A recent buzz on social media brought to light the pandemics of the past that were severe and worse in terms of the morbidity. It was a response to people expressing discomfort regarding the lockdown situation. On further research one might find that the Bubonic plague (14th cent) (also called Black Death) and Spanish influenza (1918-19) were particularly tremendously devastating.
World War l had left people in grave despair and the effects were observed in mental traumas which lead to studies in psychology. The year it ended was the beginning of the Spanish flu (1918-19) where hope was lost and uncertainty had no end.
One way of reading history is through the visual arts that indeed express the social situations it is produced in. Egon Schiele’s sketches of Gustav Klimt and Edith Scheile on their dead beds in February and October 1918 respectively can be read in the light of the same.
Egon Schiele (1890-1918) produced hundreds of portraits in the most striking poses. He employed a style that greatly departed from the popular decorative ornamentation, his lines and edgy contours along with the patchiness of bold colours create an atmosphere of anxiety. The bony confronting figures, bent elbows, hollow stomach, stark contour, bulged muscles also reveal the clenching intensity of the body.
Gustav Klimt on his deathbed (1918) shows his eyes closed and hollow, assertive lines contour his jutting cheek bones, and thin, sparse hair. He made a conscious choice to pen only the plain disease ridden face of his mentor, the expression in all its honesty. His experience of keen observation is reflected in the portrait that can be inferred devoid of its title.
Schiele’s books were full of Edith’s sketches as she followed him through his military service since 1915, until he was posted in Vienna. The drawing of Edith shows her weak head supported by her scrawny fingers, eyes only half open looking sombrely right at Schiele as he attempts to capture the ephemeral moment. If one is well informed about art history, Claude Monet’s painting of Camille, his wife, on her deathbed comes to mind who is said to have noted, “I one day found myself looking at my beloved wife’s dead face and just systematically noting the colours, according to an automatic reflex.” It has been a practice to study the human body for prompt anatomical study. It is here that we notice the artistic impulse and as a practice it is embedded in its being.
Schiele was involved in his portraits with zeal to express. Edith’s portrait and a letter about her passing were the last pieces of expression before he too passed, three days after his wife. Schiele’s portraits demand history to be acknowledged, the crises of 1918. He does so by leaving these portraits of confrontation, through the weight of personal loss. We reflect on the artist’ reliance on his medium to express and its potential to illustrate history.