At Large  March 25, 2020  Chandra Noyes

7 Great Works of Art from Troubled Times

flickr/Art Masterpiece

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937.

As the world seems to shift and change around us in new and frightening ways every day, many of us seek solace in the arts. From great music to television, movies, and the fine arts, art can be a distraction and balm in troubled times.

Throughout history, cultures and artists have faced upheavals and catastrophes and reflected them through their work. Here we look at seven great works of art created in uncertain times.

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The Bubonic Plague, or Black Death, is perhaps the most famous plague of them all, having killed 50 million people around the world during the 14th century. The Danse Macabre, or Dance of Death became a common theme in the art. The ever-presence and unpredictability of death was a fact of life, represented by skeletons looming nearby, as seen in this medieval Estonian painting. Even those seeking solace in religion knew that death was always near.

courtesy of the metropolitan museum of art

This beautiful 16th century ivory mask from Benin shows the impact of Colonialism on African cultures. As European colonizers came to Africa to exploit it for its rich natural resources, African peoples struggled to keep their traditions intact. The ceremonial pendant mask, worn by a king to honor his mother, is ringed by small figures representing Portuguese explorers who came in search of ivory.

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Tuberculosis, sometimes called “the romantic disease,” is present in much of art and literature of the 19th century. The feverishness it caused was said to heighten artistic abilities, and many women with rosy cheeks depicted in this era are thought to have had TB. Claude Monet’s 1879 portrait of his wife, Camille, on her death bed shows the dark reality of this illness, which took many lives. The blurred, dreamy portrait evokes the haze of grief the artist was in.

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The Spanish Flu, the last great flu pandemic of the 20th century, is what many are comparing our current pandemic to. From 1918 to 1920, a quarter of the world’s population was infected by the disease. One of its casualties was Egon Schiele. The Austrian artist had just finished his service in World War I and his career as a professional artist was beginning to take off when the flu reached Vienna in 1918. His wife, Edith, fell victim to the disease in October, and Schiele died of it three days later. His surviving work speaks to the incredible talent and potential of the artist, and of all that is lost when so many lives are cut short. 

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Dorothea Lange’s image of a migrant mother from the Dust Bowl has become one of the most iconic images of the 20th century. Her photos of the Great Depression put faces and real experiences to the countless Americans who suffered during this era. The compassion and honesty evident in her photos shaped modern-day documentary photography and photojournalism.

flickr/Art Masterpiece

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica is perhaps the most famous vision of the chaos and violence of war. At over twenty-five feet long, the massive painting in black, white, and grays dwarfs the viewer, over-powering us the raw emotion represented. Picasso created the work in his Paris studio as a response to the bombing of the city of Guernica by Nazi forces during the Spanish Civil War. The agony of the animals and people portrayed is palpable, making this a powerful anti-war painting.

flickr/stephane333

The height of the AIDS epidemic was a terrifying time for many, as people lost their friends, partners and their own health to a disease that was incurable and not well understood. Many great artists, including Keith Haring and David Wojnarowicz, created moving works reacting to the epidemic before succumbing to the illness themselves. Felix González-Torres’ Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) forces us to experience this loss of lives in a visceral way. Consisting of a pile of wrapped candies heaped on the floor of a gallery, viewers take and eat a piece of candy, slowly diminishing the pile, mirroring the way that his partner, Ross, slowly lost weight until his death.

Though some of these works show people and cultures in crisis, they also show us the power of the arts to get us through. As artists interpret our times, they help us come to terms with and understand what is happening around us, while giving future generations a window into our experiences. Now is a great time to take comfort in the arts, whether they represent good times or darker days, and remember that humanity has faced catastrophe before, and made it through.

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra Noyes is Managing Editor for Art & Object.

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