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Spanish flu and the depiction of disease

The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 prompted few memorials of any kind. Writer Allison C Meier explores the scarce but significant creative expressions that give us an insight into the experience of flu and its consequences.

Words by Allison C Meieraverage reading time 7 minutes

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Photograph black ornate picture frame hung on a black wall. Inside the frame is a print of an oil painting by Egon Schiele titled, 'The Family'. It depicts  Schiele himself 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.

In 1918, Austrian artist Egon Schiele was at work on a painting of his family. 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.

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.

Her face is striking, but exhaustion and pain radiate from her narrowed eyes. The next day she was dead.

Despite the ravages on the global population by the Spanish flu – so called not because of its origins but due to Spain’s neutrality in the war, allowing for free reporting on its spread – there are few cultural expressions that tackle this loss. There are countless memorials to the dead of World War I, but more perished in this pandemic. As Laura Spinney wrote in the 2017 ‘Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World’, there “is no cenotaph, no monument in London, Moscow, or Washington, DC. The Spanish flu is remembered personally, not collectively”.

Schiele’s brief, prolific career engaged with an unconventional depiction of the body and its imperfections. Before his death on 31 October 1918 at the age of 28, he mourned his mentor and friend, the artist Gustav Klimt, the Austrian painter of luminous gilded works like ‘The Kiss’. Following a stroke and his own battle with influenza, Klimt had died that February in his mid-60s. Schiele sketched Klimt’s disease-decimated face, plainly rendering its distortions and hollows.

When Edith was on her deathbed, he captured her final hours in a haunting 27 October drawing. Her face is striking, but exhaustion and pain radiate from her narrowed eyes. The next day she was dead. Three days later, Egon followed.

Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt on his death bed, 1918

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

Elusive illustrations of flu

These portraits of what it was like to suffer the Spanish flu are rare. 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 with skeleton arm, 1895

Edvard Munch, Self-portrait with Skeleton Arm, 1895.

With a lack of public commemoration, grief and recovery from Spanish flu were often private. And if a person recovered, it was hard to articulate or visualise this journey. As Catherine Belling observes in ‘The Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918–1919: Perspectives from the Iberian Peninsula and the Americas’ (2014):

“The memories of influenza, it seems, are surreal, and to write them is seemingly to write nonsense or dreams or poetry. Perhaps this meant that even those who might vividly describe injuries to the body (like those caused by the war) would have found themselves incapable of representing to others the experience of having the flu.”

The turmoil of fever and its hallucinations, and the incredible pain and difficulty of breathing did not make for easy depiction or prose. The flu sapped away both mental and physical energy. And if one recovered, in the end, it was just the flu. Estimates of the death toll for the 1918–20 pandemic range between 20 and 100 million (an estimated 40 million were lost in World War I), yet with flu one did not die in the service of a great cause – one simply died.

Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu, 1919

Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu, 1919.

A dearth of words and memories

“English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache,” English author Virginia Woolf wrote in her 1926 essay ‘On Being Ill’. She considered the void of illness in the arts. “Novels, one would have thought, would have been devoted to influenza; epic poems to typhoid; odes to pneumonia, lyrics to toothache.”

Woolf had witnessed the Spanish flu’s impact first hand. She wrote in her diary on 20 October 1918: “We are... in the midst of a plague unmatched since The Black Death.” Later, in her 1925 book ‘Mrs Dalloway’, set in the aftermath of World War I, the lingering trauma of war meets a reminder of the illness that succeeded it, with Clarissa Dalloway having recently recovered from influenza.

“This late age of the world’s experience had bred in them all, all men and women, a well of tears,” she reflects. “Tears and sorrows; courage and endurance; a perfectly upright and stoical bearing.”

In Denver, Colorado, in October 1918, another writer was challenged with that endurance. Katherine Anne Porter fell ill and was so near death that the local newspaper had drafted her obituary and her family had planned her funeral. She recovered, and later infused her 1939 ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’ with that brush with death. This modernist novella features an autobiographical character named Miranda whose reality fractures through the disease. She portrays the relentless funerals and the widespread loss, although Miranda survives, remarking: “Death always leaves one singer to mourn.”

However, Porter’s is one of the very few literary narratives from survivors that sings of this death. There is an absence of memory for the Spanish flu, which is especially surprising when the arts were in such an experimental phase, modernism in the early 1900s having upended the visual and literary traditions of the past. Many in its communities died in the pandemic — Hungarian author Margit Kaffka, Portuguese painter Amadeo de Souza Cardoso, American painter Morton Livingston Schamberg, Slovenian writer Ivan Cankar, Czech painter Bohumil Kubišta — yet artistic responses were scarce.

Looking to the future

One reason was the euphoria of World War I’s end, which propelled a collective moving forward. A funeral for a leader in the Paris art scene was in fact interrupted by this postwar jubilation. Poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire had been sent home to Paris from the war after shrapnel pierced his helmet. The author, who had coined the terms Cubism and Surrealism, was still weak when the pandemic arrived, and he soon became ill, dying on 9 November, two days before Armistice Day.

The day of his burial started solemnly, his coffin departing Saint Thomas Aquinas Church and a procession of friends and family entering the street. Blaise Cendrars, a fellow poet and veteran, described what happened next:

“But as it reached the corner of Saint-Germain, the cortège was besieged by a crowd of noisy celebrants of the Armistice, men and women with arms waving, singing, dancing, kissing, shouting deliriously… It was fantastic, Paris celebrating. Apollinaire lost. I was full of melancholy. It was absurd.”

Like the funeral of Apollinaire, the grief for the victims of the Spanish flu was swept up in this desire to move on, with few pausing to look back on those months of terrible illness, and capture when death felt so near.

About the author

Photographic, black and white, head and shoulders portrait of Allison Meier.

Allison C Meier

Allison C Meier is a Brooklyn-based writer who focuses on history and visual culture. She was previously Senior Editor at Atlas Obscura and more recently a staff writer at Hyperallergic.