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An Intimate View of the Spanish Flu

Updated: Aug 18, 2020

Looking again at the intersection of art and illness, we try to draw connections between the Spanish Flu and our current pandemic.

Egon Schiele (1890-1918), Die Familie (Kauerndes Menschenpaar)/The Family (Crouching Couple), oil on canvas, 150 x 160.8 cm, 1918, Belvedere, Vienna. (Source)

The Spanish flu roughly started sometime in the spring of 1918, this was just months before the end of the First World War. With soldiers travelling across the world, living in close quarters to one another and having to suffer appalling conditions, it was no wonder the disease spread so fast. Wartime politicians were eager to hide the news of this horrible disease, lest it dampen morale, so it was neatly pushed under the rug.

Of course, a lot of recent news articles have told us all we could possibly need to know about the Spanish flu. The only problem that these sources seem to share is their adoration of numbers. Numbers are good for certain things but after a while, they can tend to strip the humanity away from a subject. So we think it is a good idea to view the Spanish flu through the lens of an artist in order to gauge the emotional impact of the disease.

Egon Schiele’s unfinished painting The Family (1918) was created shortly before his death to the Spanish flu. His death followed three days after his wife's, Edith, and their unborn child. If we take timelines into consideration, it appears as though the Schiele’s fell victim to the 'second wave' of the flu, wherein people under the age of 30 (Egon was 28 at the time) and pregnant women, in particular, were more likely to succumb to the illness than those who were older. This painting shows himself, his wife Edith, and their unborn child all sitting together in the nude. Presumably, Schiele intended this painting to be a creative rendering of what their life would have looked like had they all survived.

This is a strangely touching painting when compared to the majority of Schiele’s other works. In line with his style, all the figures are nude but there is a familiarity involved in the way they are placed against one another. In a humorous way, the staging of the images almost reminds us of the old Russian nesting dolls. It seems as though this may have been intentional in order to portray the family dynamic that Schiele would anticipated to play out, had they all survived. Schiele, as the father figure, is placed at the back and spreads himself out wide. He leans protectively forward with his right hand raised over his heart as though using his body as a shield to wrap his wife and child in. Edith sits between Schiele’s legs in what appears to be a crouching position simultaneously protected by her husband and guarding her child with the same body language. The unnamed, unborn child sits at the base of this human pyramid, protected by their mother and father.

Unlike depictions of the black death, this piece evokes personal familiarity with the figures and we can feel or peer into their family dynamic through a simple glance. The tragedy of this touching image comes from the knowledge we have of the sitters' fates. Unlike the medieval imagery of mass graves and the macabre indication that ultimately the fallen will simply end up as a number, this painting reminds us that those numbers were once people with hopes, dreams, and families on the way.

Photograph of Egon Schiele, 1918. (Source)

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