Coronavirus on canvas: Visual art in times of pandemic

Rania Khallaf , Friday 28 Aug 2020

Throughout history, pandemics have influenced artists and prompted their response

Pandemic by Samir Fouad
Pandemic by Samir Fouad

Pandemics have influenced artists, notably in Europe, throughout history: the Black Death, for example, figures in Michael Wolgemut’s famous image of prancing skeletons, The Dance of Death (1493). In the Middle Ages artists and writers could take the side of God, presuming such events to be heavenly punishment, but by the time the cholera epidemics of the late 19th century occurred that had changed. Now artists were wholly compassionate with the victims. In both cases, however, the pandemic prompted a response.

It is somewhat strange, therefore, that Covid 19 has produced so little art. Five months into the quarantine, Egyptian veteran visual artist Samir Fouad posted a reproduction of a 48 by 69 cm oil on canvas named Pandemic on Facebook. A beautiful piece, it depicts an enormous fantastical beast, a cross between a bull and a sheep with deer horns, which is tragically solitary though it has a sarcastic look on its face. United by the affliction, people nonetheless suffer alone. The work is executed in a restricted palette of black, shades of blue, yellow and orange drips showing the fatal consequences of the pandemic.

Fouad used blue to convey a range of feelings in the wake of the 25 January Revolution. Here the admixture of black denotes uncertainty and impending doom. Sarcasm being a central tenet of all of this artist’s work, it can be seen in the creature’s defiant gaze. Unlike Wolgemut or subsequent painters who sympathised with the victims, Fouad personifies the virus itself.

“This savage creature came about unconsciously,” Fouad explains. “I started painting a sheep, influenced by ancient Egyptian depictions of the animal, which symbolises fertility. But all of the sudden, I decided to paint this fantastic figure in blue with some huge black spots, against a light blue background with rhythmic lines in orange. I didn’t immediately realise I was picturing a worldwide pandemic. This peremptory creature was just as difficult to control. It is almost like a rape…”

Animals have been the subjects of art since prehistoric times, with cave paintings consisting largely of them. In ancient Egypt we see some remarkable cats and birds. In the Coptic era there are snakes and lambs. But animals have been equally prevalent in modern art. Francisco Goya used allegorical animals to satirise Spanish society in 1797, Marc Chagall’s cows reflected the Parisian nostalgia for his rural Russian homeland for much of the 20th century, during which time Pablo Picasso too often focused on the bull in the ring.

Pandemic stands unique in Fouad’s oeuvre: his trademark motifs being the Oriental dancer and the swing, he seldom portrays animals though monkeys made a notable appearance in his pop art paintings a few years ago. Here as elsewhere the image harnesses erotic energy through the symbolism of the bull and explicit genitalia. In this sense it recalls such Picasso classics as The Kiss (1969), in which the subject is a single, violent embrace. At 76 Fouad says that, as far as his paintings are concerned, the sexual has become “a kind of redress” for losses sustained through the years: “I believe the stages of life overlap; old people can show childlike behaviour too.” But what was the pandemic like for him?

“During the shut-down period, I stayed at home with my wife watching endless documentaries on art and technology. My response to major events is never instant, it takes a year or two to materialise. There is definitely a serious feeling of uncertainty, due to the lack of any definitive understanding of how this virus works. I believe it is hard for the capitalist world order to continue under such circumstances. The virus is indeterminate, and its behavior and effect differ from one case to another. So I’ve been thinking of the virus in various ways. I believe new paintings will be emerging. I guess I  will start working on a related series of paintings. At the same time, I’ve been working on new erotic paintings. What I need to figure out is the relation between the two.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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