Ops, I did it again! Instead of taking care of pure art, giving voice to the characters of my stories who love to go out, of writing some nice psycho-curious pieces, I’m still here. I let myself be dragged by the topic that fills everyone’s voices and eyes. But, you know, we must write about what is trendy. So let’s talk about disease. We are talking about virus and art, a pandemic, masks, quarantine. But with The Blue Drop manner.
With the blue drop of ink and colour.
We write about how and why the sickness has been represented; it was as a figurative element, like landscapes, still lifes, kings and saints. And we write about how it was portrayed, in various ways and with various objectives.
Disease is part of man and his history, it has always been there. Art follows man in a slavish way, the things he does and its historical and cultural evolution. Furthermore, man uses art to show, to illustrate, to explain. And to support religious devotion, of all ages. This for a long time, until the eighteenth century, more or less. Only later – and gradually – was it possible to witness a use of art that was also intimate and endowed with a personal sensitivity. A sensitivity from the artist himself, who could show sadness or contrition in the face of issues such as illness.
Free associations closer to the sickness concepts are
the ugliness, the repulsion and disgust
Those things exist even before death. A disease can deform the body and make it putrid and crudescent, even before kill it. It triggers repulsion and fear in the imagination. This, according to Karl Rosenkranz’s Aesthetics of the Ugly of 1853. All this provided the artists with adequate material to perform their works.
Illness moves away because it changes the beauty and the order of a body. This is not good for immediate perception. For this reason, the sick – zombies, carnivores and madmen are often the main topic for a horror movie.
But what were the intentions to paint the disease, instead of a beautiful ethereal and sweet young girl in the role of a Virgin?
Starting with, completely ignoring the topic means ignoring the human being. It means distort completely the natural condition, in which man is made up of beautiful words and good deeds, high feelings and incredible intelligence (often, but not always); but man is also dandruff, bad smell, blood, hair, intestinal waste and sperm. And diseases. So let’s talk about it, because it’s still about talking about art. Virus and art
The first thing to do is to understand which were the real intentions behind the choice of illnes as subjects. Even when the topic were different. In this first phase the macro-categories in which to divide the topic are mainly three:
First of all, based on what we have said so far, there must be a very strong demonstrative and documentative intent. Representing life and epidemics in their development.
Then, of course, there will be the production for academic and study purposes: medical manuals, biological treatises, anatomy tables: real masterpieces, detailed and taken from reality.
Finally, one of the most powerful engines ever: religion. Using the plagues and pustules to represent episodes from the Bible and from the Gospel (Jesus and the leper, 10 plagues of Egypt, resurrection of Lazarus, etc.). When, on the other hand, there was no episode in particular, but something “conceptual” wanted to be represented, the disease was as warning: a way of representing the consequences of the corrupt way, not in the word of God. In fact, leprosy was made popular during the crusades, and labeled as a disease of non-Christians. Then if everyone took it indiscriminately, that’s another story…
To summarise: sicnkess in art was used primary for
- Religious histories and warning
- Chronicle representation
This in particular happened because: because behind the art, the beauty of painting and sculpture, there was and should have been a utility. Few people made a painting just for their own personal pleasure, especially because art was still a profession. Selling art meant being chosen and commissioned and following its taste and current trends was very important. Even if it was about representing pustules and images of hospitals. Always to say that “art is the daughter of its time” (never was a truer phrase, thanks Kandinsky!).
We speak about virus and art. With The Blue Drop manner.
In a 16th century German engraving showing the fact that a hospital was a resting place used to treat the sick but also to provide a place of accommodation for the dead or those who were about to do so. From the Middle Ages onwards, hospitals changed roles during epidemics, isolating the sick from the healthy. In the engraving we can see very clearly the various functions such as the transport of corpses, the blessings of the dying, the transport of new arrivals, the burials. In short, there was a function intended for the conclusion, rather than a real intent to cure. And the artists documented its reality.
Speaking of warning and religious connections, in more ancient times -before the great outbreak of syphilis and tuberculosis- the preferred diseases in this case were: leprosy, plague, and various types of skin rashes including the Shingles (not surprisingly also called Satan’s Flames).
In the Bible the term “leprosy” actually referred to 72 different skin diseases; it is not always clear what was being talked about. There is, however, a discrepancy between the view of these infirmities between the Old and New Testaments.
In the Old Testament, leprosy and other eczema were a clear divine sign that caught those who did not respect Jewish law and offended God; lepers were kept at a distance to avoid physical but also spiritual and social contagion and there was no cure. The lepers, the sick and the sterile women were the most fatal things in society and had to be removed. In the New Testament, with the figure of Christ, these diseases pass from a severe divine punishment without escape, to an opportunity to redeem oneself by embracing the figure of Christ. Jesus treats lepers, the mentally ill, the paralyzed and raises the dead, making diseases an antagonist of history before which he stands giving hope. Illness, even in the way of being represented when depicting the stories of the New Testament, loses its inexorable theatrical efficacy and becomes a detail of the story, which will be followed by a happy ending.
