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6 • ISSUE October 2018

Volume 25, No. 2

100 years ago How the Spanish flu pandemic affected the arts

Gustav Klimt, wearing his painter's coat in front of his studio, holding one of his cats.

A mass grave for victims of the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic in the Philadelphia area.

In 1918, as most of Western Europe was winding down from the ravages of World War I, a new scourge arrived to attack those who had survived the previous four years of carnage — an epidemic of “spanish Flu.” the flu pandemic affected more than 500 million people around the world, including those in such far-flung places as the Pacific Islands and the arctic, killing anywhere from 50 to 100 million people in the two years from 1918 to 1920. With the war in Europe ongoing, reports of the illness in England, France, Germany and the United states were censored to preserve morale, but there were no such restrictions in spain, suggesting the spanish were especially hard hit and giving the pandemic its nickname. In fact, this was the first of two pandemics of the H1n1 influenza virus. this is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the pandemic, which has been dubbed “the forgotten flu,” although historians believe that it played a significant part in the ending of WWI as the Central Powers suffered significantly more than the allies initially, thereby tipping the balance of the war. the arts were affected with artistic lights extinguished in the pandemic, including painters Gustav Klimt and Egon schiele, and the poet and critic Guillaume apollinaire. other notable victims included Phoebe Hearst, mother of William Randolph Hearst; sophie HalberstadtFreud, daughter of psychiatrist sigmund; English composer sir Hubert Parry of “Jerusalem” fame; and Frederick trump, grandfather of the current U.s. president. notable survivors included Walt Disney,

Story by Andy Coughlan

Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1903-07) by Gustav Klimt

philosopher Walter Benjamin, Raymond Chandler, Greta Garbo, Lillian Gish, Franz Kafka, Edvard munch, Georgia o’Keefe and U.s. presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Klimt died on Feb. 6, 1918, at age 56 from pneumonia following a stroke after being seriously weakened by the flu. He was buried three days later at Hietzing Cemetery in Vienna. now, 100 years later, Vienna is honoring Klimt as the artist that best typifies the secessionist painting style (along with schiele and oskar Kokoschka). the Vienna secession was an art movement founded in 1897 by a group of austrian artists, including painters, sculptors and architects, who rejected the

conservatism of the austrian Kunstlerhaus, part of a wider trend of artists breaking with the traditions of historical academia, including the French Impressionists and the German Expressionists. the group initiated a contemporary art gallery, which, among other things, introduced the Impressionists to austria. Klimt was also a pioneer of symbolism — characterized by mystical motifs, a personal approach to the visual arts and an aesthetic similar to art nouveau and William morris’ arts and Crafts movement. although Klimt left the secessionists in 1905 over a difference of opinion as to artistic direction, no artist more exemplifies the fin-de-siecle Viennese arts scene.


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Volume 25, No. 2 Roberto Rosenman, on New York’s Neue Galerie website, writes: “Art historians have somewhat neglected the topic of the Vienna Secession because of its apparent lack of a specific program, yet it was precisely its pluralist approach to the arts which made the group unique. From the onset, the Vienna Secession brought together Naturalists, Modernists, Impressionists and cross-pollinated among all disciplines forming a total work of art; a Gesamkunstwerk. In this respect, the Secession drew inspiration from William Morris and the English Arts and Crafts movement which sought to re-unite fine and applied arts. Like Morris, the Secessionists spurned 19th century manufacturing techniques and favored quality handmade objects, believing that a return to handwork could rescue society from the moral decay caused by industrialization.” Above the door of the new Secessionist building was the motto, “To every age its art, to every art its freedom.” The artists involved were obviously influenced by the burgeoning Jungenstil, or Art Nouveau, movement, although, as Rosenman writes: “The dominant form was the square and the recurring motifs were the grid and checkerboard. The influence came not so much from French and Belgian Art Nouveau, but again from the Arts and Crafts movement. In particular the work of William Asbhee and Charles Renee Mackintosh, both of whom incorporated geometric design and floral-inspired decorative motifs, played a large part in forming the Secessionstyle.” Possibly Klimt’s most famous painting, “Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1903-07),” shows the artist working with both the abstract and the “real.” The abstract golden patchwork background merges with the ornamented dress. Painted during his “gold” period, the patchwork of ornamentation and gold leaf works in harmony with the jewelry adorning the figure. The painting, on permanent display at the Neue Galerie, is stunning in person. The level of ornamentation, which nods to Byzantine iconography, creates a portrait that is both an honorific and, at the same time, a piece that exists for its own artistic sake. This painting has become doubly famous over the past few years as the subject of a court case concerning Nazi art theft. It was commissioned by Adele’s husband, Ferdinand, who was Jewish. When Ferdinand fled to Switzerland in 1938, the Nazis confiscated the painting and hung it in the Austrian Galerie Belvedere. Ferdinand died in 1946 and willed his confiscated collection to his nephew and two nieces. In 2000, his niece, Maria Altmann, filed a lawsuit to recover the painting, which ended up in the Supreme Court. The painting was returned to the family before being sold to Ronald S. Lauder for $135 million, at the time a record price paid for any painting. Lauder gave the painting to the museum he founded, the Neue Galerie. The case was the subject of the 2015 film,

The Kiss by Gustav Klimt “Woman in Gold.” Klimt’s painting “The Kiss” encompasses the spirit of Secessionism perfectly. It is often considered to be an Art Nouveau painting, but it is more than simply decorative. Klimt draws on a variety of sources, depicting a couple enveloped in an embrace, wrapped in a decorative quilt-like golden shawl, standing on a bed of flowers. Biographer Frank Whitford writes, “This, the most celebrated of all the artist’s paintings, seems to embody Klimt’s belief in the transformative power not only of sexual love but also of art.” The Klimt Museum website states, “In its tenderness, the painting deviates from his typical portrayal of woman as distant femme fatales; here the female is the protagonist, rather than merely the object of desire.” The painting is now in the Österreichische Galerie

Belvedere museum in Vienna. On Jan.11, 1918, Klimt suffered a stroke that paralized his left side, leaving him unable to paint. In his weakened state he succumbed to the flu, “his body to weak to resist it and, deprived of the consolation of painting, his will to live had gone,” Whitford writes. Despite Klimt’s popularity — his work is reproduced on posters, blankets, T-shirts and all manner of paraphernalia — Whitford argues that his influence is limited: “No school followed him. There was no one quite like him before and no one at all like him afterward. His effect on the course of painting in the 20th century was negligible. Yet the transition from the old to the modern can be seen more clearly in his work and the purposes for which it was intended than in that of any other major artist.”

Klimt ISSUE 10-18 Andy Coughlan  

A story about the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic and the death of artist Gustav Klimt, published in ISSUEW arts magazine, October 2018.

Klimt ISSUE 10-18 Andy Coughlan  

A story about the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic and the death of artist Gustav Klimt, published in ISSUEW arts magazine, October 2018.

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