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The Anxious Artist: Pandemic Self Portraits

As I come to write, I find myself in isolation, due to an unwelcome visit paid by Covid. I have had it once before, but very mildly. I feel much less well this time. It is unavoidable that having the virus is bringing back lots of memories of my mum, as she played unwilling host to this same unwanted intruder and the devastating outcome. When she died, I went to great efforts to try and understand exactly what had happened and how the virus works. This was probably not sensible, but without much information from doctors or nurses who cared for her, and not being able to see her, I was left to my own devises. Of course, the result was that I had enough information to fuel my anxious imagination, but not enough to be able to claim I understood any of it. So, now I have the virus, my imagination remains on good form and so I need distraction!

As the world re-emerged from lockdowns, I have found it very hard to see that many people are behaving almost as though the pandemic hadn’t ever happened, I guess this is a form of self-protection. I wish I could forget, but it is something I live with moment by moment and day by day. My trauma dictates the decisions I make and I am constantly battling with the overwhelming desire to withdraw completely.

I have taken some comfort, as I isolate, from looking at art made during times of pandemic. It seems artists have such an important role in reminding us of things which may sit uncomfortably, but are important to remember. There was much talk of how life and attitudes would change post pandemic; that we would value our essential workers more, our community and nature. So many important lessons had been learnt and need holding onto. This is where the artist is able to step beyond the barrage of repeated and intolerably anxiety-inducing news headlines and speak the truth when we are barely aware it is happening. A communication with our unconscious mind when our guards are down.

Outside; Overwhelming Impact of Covid-19. By Lorna Mody.

I thought it was wonderful that so many artists digitally shared their work about their experiences of the pandemic. I feel comforted, as I look at some of these artworks now, as I feel less abandoned by a society determined to forget and move on. When we all had to isolate, these artists reached into people’s homes and made meaningful connections.

As I researched the role of artists during times of plague and pandemic, it was of no surprise that artists have historically played a vital role in communicating with people. In early Renaissance times art may have been used as a way of warning people that the plague was, in fact, a punishment from God. That if society did not mend its ways morally, indiscriminate death and suffering would be the outcome. These messages sought to pictorially tell a story for those who could not read. I’m really glad things aren’t like that anymore! Later on, paintings became instructional regarding the need to take care of one another, at times, beatifying the care givers depicted.

Early Illustrated manuscript depicting the Black Death. (Louise Marshall/ Archivio di Stato, Lucca)

However, something that has particularly interested me was the wealth of self portraits made by artists, when they have been cut off from the world. Indeed, if an artist is used to working with a model, then they need to rethink and take the role of artist and subject themselves. This is what Frank Auerbach did during recent lockdowns. Not having been previously interested in painting his own face, at 91, he discovered the wrinkles, shadows and lines made for a far more interesting subject. Previously, Auerbach was most known for his psychological probing portraits of friends and family and of the urban landscape which surrounded him.

With the luxury of time, he was able to produce over two dozen drawings and paintings. Each one an expression of a captured moment, reflecting the usual frustrations and irritations any one of us may feel as we look in the mirror. These being particularly poignant given the isolation he was in. I am struck by a sense of existential vulnerability when I look upon his paintings, as his face appears to be floating in a plain of colour, rooted only by a few lines representing the neck, with no evidence of it being attached to a body. Whether that is what the artist sought to convey, I don’t know. When we view art, we project our own experience onto the image. Each observer taking away something different. That’s what’s so wonderful about it!

Two self-portraits by Frank Auerbach during the Covid pandemic

I am also struck by the works of Egon Schiele and Edvard Munch, during the time of the Spanish flu, which came after the First World War. Were it not for these artists, I wouldn’t have known this devastating and enduring pandemic existed. Yet the impact of the war, the ensuing pandemic and socio-political upheavals bears some resemblance to the world we live in today.

Munch portrays himself while he is suffering from Spanish flu and is isolated in his home. His face is ghostly, his open mouth similar to that from the very well-known painting ‘The Scream’. I get the overwhelming sense of claustrophobia from the painting’s surreal quality. The swirling plains of colour emulate something I recognise in the experience of having a high fever. I can certainly relate to it right now.

‘Self Portrait with Spanish Flu’ by Edvard Munch. 1919.

Schiele portrays a family portrait with his wife and his imaginings of his unborn child. Their bodies look pale and contorted with physical suffering. There is a look of resignation and vulnerability in their eyes as it would seem; they prepare to accept their fate. Tragically, both husband and wife died and the child was never to be born. However, this family portrait remains and tells their story.

‘The family’ by Egon Schiele. 1918.

In later years, during the height of the AIDs pandemic, artist David Wojnarowicz; dying from the disease; addresses this frightening inevitability by performing his own burial. Such a courageous act and depicted photographically in stark monotone, invite us to share something of the artist’s experience, as he approached death.

Untitled, by Davd Wojnarowicz. Reflecting on his own mortality.

These portraits may initially feel very bleak to look upon, but each artist here is using their work to take back some sense of agency against something that may otherwise feel beyond their control. They may be isolated in suffering, but their art would later be seen and shared by countless people, as they look, learn and reflect. I don’t think words alone could achieve the same impact.

My book, ‘Goodbye Mama Cat’ offered me a great feeling of comfort as I mourned in the isolation of the lockdowns. The feline characters I developed became company for me, as I travelled with them through both painful and happier memories. I depicted myself throughout the book; my self-portrait as cat. In doing so, I could share some of what I experienced. At the time, I was able to share the pictures on social media, which was a great opportunity to reach out to those who knew and loved my mum. I wanted her to remain alive in their minds, in the absence of being able to gather and remember together. I hope that the book brought some comfort to people who may know something of my journey through traumatic grief. Also, that it will serve as a reminder of this, exceptionally life-transforming, part of history from which, along with all the other amazing creations made around the world, future generations may learn.

‘Self-Isolation’ by Naomi Elfred-Ross, October 2022.


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