However, the Master’s actions remain his exclusive and this is true both in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance and beyond. Both in a mosaic like that of Visoki Decani in Serbia of the fourteenth century, and in other scenes. In one of the frescoes of 1428 painted (among others) by Cosimo Rosselli in the room of the Sistine Chapel, the figure of the leper is represented in a very sweetened way, as the true center of attention is not he. The ultimate and final goal of the pictorial cycle was, in fact, the exaltation of Papal power and the cultural supremacy of the State of the Church over Medici Florence. The leper is a little colorful detail, with the exception of the pose, kneeling with his hands clasped, like a devout Christian who reunited with Mother Church.
This could have been a use of the disease with narrative and devotional intent. But in addition to explaining, narrating and exalting every aspect of devotion as an instrument of salvation, the effect that derived from it on the public was not particularly strong. It’s possible to admire its abundance of details, the structure of the scene – which recalled the late Gothic and the details of the landscape.
(Vasari, later on, writing about them and he talked about the weakness of temper in the strength of the drawing. Of course, with Michelangelo’s ceiling overhead, it shouldn’t have been an easy clash …)
Speaking also about the respectful Christian decor, it was still not good to reinforce the aesthetics of a rotting skin: it would have been unseemly and not useful for the purpose.
In addition to the devotional intent, there was a more “spectacular” intent, which struck the spectator’s heart and transmitted true feeling to the stomach, disease and death were ideal means. It also depended on the type of artist and how much he was allowed to elevate his interpretation in spite of clients and buyers. A very eloquent example is Matthias Grünewald:
In his spectacular and delusional work “Saint Anthony’s Tentations“, painted between 1512 and 1518, Matthias transforms the scene of a hermit saint in the desert and tempted by various aspects of the evil one, into a sort of demonic sabbath. The Saint is dragged from many parts of the body and the dress, with an expression between the amused and the non-lucid. Strange beasts and monsters, more noisy than threatening, anticipate a surrealist scene (Dalì type) and the details, although difficult to see, solidify an environmental construction of an unconscious landscape: the monsters are in truth the fears of the saint: among the most scary things he can fear, his humanity is the most terrifying. His being able to yield to unrestrainedness, licentiousness, laziness, the decay of the physical. First of all he is a man and men get sick.
In the lower left corner, a patient with pustules who is afflicted with his own pain is very clearly represented. It could be plague or fire of Saint Anthony (fitting, given the devotion of the Saint against this evil in particular). The swollen belly, the shiny coats, the skeletal arms. A way of representing disease as a real, physical bogey directly aimed at people, even saints. Nothing mentioned or “hieratic”, but raw reality of the flesh in a dreamlike and twisted world.
This intrigues us if we observe two further details: the patient wears a red hood, like a monk. But behind the back and on the feet appear, without too much shyness, demon wings and animal claws. It is a deception: if Saint Anthony wanted to let himself go to compassion and bend over to help him, he would find himself tempted. The difference is that the other monsters are there in plain sight, they belong to a fantastic and studied bestiary, they have their own clarity and the Saint can recognize them and resist. Grünewald chooses to show the treacherous as the most needy, precisely because of the communicative power that disease has on its protagonist. Had he been an ordinary man, he would have rejected him; but a saint lets himself be pityed by his pleading and pathetic appearance, while the friar’s cap reassures him.
In the opposite corner of the patient, the right one of the work, there is a scroll with the words “Good Jesus, where were you, why didn’t you come to heal my wounds?
Therefore, the sick demon is also given a voice, like a sentence in a comic baloon: unlike other temptations, this is also offered a voice that begs to be helped. Voice of disease has a double truth:
- the deceit, towards the unfortunate Saint who must act as an intermediary for the request, risking falling into the trap
- the truth of a truly sick person who, in addition to infirmity, must fight with the occlusion by others towards him who distance him by comparing him to a monster (hence the attributes of wings and legs).
We will see in the next chapter – but we have already met him in the previous article – how disease can be, mask, symbol and allegory.
The value that the disease has here is: far from mentioned, it is not chronicle and has no scientific intent. Devotional, in part; warning … well: a surreal warning, with a fairytale narrative, capable of frightening individuals of limited culture and enchanting those of high culture. A metaphysical scene that triggers reflection, more than devotion and teases the imagination and free interpretation. The disease here is also a mask. In fact, the scene has something theatrical, set like a stage, with bright colors.
With this last journey into supernatural infirmity – of which Grünewald was certainly a master, given his attitude to show more expression, symbolic detail and raw physicality – we temporarily stop here our journey on disease in art, who still has many things to reveal .. Second Part after Easter!
This post is also available in: Italian