Friday, March 27, 2020

PLAGUE ART, part 1

Stanley Meltzoff painted this excellent image of the plague in Athens for Life Magazine in 1963.

Was there ever a plague with a greater cultural impact in all of history?

In the fourth century BC, Athens was busy inventing western civilization.  It was in the middle of creating the foundation for philosophy, science, art and politics when it was interrupted by the plague.

The plague in Athens by a Neapolitan artist
 A century earlier, the Greeks had the great epiphany to tie mathematics to reality and fashion an objective science that would alter the relationship between humanity and the world.  As one historian noted, this inflection point was
the point of departure, where it was decided which direction the road will take.  Before that decision, the future orientation of Greco-European civilization was still undecided: it may have taken the direction of the Chinese, or the Indian, or pre-Columbian cultures, all of which were still equally unshaped and undecided at the time of the great sixth-century dawn.
With that choice behind them, Athens blossomed into its golden age, with the great Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Archimedes, Pericles, Sophocles-- and an array of brilliant innovators the like of which the world had never seen.

Who knows where Athens might've gone if the plague hadn't intervened? Devastated by the plague, Athens lost the Peloponnesian War.The plague wiped out Pericles (whom historian Rufus Fears called one of the three greatest democratic statesmen in the history of the world) along with 1/3 of the Athenian population.  Thucydides wrote, "the catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law.” The trajectory of Athens was altered by panic, disintegration and military defeat; great minds such as Plato's took a turn toward the authoritarian.  Concepts such as "honor" assumed a different meaning in a society where life was so perilous and unpredictable that reputation no longer mattered.

Thousands of years later, we are still poorer for what the plague did to Athens.

How can art possibly capture the character and magnitude of that loss?  In this 1652 painting of the Athenian plague, artist Michiel Sweerts attempted to use the tools of realism to convey the horror.  

The Plague in Athens by Michiel Sweerts
Despite Sweert's obvious technical skill and attention to detail, I find this painting a sterile and unsuccessful effort.  Over the next few days I'd like to discuss better attempts to use art to react to the plague.


Anonymous said...

When you look at painted tableaus , depicting anything , in the worst efforts you can see the posed model - or staged photo effect . The Meltzoff piece has a little of that feel , the last one by Sweert really has it . I feel it often boils down to bad acting by the models . Modern worst case , Boris's numbskull bodybuilder models vacantly staring at nothing relating to the environment they occupy , vs Frazetta - at his best - where there is a real unposed feeling . Rockwell would go out of his way with his models to not pose , but to really method act their way past inhibition , to have a genuine state of being which he would then expand off of . Same with Avati .

Depicting a mass figure event convincingly is one of the hardest challenges for any artist.

Al McLuckie

António Araújo said...

Hi David,

>Athens blossomed into its golden age, with the great Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, >Archimedes, Pericles, Sophocles

Maybe I misunderstand you, but this makes it seem as if they were all there in Athens and in the age of Pericles, or at least close to it, but, I mean, Euclid is somewhere from 50 to 100 years down the line and in Alexandria under Ptolemy! That's after the partition of Alexander's conquests!...and there is no Alexander without the decline of Athens. And Archimedes?! That's 287-212 BC! And in Syracuse! That's like a whole different world (and one about to fall to the Romans already). These two might as well be attributed to Athens fall as to the influence of its better days.

Sorry to be a bother, but I have a problem with the habit of dumping centuries and whole whole countries into the bag called "The Greeks", or worse, "The Athenians". It just makes everything confusing.

