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Michael Lobel on art and the 1918 flu pandemic

Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu, 1919, oil on canvas, 59 x 51 5/8''. National Gallery, Oslo.

OVER THE COURSE OF SEVERAL RECENT MONTHS, a fiery debate raged in the pages of UK art publications The Burlington Magazine and The Art Newspaper, and inevitably migrated online as well. It revolved around a simple question: Who was the true author of the radical 1917 work Fountain, the porcelain urinal submitted to the first exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York under the pseudonym R. Mutt? On one side are those who accept the long-held and near-universal identification of Marcel Duchamp as the work’s creator; on the other are those who argue fiercely that authorship should be assigned to the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, an artist and poet who has, in recent years, been revisited as a protofeminist figure and an early practitioner of found-object art. As with so many such scholarly debates, tiny fragments of historical evidence were mustered by each side as proof of their respective positions. Given that focus on the evidentiary record, I was surprised that one name didn’t come up more frequently in the discussion: that of Morton Schamberg, who is now taken to have been Loringhoven’s collaborator on a sculptural assemblage entitled God, another bathroom-fixture-as-artwork (a plumbing trap affixed to a miter box) dating to the very same year as Fountain—and which, one assumes, would help bolster the Loringhoven-as-creator argument.

There is one particular reason Schamberg may not have made much of an appearance in the aforementioned dispute, and why many (save for specialists in early-twentieth-century American art) likely don’t recognize his name today at all: He perished just two days shy of his thirty-seventh birthday in the influenza pandemic of 1918–19. That outbreak, regarded as the deadliest in modern history, is estimated to have killed at least fifty million people worldwide. At the time of his death, Schamberg was a well-regarded figure in the American art scene; he exhibited early on with Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler, with whom he had a long and close friendship, and produced a series of machine pictures that resonate strongly with those of New York Dadaists like Duchamp, Francis Picabia, and Man Ray. In delving into Schamberg’s career, I came across a work that I hadn’t known before and have since fallen in love with, Composition (Camera and Flash) of around 1915–16, now at the Carnegie Museum of Art, which registers his commitment to the art of photography and depicts the titular subject as a stylized, jaunty presence. In fact, he used one of his own machine paintings as a backdrop for photographing God, a tantalizing bit of information considering that Alfred Stieglitz similarly chose to photograph Fountain in front of a painting (by Marsden Hartley) as a background. Schamberg’s relatively early death not only cut short his career but also means that we have little to no recorded testimony from him on these and related matters. In his case, then, the pandemic registers mostly as a telltale absence in our account of the period.

Morton Schamberg and Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven, God, 1917, gelatin silver print, 9 1/2 x 7 1/2 ''. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Observers have generally had a difficult time tracking the impact of the 1918–19 pandemic on the visual arts, in part because that has generally meant trying to find it made visible in actual works, whether in Egon Schiele’s tender and wrenching portrayal of his pregnant wife Edith on her deathbed (Schiele himself would expire several days after she did), or in two Edvard Munch self-portraits of the time, one made while he battled influenza and the other after his recovery. But such an approach limits our understanding for a number of reasons. For one, the 1918–19 outbreak, still routinely mislabeled the “Spanish flu,” overlapped with the last months and finally the end of World War I, such that it is at times difficult to determine the proper boundaries of each. How are we to separate the mass casualties of the one from the deaths by illness of the other? While the poet Guillaume Apollinaire expired from the flu, the injuries he had suffered at the front about a year and a half earlier—one in his lung and one a head wound for which he had been trepanned—were almost certainly a contributing factor. For another, there’s the matter of visibility. There are virtually no monuments or memorials to those who died from influenza in 1918–19, in part because of the contemporaneity of the war, but also because the pandemic seems to have lacked any central organizing visual motifs. Unlike the Great War, the flu offered up no heroic doughboys or angels of victory, nor were there any persevering scientists who could provide a convenient face of the battle against the illness, like Edward Jenner with smallpox (there are various statues of Jenner worldwide, including one in Kensington Gardens in London) or, later, Jonas Salk with polio. And it certainly lacked the kind of molecular renderings that are used to visualize viruses in our own day, specifically that now-ubiquitous spiky globe, like some kind of Koosh ball or knobby dog toy, that, in its scientistic imaging of disease, has become one of the primary visual emblems of Covid-19.

