Many recent books have favorably compared the strident global response to the COVID-19 pandemic with the more sluggish, uneven regional reaction to the Spanish Flu of 1918. Back then the headlines were too busy with the battlefield dramas

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attending the Great War, so the standard narrative advised paying attention to anything as mundane as a fever, even one that killed over 100,000,000. Far from repeating this well-worn storyline, the present piece draws the curtain on the grand stage of world conflict in an attempt to illustrate one’s efforts to turn his painful experience of the 1918 Pandemic into a positive, meaningful self and world concept. The individual in question is painter Edvard Munch (1863-1944), who not only survived the Spanish Flu, but even painted two self-portraits whose titles address it by name: Self-portrait with the Spanish Flu (1919) and Self-Portrait after the Spanish Flu (1919).

Edvard Munch was born December 12, 1863, in Kristiania (now Oslo), Norway. He grew up in an unstable household. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was five, and his father was a hidebound Lutheran who ruled the household with an iron fist (Ingles, 2012, p. 5). Edvard came to believe that his father’s intense Lutheran piety was passed down to him in the form of anxiety and paranoia, two companions that would stalk Munch for his entire life. To make matters worse, Edvard’s older sister, Sophie, with whom he was especially close, died of the same illness as their mother, and his younger sister Laura was diagnosed with schizophrenia before she reached adulthood (Prideaux, 2007, pp. 30, 283-284).

Early on, Munch exhibited an exceptional talent as a draughtsman and a painter. As he reached young adulthood, he gained enough of a reputation to be accepted into the ranks of the Kristiania Bohemians, whose number included Hans Jaeger. Jaeger, a self-styled nihilist and advocate of free love, tried to convince Munch that he could never live authentically until he freed himself of all family ties. At one time, Jaeger even enjoined Munch to murder his father Christian Munch (Pridaeux, 2007, p. 98). During this time, Edvard entered into an affair with a married woman. However, instead of freeing him from his family’s influence, this momentous step merely left Munch wracked with guilt. Moreover, he soon realized that there is no such thing as free love, for his mistress held the reins in their relationship. This situation left Munch feeling tempest-tossed between his father’s threats of hell and Jaeger’s promise of guilt-free love, finding no solace in either extreme.

From the 1880s on, Munch worked on his magnum opus, a collection of paintings about love and death he called The Frieze of Life. Several of the paintings depicted Munch and his former lover, Tulla Larsen. Tulla’s game was to draw Munch into her life by

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feigning tuberculosis. When Munch was alerted of Larsen’s “illness,” his childhood traumas centering on illness resurfaced. He would rush to Tulla’s side, only to have her affect shift suddenly to icy indifference. Now the picture of health, Tulla would taunt Munch by running into another man’s arms.

The central work in The Frieze of Life, the striking Metabolism (1898-1899), links the two main themes of the series—the pain of love and the terror of illness and death—in an image of Edvard as Adam and Tulla as Eve in the Edenic woods around Kristiania. In Metabolism, Munch is expressing his belief that, though individuals may be disappointed in love, and despite them dying and going into the ground, people nevertheless survive since their soul-substance will live on as the essence of innumerable other living beings. Munch came to this dual resolution of his religious doubts and his romantic longings through his reading of popular scientific writers such as Ernst Haeckel, and by integrating his insights about life and the hereafter into his aesthetic (Kuuva, 2016, p. 125).

There was hardly a year in Munch’s life when he was not seriously ill at least some of the time, mostly with fevers and lung ailments, but also with mental diseases such as paranoia and hallucinations, the latter often alcohol-induced. However, in 1919, Munch came down with the Spanish Flu. He recorded his impressions of the experience in his Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu. Munch pictures himself sitting in a chair wrapped in a long evening gown and with a blanket on his lap. His face is somewhat hazy and under-defined, perhaps symbolizing the convalescing painter’s own raddled, blurry thought process. On the bed is a green blanket, the folds and creases of which call to mind microorganisms such as bacteria, germs, and viruses. Or perhaps these lines and squiggles represent the invisible filaments of soul-substance that have worked to keep Munch alive by killing the deadly virus. In either case, the mysterious wad of bedding expresses Munch’s master-theme, which we also detected in Metabolism: Life cannot separate itself from death and illness; pain and suffering are life itself since all bodily processes involve using up some sort of organic fuel to keep the organism running. This primary insight of Munch’s first crystallized when he suffered from seasonal flu in 1889, during which he received a vision of the unity of all existing things in the very processes that change organic “soul” substances into inorganic substances, and vice versa (Prideaux, 2007, pp. 119-121).

Standing between Munch and his viral bedding is a blue

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bedpost that resembles a thermometer. Mercury, one of the most common substances used in thermometers, is often represented in alchemical sources by blue (Bucklow, 2001). It is also a traditional symbol of earthly and spiritual processes since Mercury was not only the god of medicine and healing but also the god of process, change, and movement (Long, 2006, p. 111). In Metabolism, the same shade of blue used on Self-Portrait’s bedpost reappears as a kind of sap leaking out of the tree of life (or, should we say, the tree of life and death), and Eve reaches down to touch it. Adam, however, has his eyes closed, and his arms are wound around his body. This is not unlike the snakes that form a double helix around the central wand of the caduceus, the latter being a symbol for Mercury (Friedlander, 1992).

In 1908, Munch sought alcoholism treatment and began to live a more sedate life in his country home in Ekberg, near Oslo. He remained aloof from the bohemians, journalists, and would-be romantic partners who in the past had oppressed or manipulated him, leading to his many illnesses and breakdowns. The Spanish Flu was only one short episode in a long line of illnesses for Munch, but it gives us an example of an artist who incorporated a pandemic into his art and, once we relate his paintings about the 1918 Pandemic to his central works, we see just how this greatest of Norwegian artists used his paintings to frame his past into a more positive, or at least consoling, view of life.

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References:

  • Bucklow, Spike (2001). Paradigms and pigment recipes: Silver and mercury blues. Zeitschrift für Kunsttechnologie und Konservierung. 15, 25-33.
  • Friedlander, Walter J. (1992). The golden wand of medicine: A history of the caduceus symbol in medicine. Greenwood Press.
  • Ingles, Elizabeth (2012). Edvard Munch. Sirrocco.
  • Kuuva, Sari (2016). A metabolism of Adam and Eve: Damien Hirst meets Edvard Munch. Approaching Religion. 6(2), 125-135.
  • Long, Kathleen P. (2006). Hermaphrodites in Renaissance Europe: Women and gender in the early modern world. Ashgate.
  • Munch, Edvard, paintings: Metabolism (1898-1899), Self-portrait after the Spanish Flu (1919), Self-portrait with the Spanish Flu (1919).
  • Prideaux, Sue (2007). Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream. Yale University Press.

Authors:

James L. Kelley

James L. Kelley has published three books and over a dozen peer-reviewed articles. His research interests include psychobiography, psychiatric theory, and philosophy. He has taught at East Central University and the University of Oklahoma and resides in Norman, Oklahoma. He can be contacted at romeosyne@gmail.com.

How to Cite This:

Kelley, J. L. (2022). Edvard Munch, the Spanish Flu, and COVID-19. Clio’s Psyche, 28(3), 354-358.

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