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Primary contextual research for sketch book

What Is Fear?

Fear is a natural, powerful, and primitive human emotion. It involves a universal biochemical response as well as a high individual emotional response. Fear alerts us to the presence of danger or the threat of harm, whether that danger is physical or psychological.

Sometimes fear stems from real threats, but it can also originate from imagined dangers. Fear can also be a symptom of some mental health conditions including panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, phobias, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Imbedding fear threw the media, collage

I researched The Spanish Flu of 1918 which was the last truly global pandemic.

On Feb. 7, 1918, the artist Egon Schiele, used Gustav Klimt’s head to be his muse. But Schiele had to visit the morgue of the Vienna General Hospital, to make his drawings of the renowned painter and mentor. The day before, Klimt had died of a stroke that many historians believe was a result of the flu. Schiele’s visit resulted in three haunting drawings of a deceased Klimt’s head, showing his face deformed from the stroke.

Egon Schiele’s “Gustav Klimt on his death bed,” 1918 Public Domain

More compelling is a quick portrait sketch that Egon Schiele made of his wife, Edith, the day before she died of the Spanish flu (and a few days before the artist’s own death of the same, at age twenty-eight). Edith’s face is gaunt and drawn, the shading of her cheeks and lips perhaps a sign of cyanosis. The young woman’s soulful eyes and chaotic strands of hair signal that this is a psychological portrait rather than a clinical reflection of a rapidly debilitating disease.

Egon Schiele: Portrait of the Dying Edith Schiele, 1918.

Norwegian painter Edvard Munch also found inspiration in the disease. The artist made Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu.

Edvard Munch’s “Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu,” 1919 Nasjonalmuseet

Self-Portrait After the Spanish Flu, detailing his own experience contracting and surviving the illness.

Edvard Munch’s “Self-Portrait After the Spanish Flu” (1919). Credit…© The Munch Museum

These paintings, characterized by Munch’s obsession with existential drama, speak to feelings of trauma and despair that were widespread amid a pandemic that killed at least 50 million people.

With their queasy colours and undulating lines, their hollowed-out faces and undefined or unfocused eyes, these pictures are arguably more about Munch’s psychology and self-mythologizing than the painful experience of the flu itself. No cyanosis is visible, no implements of care are seen; indeed, one would not know that Munch was infected were it not for the titles.

“Illness, insanity, and death…kept watch over my cradle,” the artist once said, “and accompanied me all my life.”

But the flu did not go unnoticed by artists. Rather, the outbreak magnified the absurdity of the moment. For many, World War I and the flu combined with political upheavals (such as the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of newly formed communist governments) and social issues (such as gender and income inequality) to create a perception of the universe as chaotic and hopeless. A sense of meaninglessness spread, and people started to lose faith in their governments, existing social structures and accepted moral values. Everyday life felt ridiculous. The art movements that came out of this period explored this , tried to fight against it and showed the ways in which everyone was trying to cope.

Such as DADA. One 1922 piece by Hannah Höch, the only woman who was part of the Berlin Dada group, parodied a traditional German guest book by collecting Dada sayings rather than the typical well-wishes from house guests.

Of course, Germany’s problems were only just beginning. Throughout the 1920s, the country’s finances became increasingly unstable, leading to mass inflation. Despite political and economic unrest, German women gained suffrage in 1918, and the Weimar Republic ushered in an era of somewhat greater gender equality. At least in the media, new images of liberated women began to appear (whether that portrayal was a reality is still up for debate). Although women could work, their labour conditions were often subpar. According to scholar Maud Lavin, “behind the New Woman myths of flexibility and women’s economic opportunities, legal rights, and political participation continued to be circumscribed.” Even as they entered the workforce, women received the lowest-paying jobs and often had to retain all their duties as homemakers.

George Grosz, another Dada artist, painted The Funeral around 1918, depicting distorted human figures haphazardly overlapping one another in what appears to be a never-ending street, surrounded by nightclubs and buildings. In the middle of the crowd is a skeleton perched on top of a coffin drinking from a bottle.

“In a strange street by night, a hellish procession of dehumanized figures mills, their faces reflecting alcohol, syphilis, plague … I painted this protest against a humanity that had gone insane,” Grosz later said of his hellscape.

George Grosz, 1917-18, The Funeral (To Oskar Panizza), oil on canvas, 140 x 110 cm, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart

As was the case in 1918, the pandemic is just one part of a larger mood that predated the disease. Isolation, stillness, and the impacts of consumerism were already themes being explored through art in recent decades.

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