Also, you can't really say they lost the war to the plague. That's was right at the start, when Pericles was refusing to fight the Spartans, hoping to wear them out to a settlement (I admire Pericles but he did a shit job there). Then you get the victories of Cleon (the Trump of the age :D), and the peace of Nicias, and then the second part of the war, that's years and years. It would be closer to the truth to say that Athens went to die in Syracuse than to the plague (I blame Nicias completely - not until Elphinstone in the first anglo-afghan war can you find a parallel to this complete screw-up), and even that would be simplifying, because still they might have won after that, had they listened to Alcibiades. By the way, had they won at Syracuse, you probably wouldn't have an Archimedes *of Syracuse*. :)

Ideas are pretty resilient, and they managed to move around pretty well. I do agree that the Athenians of that age are a huge part of what came next, but what died there was not so much the intelectual development as their fundamental political idea of democracy, a project so radical that, for good or ill, we never recovered it (to the point that we now use the word to mean something entirely different, much closer to the roman republic than to the athenian model - the founding fathers of your country had the roman model very much in mind and hated the athenian democracy even more than the english monarchy, but at least they knew the difference, which is more than can be said for most of us moderns).

Anyway, sorry for the rant. Thanks for all the pictures and posts, I've been appreciating it in lurking mode for lack of time to do anything more.

All the best

António Araújo said...

>50 to 100 years
Sorry, 100 to 150 years


xopxe said...

Check this one:

"An episode of the Yellow Fever", Juan Manuel Blanes - 1871

chris bennett said...

I take your point David, but using our current pandemic as some sort of guide, the experience feels and looks a lot more like the last picture than the first.
So this begs the question: what aspect of the theme 'The Plauge' is being depicted?
I grant that the last picture's sense of torpur and melancholic stasis may be a result of aesthetic misgudgement or inability, but the first picture's melodramatic posturing is, for me, inauthentic to the overarching mood of the plauge experience.

chris bennett said...


Thanks for posting this. But like so many Victorian social realist and moralising pictures this has the same self conscious artifice that bedevils those photos of amateur actors posing a scene for the publicity of their local theatre production.

David Apatoff said...

Al McLuckie-- You raise an interesting series of issues. Whether the "bad acting" is by the model or the artist remains an open question. Rockwell took an active role coaching his models, especially the kids, and there are many hilarious photos of him showing the facial expressions he wanted, trying to get them to raise their eyebrows even higher. (Then there is the time he wanted a baby to cry but it was too happy, so the mother took out her hat pin and jabbed her own baby.). I couldn't agree with you more about Boris. I think Meltzoff was cultured enough so that he truly felt the tragedy of the disaster in Athens, and his choice of icons (such as the black bird of prey) were heartfelt. The model for the nude girl in the lower right hand corner was Meltzoff's own daughter, who reluctantly posed at his insistence. There's a lot of complexity going on there.

Your point that "Depicting a mass figure event convincingly is one of the hardest challenges for any artist." is going to be a central themes of this series-- especially when the scale of the subject matter is not just the number of figures, but also the momentous significance of the event. There are many paintings of great military battles with hundreds of figures-- rows of small dots for heads disappearing into the distance-- but how do you convey the tragedy of a cultural promise unfulfilled?

António Araújo-- Thanks for writing, it sounds like you've got some real familiarity with this subject. You may be just the person I'm looking for-- all "rants" welcome.

I didn't mean to suggest that each of these epic figures had adjacent rooms in some Athenian boarding house. Such massive cultural shifts don't begin and end with one generation; if Socrates hadn't led to Plato, who in turn led to Aristotle, then Socrates would've been a sterile figure indeed.

But on a per capita basis, it's hard to think of a cultural pinnacle greater than the Athenian polis. That tiny place spawned such giants of art, science, literature and politics that for a thousand years their successors assumed humanity was in decline from that high point. Even the omnipotent Romans looked up to the Athenian culture. But of course the culture didn't come to an abrupt halt at the Athenian walls. Boundaries came and went in those days, and many of these geniuses arose on adjacent Greek islands or cities. Koestler would have us believe that it all started with Pythagoras of Samos, "whose influence on the ideas, and thereby on the destiny, of the human race was probably greater than that of any single man." His view was that Pythagoras was the founder of science as the word is understood today. And without the Greeks there would have been no Syracuse for Archimedes.

