Art is a way for humans to make sense of the current events of their time, which can sometimes include illness and death. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo used their craft to study the anatomy of man, while other artists chose to focus on pain and disease. The reactions to the current pandemic are unlike any other in recent history; the global response to Coronavirus has been a complete shutdown of schools, businesses, travel, and special events. While we are all doing our part to contain this flu, it’s the perfect time to learn more about two artists that used illness as the inspiration for beautiful and iconic artwork.
One of the most famous female artists of the last century is Frida Kahlo. She was born in 1907 and when she contracted polio at age 6, it set the stage for a lifetime of health problems. Kahlo’s right leg was thinner and weaker than the left which caused her to limp. She hid the disfigurement under the long, flowing skirts that became her signature look.
In 1925, Kahlo and a friend were involved in a horrible bus accident. Kahlo suffered extreme injuries including spine and pelvic fractures as well as a steel handrail impaling her hip (FridaKahlo.org). She was hospitalized for several weeks and began painting as a response to the physical and psychological pain she experienced. This is a theme that would persist in her artwork for years to come.
Kahlo’s 1944 self-portrait ‘The Broken Column’ shows her body split, a metal column taking the place of her spine, and her torso covered with nails. The background is a barren landscape of deep ravines that mirror the split in the body. Although the painting shows how Kahlo has been physically ravaged, she stares out at the viewer with a strong, defiant look on her face. Though tears stream down her face she remains resilient, showing that while she has gone through so much she can survive anything. Kahlo spent the rest of her 47 years dealing with a myriad of health issues that weakened her physically, but inspired paintings that solidified her as one of the most important characters in art history.
During the 1980's, the bold graffiti art of Keith Haring could be found all over the streets and subways of New York City. His drawings became some of the most recognizable figures in pop art, and his influence on future street artists is immeasurable. One important aspect of Haring’s public art was its use to spread awareness about the growing AIDS crisis in the early 80's.
In June 1981, the CDC published a report about 5 men in Los Angeles who were suffering from a lung infection and experiencing symptoms of a weakened immune system (HIV.org). This was the first reporting on what would become the AIDS epidemic, and by the end of the decade the number of confirmed cases in the United States alone would hit 100,000. Haring was not the only artist during this time using his medium to draw awareness to the epidemic that was mostly ignored or underplayed, but he created some of the most iconic imagery of the movement.
Haring died of complications from AIDS in 1990, and his memorial was held at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Morningside Heights. In the last month of his life, Haring created a final artwork that was completely uncharacteristic for him: an altarpiece. The iconic figures from his graffiti take the roles of a traditional Madonna and Child scene in the foreground. Behind them, faceless figures shake their fists to the sky, angels fall to the ground, and there is an overall sense of despair. The gold altarpiece shines under the bright cathedral lights, but viewers still come face to face with the hopelessness of a generation of young men suffering from an invisible disease. The cathedral is also home to the National AIDS Memorial and maintains a book of names of every person who has died from the disease, keeping their memory alive. Haring’s altarpiece, and the many public artworks he created in his life, ensured that AIDS awareness remains a major societal concern long after his death.