, I have been at foundations, I have worked in corporations, served on corporate boards, I have been at G-summits, I have sat in at the U.N.: They are not that smart.”

It’s so true. And as long as mediocre white men are promoted over smarter and more experienced women, we will continue to be ruled by people who “are not that smart.”

You only need to look at the 2016 election, in which Hillary Clinton–a brilliant, experienced woman–was constantly denigrated in favor of two barely mediocre white men, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. And now that an ignorant, corrupt white man is “president,” that Hillary is repeatedly told to shut up and sit down, while mediocre, old white men like Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden–who have already failed in primary races–are promoted by the media.

I’ve avoided day-time cable news this week so I didn’t have to listen to the endless, over-the-top praise of the late George H.W. Bush. But I have to admit that Bush at least knew how to behave like a human being, unlike the current resident of the White House.

Trump attended Bush’s funeral, but he didn’t seem comfortable. Still he is being praised in some quarters for not making a complete fool of himself. Apparently he has been unhappy about having to go through an entire week when the media focus wasn’t on him. The New York Times reports:

Mr. Trump has been snappish with aides most of the week, according to administration officials, miffed in part by so many ceremonial events not related to him. He was impatient for the memorials to end but expressed pride in himself for remaining publicly civil. People close to the president called it a course correction after his peevish reaction to Mr. McCain’s death.

What a pathetic asshole. He did the bare minimum, didn’t sing hymns or recite the Apostle’s Creed, and was the only person in the room who didn’t put his hand over his heart when the coffin was carried out.

At The Washington Post, Rick Wilson writes that George W. Bush’s invitation to Trump to attend the funeral prevented the asshole from ruining the solemn event.

By insisting on his successor’s inclusion in the proceedings, Bush forced the current White House occupant to briefly abandon his unfrozen cave-man act, denying him the chance to further debase the office of president by siphoning the dignity out of 41’s final hours in D.C. — something 45 likely would have relished, given the opportunity.

We’ll still be hearing about Poppy Bush for a couple more days because there is going to be another funeral in Texas today.

Mike Pence didn’t look too happy at the funeral yesterday either. Maybe this is why.

Gabriel Sherman at Vanity Fair: “They’re Beginning to Think About Whether Mike Pence Should Be Running Again.” As the Mueller Fire Nears, Trump Ponders Jettisoning His Loyal V.P.

On Monday, Trump hosted a 2020 strategy meeting with a group of advisers. Among the topics discussed was whether Mike Pence should remain on the ticket, given the hurricane-force political headwinds Trump will face, as demonstrated by the midterms, a source briefed on the session told me. “They’re beginning to think about whether Mike Pence should be running again,” the source said, adding that the advisers presented Trump with new polling that shows Pence doesn’t expand Trump’s coalition. “He doesn’t detract from it, but he doesn’t add anything either,” the source said. Last month, The New York Times reported that Trump had been privately asking advisers if Pence could be trusted, and that outside advisers have been pushing Nikki Haley to replace Pence. One veteran of Trump’s 2016 campaign who’s still advising Trump told me the president hasn’t been focused enough on 2020. “What he needs to do is consider his team for 2020 and make sure it’s in place,” the adviser said. “He has to have people on his team that are loyal to his agenda.”

Trump’s doubts about Pence are surprising given Pence’s frequent public encomiums and professions of loyalty. “Trump waxes and wanes on everyone,” a prominent Republican close to the White House explained. Part of what’s driving the debate over Pence’s political value is Trump’s stalled search for a chief of staff to replace John Kelly. According to a source, Kelly has recently been telling Trump that Pence doesn’t help him politically. The theory is that Kelly is unhappy that Pence’s 36-year-old chief of staff, Nick Ayers, has been openly campaigning for Kelly’s job. “Kelly has started to get more political and he’s whispering to Trump that Trump needs a running mate who can help him more politically,” the source said. (The White House did not respond to a request for comment.)

I wonder how Evangelical voters would feel about pious Pence getting dumped?

There has been lots of Russia investigation news this week despite the wall-to-wall coverage of Bush’s passing. Some stories to check out:

David Ignatius at The Washington Post: Michael Flynn appears to have come full circle.