I agree with you that Pericles was not flawless, but there is only so much that brains and courage can accomplish. As I understand it, his decision to use the naval superiority of Athens to fight the Spartans was a good instinct. Who the heck would want to face the Spartans on the land? He thought the Athenians could defend against a land invasion by retreating to the walls of the city, and if not for the plague that struck the city his gamble may have paid off. The plague devastated Athens and Athens alone-- I think it's hard to overstate the impact of such an event on religious faith and on the courage of one's convictions.

xopxe said...

Chris, I posted this just as an example of approaches to depictions of plagues.
This is an interesting case for extra-painting reasons, in that we have the actual police report of the incident, and we know the name of the victims besides the two men pictured. And those men are a Lawyer and a Doctor who campaigned heavily against the epidemic, and actually both died from Yellow Fever shortly after the painting was completed. So i guess the painting was intended both as a portrait to present them in the best light possible, as usual, and as propaganda piece to raise awareness amongst the elites.
The high-culture here (Montevideo and Buenos Aires) at the time was heavily france-oriented, and the elites where rising quickly, and that defined the tastes of the time.

kev ferrara said...

Like war, plague has both immense magnitude and minute human import. Such a wide palette of scale challenges the ability to sum up in one picture the whole picture. This is a case, I would say, where bridging that scalar disjoint might require literature-like use of pictorial means.

The Imagist tradition, and its near cousin, Symbolism, I think, have the best shot, and have taken the best shots, at depicting the pathos of the human side of grand tragedies while also expressing the terrible scale of them.

Yet, the ones I would consider the best at expressing plague weren't specifically depicting plague. For example, Franz Von Stuck has a famous plague picture, but his Wild Hunt and Wild Chase images seem more expressive of the feeling of being enmeshed in mass panic.

Adolf Heremy Hirschl created a few 'Plague of Rome' pictures early on ('Sic Transit...'). But a number of his works that are not specifically about plague, seem to express plague better and with more artistry than his actual pictures about plague. For example: 'Camilla' about a vampiress, 'Ahasuerus at the End of the World', and 'Souls on the Banks of Acheron.'

António Araújo said...

(...) "it's hard to think of a cultural pinnacle greater than the Athenian polis. That tiny place spawned such giants of art, science, literature and politics"

Agreed. I just thought that that phrase as stated didn't do justice to what you were trying to say, the sentiment of which I have no problem agreeing with.

"His view was that Pythagoras was the founder of science as the word is understood today."

Can't really agree with that at first sight, would have to understand the statement better. Certainly can't agree if he means "natural science", and if we allow the chain of entailments to go too far then we aren't saying much. But the Pythagoreans (and there is, or there was -as my knowledge is very out of date and fragmented - some doubt of what they actually were and did) sure seem to have been instrumental in the development of mathematics, the servant of science, so maybe that's what is meant? They are responsible, supposedly, and supposedly much against their will, for the "greek divorce", the split between geometry and arithmetic, with the discovery that the integers (hence the rationals) were not enough to measure every geometric length. This rift was addressed by Euclid, this time attempting unification by starting from geometry (while the Pithagoreans would favor numbers as the unifying concept). We now assume the real number's existence in our most common axiomatics for Geometry, which is putting the cart before the horses. :) (although there are very good practical reasons to do it, and I agree with them, it really hurts my sense of history :))

>his decision to use the naval superiority of Athens to fight the Spartans was a good instinct.

Oh, that was correct. The problem was that he wasn't really using it. He left the Spartans come in and ruin the fields while doing only minor strikes against them with the navy. His idea was to let them come to the conclusion that the war as useless, but not striking hard so as not to provoque them further. The Spartans just ignored the hint, and meanwhile the whole population stuck behind the Athenian siege walls was a recipe for disaster.
I don't mean to diss on Pericles, who I deeply admire, but in this case he was wrong. The Spartans needed blunter statements on their thick heads. And the proof was that Cleon the Clown, in spite of Thucydides contempt for him, beat the Spartans quite thoroughly and quickly by not believing their hype, and not holding back. And even when Cleon screwed up he managed - through luck, it is true - to take the brilliant Brassidas with him, which is worth more than all of Pericle's contributions to this war and certainly those of the respectably careful and ultimately disastrous Nicias.