Egon Schiele, Portrait of the dying Edith Schiele, 1918, black chalk on paper, 17 3/8 x 11 5/8''. Leopold Museum, Vienna.

Tracking the impact of the 1918 virus on the art world of that time has something of the miasmic feel of that disease itself, unseen yet seemingly ever-present: Creeping in from virtually all corners, it makes itself felt piecemeal, here and there, such that to gauge its impact and extent requires one to connect the dots, a task not unlike the painstaking contact tracing by which public health authorities across the globe today are working to chart the path of illness from one person to another. So there it is in Boston in the fall of 1918, as the Museum of Fine Arts is forced to close for three weeks in response to public health measures, with the Cleveland Museum of Art taking the same steps the following spring; and there it is in Minneapolis, where a fancy dinner marking a donor’s promised gift to the city of his art collection is canceled due to a ban on public assemblies, a collection, we might note with some interest, that would eventually form the nucleus of the present-day Walker Art Center; and there it makes itself felt in Montreal, when an unnamed critic reviewing the Fortieth Annual Exhibition of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts uses viral illness as a metaphor for the ostensibly insalubrious effects of the few “modernistic” works included in the show: “It is curious how the germs of these tendencies have swept over the world, even as has the baneful Spanish influenza!”1 That phrasing predicts a similar charge launched several years later by the fussy and fusty art critic Royal Cortissoz, who saddled modernism with the memorable sobriquet “Ellis Island art,” treating works of art as if they were actual—and, from his viewpoint, undesirable—immigrants flooding into the country.2

In the New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl recently reiterated the conclusions of others that the 1918–19 influenza pandemic offers a “baffling precedent” inasmuch as it killed so many yet “left so little cultural trace.” Well, maybe. Schjeldahl’s general assessment holds true to some extent, but I also have a counterproposal, one that suggests that another way to measure the event’s cultural impact is by looking not for direct references but rather to analogies, transpositions, and displacements. I want to propose that there was at least one major work from that moment that conveyed the combination of helplessness and fear, uncertainty and loss, prompted by living during an epidemic—similar to what many of us are experiencing right now—and fittingly did so obliquely, in a way that wasn’t immediately apparent at the time. That work also centrally treats the overlap of the 1918 pandemic with World War I.

Tracking the impact of the 1918 virus on the art world of that time has something of the miasmic feel of that disease itself, unseen yet seemingly ever-present.

In 1918, John Singer Sargent was commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee to work as a war artist. He was tasked, along with other artists, with creating a monumental painting for the proposed national Hall of Remembrance for World War I, which was never built. Sargent’s specific brief was to depict the cooperation between British and American forces, which may have been of particular interest to him due to his own family history, as he was the child of expatriate Americans and spent much of his life in England. Sargent was then far from his prime; at sixty-two, he was in the last decade of his life, and major milestones, such as the succès de scandale of Madame X, 1883–84, were decades behind him. His type of refined, bravura painting appeared retardataire in the face of the new modernist developments of recent years.

John Singer Sargent, Gassed, 1918–19, oil on canvas, 7' 7'' x 20'. Imperial War Museums, London.

Sargent spent several months at the front in France and Belgium, accompanying both British and American troops, making sketches and watercolors of all sorts of subjects: a truck convoy; military encampments; young British soldiers lolling nude in the grass on a riverbank, nestled together in soft-focus eroticism; the details of the insignia on a military uniform; a downed airplane; a wrecked sugar refinery. When Sargent was back in London in the late fall, he finally settled on a theme for the twenty-foot-long painting that would become one of the major pictorial works of World War I: Gassed, 1919, a friezelike display of a line of soldiers blinded in a gas attack, moving tentatively forward in the midst of a landscape strewn with prone figures. In the background, difficult to make out at first, a group of men engage in a spirited soccer match, the globe of a ball captured in midair echoing with the full moon that rises into the early evening sky at right.

John Singer Sargent, Gassed (detail), 1918–19, oil on canvas, 7' 7'' x 20'. Imperial War Museums, London.