The Trump campaign warrior of 2016 who led chants of “lock her up” deriding Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, and then lied to the FBI after President Trump’s inauguration about his secret contacts with Russia, once again became an “exemplary” figure whose example, Mueller says, encouraged others to do the right thing.

“The defendant deserves credit for accepting responsibility in a timely fashion and substantially assisting the government,” writes Mueller in the sentencing memo. Mueller praises Flynn’s “early cooperation” as a spur to others. “The defendant’s decision to plead guilty and cooperate likely affected the decisions of related firsthand witnesses to be forthcoming [with the special counsel’s office] and cooperate,” the memo notes.

This denouement, in which Flynn is once again on the side of law enforcement and truth-telling, is fascinating to me as someone who followed his career for more than a decade and remembers hearing his blisteringly honest briefings as a combat intelligence commander in Afghanistan. Flynn became disoriented during his years in Trump’s orbit, but the sentencing memo suggests that he recovered his balance and sense of duty after Mueller began his investigation.

There’s a bizarre irony here. Trump pleaded with James B. Comey, the FBI director at the time the investigation of Flynn began, to consider “letting this go.” That was a grossly improper attempt to interfere with the investigation and prosecution of Flynn’s false statements. How strange that it was Mueller, in the end, who decided in effect to “let this go” by recommending no jail time, after the investigation had run its course and Flynn had pleaded guilty and cooperated.

Frank Figliuzzi

Did Michael Flynn wear a wire for Mueller? MSNBC counterintelligence expert Frank Figliuzzi suggested as much yesterday. Hill Reporter.com:

MSNBC’s Morning Joe called on Frank Figluzzi to come in and help explain the memo. Figliuzzi was formerly an Assistant Director for Counterintelligence at the FBI and is familiar with Robert Mueller’s methods.

He began the segment by explaining that the extensive redactions meant that the info inside was sensitive. After stating that redactions are out of character for Mueller, Figluzzi said, “We saw lots of redaction. You do that in the FBI either when you have classified information or you are at such a sensitivity level that you cannot expose it.”

Figluzzi also felt the light sentence and amount of redactions meant the investigation was aiming for convictions at the highest levels. He continued, “I think, in fact, that underneath these redactions, if we were to lift these black magic marker points out, we would see people with the last name Trump or Kushner.”

Finally, Figluzzi ended the segment with a bombshell suggestion; Flynn may have worn a wire. He told the panel, “We see reference here to quick cooperation by Flynn. What does that mean? Did it happen in what we call the golden hour, where you could even wire somebody up and have him share communications in real time?”

At The Guardian, Marcia Chambers and Charles Kaiser made the same suggestion.

The least-noticed sentence in Michael Flynn’s plea agreement with special counsel Robert Mueller may also be the most important one.

Section eight of the deal reached by Donald Trump’s former national security adviser in the inquiry into Russian meddling in the US election is entitled “cooperation”. It specifies that as well as answering questions and submitting to government-administered polygraph tests, Flynn’s cooperation “may include … participating in covert law enforcement activities”.

Long-time students of federal law enforcement practices agreed, speaking anonymously, that “covert law enforcement activities” likely refers to the possibility of wearing a concealed wire or recording telephone conversations with other potential suspects. It is not known whether Flynn has worn a wire at any time.

“If the other subjects of investigation have had any conversations with Flynn during the last few months, that phrase must have all of them shaking in their boots,” said John Flannery, a former federal prosecutor in the southern district of New York.

“The one who must be particularly terrified is [Trump son-in-law and adviser] Jared Kushner, if he spoke to the special counsel’s office without immunity about the very matter that is the subject of Flynn’s plea. I think he must be paralyzed if he talked to Flynn before or after the investigators debriefed him.”

More Russia reads, links only:

Garrett M. Graff at Wired: 14 Questions Robert Mueller Knows the Answers To.

Vox: The Mueller investigation has gotten closer to Donald Trump.

Renato Mariotti at Time: Don’t Expect Mueller to Charge a Grand Conspiracy.

The Atlantic: The White House Has No Plan for Confronting the Mueller Report.

Betsy Woodruff at The Daily Beast: Senate Intelligence Committee Grilled Steve Bannon About Cambridge Analytica.

What else is happening? What stories are you following today?