>it sounds like you've got some real familiarity with this subject. You may be just the person I'm looking for

Not really knowledgeable, but I really like the subject. I'll try to see your next posts. Sorry for writing in such a hurry and probalby almost illegibly but I am hounded by deadlines so this either goes out on first draft or i cannot write at all.
All the best

Uwalls said...

Hallo! Es war sehr interessant, diese Bilder mit der Krankheit Pest zu sehen. Besonders relevant während der Quarantänezeit :) Ehrlich gesagt erwies sich das allererste Bild als bemerkenswert für mich. Vielen Dank für Ihren Blog, Sie geben immer sehr interessante und vielseitige Informationen! Ich schätze Ihre Arbeit.

Anonymous said...

Kind of glad nobody commissioned Norman for a crying baby series !

Al McLuckie

David Apatoff said...

xopxe-- Thanks for the example, which I think is a better than example than the Sweerts painting of how unsatisfying a sharply representational painting of this subject can be. Precision and realism somehow seem less authentic. Your painting by Blanes could capture every detail of an actual incident, just as Sweerts could provide us with a catalog of actual Athenians at the time of the plague, but that doesn't seem to result in an accurate picture.

chris bennett-- I wonder if our current feelings of "torpor" and "stasis" are representative of most plague victims throughout history. Right now we've been told to stay at home and "wait out" the coronavirus, observing social distancing. But people in the path of previous plagues tended to be far more frantic and desperate. If your read Defoe's Journal of the Plague year or Samuel Pepys, people lived in dread. They took desperate jobs where they did desperate things. They flagellated themselves and attempted all kinds of human sacrifices and crazy cures which they hoped might appease the angry gods.

Kev Ferrara wrote: "The Imagist tradition, and its near cousin, Symbolism, I think, have the best shot, and have taken the best shots, at depicting the pathos of the human side of grand tragedies while also expressing the terrible scale of them."

Yes, I agree that both of those approaches can be preferable to what pure realism has to offer. One of the questions will be whether other approaches, such as expressionism, neo-expressionism, punk, etc. might be even better suited.

David Apatoff said...

António Araújo-- the argument about Pythagoras was that the Pythagorean brotherhood was the first example of reduction of quality to quantity. They started with music, noting that the pitch of a musical note is in direct mathematical correlation to the length of the string. This started the mathematization of experience on a higher level. Pythagoras and his brotherhood supposedly extrapolated from music to astronomy and then to the body and soul, seeking harmony of laws (armonia) and purification (katharsis). I'm not suggesting that Pythagoras produced full blown modern science; his theories produced some odd notions, such as the music of the spheres-- the musical hum of the planets in their orbits. But Koestler and others believed the concepts that levitated earthly inquiries to that level began the trajectory toward modern science.

Uwalls-- Vielen Dank. Ich freue mich über Ihre Lektüre und danke Ihnen für Ihren Kommentar.

António Araújo said...

Thanks David. That does fit with what little I know of the Pythagoreans, for whatever that's worth. :) I do agree with that argument if we mean "science" in that sense (the word is so often overloaded). You could say they were precursors of "psychophysics" in the sense of relating sensation (sound perception) with measurable stimuli. I would say Euclid's optics, much later, is the first proper attempt at an *axiomatic* psychophysics, in this case of visual shape perception, and in particular its ambiguities. You can see Euclid's optics as a psychophysical study in mimesis, in fact it seems to me that the much later discovery of linear perspective was a step back, in generality, from what he was trying to achieve, and which you can identify with a very general concept of conical anamorphosis without a preferred direction of view (which leads naturally, in turn, to spherical perspective). I'm writing a chapter about that (one of my looming deadlines), I'll send you a preview when it's done, if you don't mind a bit of maths.

All the best