This is of course a wartime scene, as directed by its brief, and it has been taken as such in the more than a century since it was completed—including, several years ago, in a touring exhibition devoted to American art and World War I, for which it served as a veritable centerpiece. No quarrel there. But to my mind it also manifests the terror of the pandemic that had gripped the world in the prior year and, particularly, that very autumn during which Sargent began work on it. This is why I think the picture has captured such great attention for so long, including when it was first shown, in that it exceeds the bounds of its immediate subject. It doesn’t take that great a leap, after all, to connect vulnerability to a gas attack with a similar susceptibility to an airborne, unseen contagion. Not to mention that many of the earliest outbreaks of influenza occurred on military bases and at the front, and that at the time troops and their movements were understood as major vectors for the disease’s transmission. Even those dressings over the soldiers’ eyes can be regarded, in a gesture that in Freudian terms would be labeled a displacement upward, as repositionings of the cloth masks that, covering the nose and mouth, became a visual signifier of the 1918 pandemic, much like they have for us again today.

John Singer Sargent, Gassed (detail), 1918–19, oil on canvas, 7' 7'' x 20'. Imperial War Museums, London.

Now, this interpretation could easily be dismissed as fanciful, an example of art-historical interpretive overreach at best, if not for a crucial detail of Sargent’s own experience. In late September, while still working on his war commission, he himself was struck down by the flu, at which point he was taken to what was known as a Casualty Clearing Station—a British military medical facility—in Roisel, in the Somme in northern France. He spent a week there recovering in a hospital tent, writing in a letter of “the accompaniment of groans of wounded, and the chokings and coughing of gassed men,” giving us further evidence that he would have recognized the similarities between the symptoms of a gassed soldier and those of a sufferer of a viral respiratory illness.3 During that time, Sargent also created an intensely observed watercolor that captures a view of the hospital tent’s interior, perhaps from his own sickbed.

John Singer Sargent, Interior of a Hospital Tent, 1918, watercolor on paper mounted on board, 15 1/2 x 20 3/4 ''. Imperial War Museums, London.

The tent canvas hangs down low from above. A line of cots runs back from left to right. The distinction in the bright red of the blankets in the foreground and the darker browns or khakis further along, seemingly a mere aesthetic gesture, in point of fact had a medical signification: The brighter hue marked those patients who were contagious, while the darker one signaled convalescing or non-influenza cases.4 Past those cots, through the open flaps, we spy a series of diagonal lines that denote the ropes holding up the tent. Those very same types of lines appear at right in Gassed, an effective and eye-catching formal device that indicates the presence of a medical tent off-frame, where one assumes the wounded soldiers are being led for treatment. Indeed, if one were to place these pictures side by side (accounting, that is, for the discrepancy in size between the two), they would come into view as complementary images, the one almost appearing to form a continuum with the other.

Gassed effectively condenses two experiences that viewers of the day had recently endured, and were to some extent still enduring: war and pandemic. The painting equates the two in its portrayal of a group of people waiting to receive medical attention, hurt and vulnerable, subject to an unseen attack, surrounded on all sides by the ill and the dying. After all, when Sargent painted his picture, it wasn’t solely in the trenches that a largely invisible, airborne menace had appeared as a threatening presence; and it wasn’t only the battlefields that were littered with the suffering and the dead. If the painting was and has been criticized for an overall tone of idealization and generalization, then that may only underscore the bridging function it serves. It stands to connect the artist’s lived experience of illness to a terrifying martial conflict he had spent months observing. And if we accept this interpretation, then the image’s wrenching contradiction is that it makes what is so fearful in a time of viral pandemic—physical proximity and human touch—into a saving grace. Sargent’s picture offers up, within a landscape of debility, disorientation, and suffering, the possibility of some limited forward movement—blind, groping, halting, tentative.

Michael Lobel is Professor of Art History at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY.


1. “Montreal,” American Art News, December 14, 1918, 5.

2. Royal Cortissoz, “Ellis Island Art” in Royal Cortissoz, American Artists (New York and London: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1923), 17-22.

3. John Singer Sargent to Isabella Stewart Gardner, n.d., quoted in Karen Corsano and Daniel Williman, John Singer Sargent and His Muse: Painting Love and Loss (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), 201.

4. Terence Chorba and Byron Breedlove, “Concurrent Conflicts—the Great War and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic,” Emerging Infectious Diseases 24, no. 10 (October 2018): 1,969.