English Shelley’s Art Musings

Shelley’s Art Musings – The great C word…

Street Art in Venice, California – Photography by Étienne Laurent

No, it isn’t what you are thinking, it is the word on everyone’s lips at the moment… Coronavirus. You can barely turn on the TV or the radio or turn to social media without seeing adverts telling you to stay at home, or hearing the dire situation that the world is currently in. What we don’t hear a lot about is the heart-warming stories which have resulted as an outcome. We aren’t seeing how the world has come together as a mass community to work together on controlling this pandemic. Recognition has come the world over, for our health services and front-line workers. We have seen support on mass for those who have had to put themselves in the danger zone with people clapping from their front doors to show their appreciation.

It has been a difficult time for all, having to isolate, especially if you are very used to being out and about, but street art is popping up all over the place from artists who feel the need to express themselves during this time.  Many of the pictures show portraits wearing masks, or depictions of health care workers as superheroes.

Street art in Warsaw, Poland – Photography by Agencja Gazeta

Art galleries and theatres have been closed for nearing a month now, but for those missing their cultural hits, you can view productions from the National Theatre here, or you can take a virtual tour of art galleries, such as the National Gallery here. This has been a great step for those who regularly visit. 

I can’t, however, let’s dismiss the harsh reality of Coronavirus, which is that this is a pandemic which has swept the world with nearly 2 million people contracting the virus and deaths in the region of 150,000, it has closed businesses and stopped travel. People are isolated and many mourn the loss of love ones without the ability to gather together during this difficult period.

We all know how the virus started and the pitfalls which have happened during this time, I am sure that we have all thought that the situation could have been handled much better, by world leaders, the media and individuals – let’s face it, no one should be crying the aisles of supermarkets because they are unable to buy toilet paper in this era, but we are where we are.

This isn’t the world’s first pandemic, and it is very unlikely to be the last, but the difference is this time, we can properly document how to handle this next time, and how we utilise the knowledge that we have gained to react quicker to this type of situation moving forwards. There are many lessons to be learned from this, not just for those in charge, but also for all of us.  Here in the UK we have seen many going out, despite the government pleas to stay home, but this also isn’t the first time this has happened.

If we look across history, we can see that pandemics have been frequent (if we look on the grand scale of time) and each time art and literature have been the things which have assisted our understanding of what happened and how it was dealt with. We have certainly seen a rise in global pandemics as trade and travel across continents became common place.

The Black Death is one of the most prevalent pandemics, thought to have originated in Asia and travelled across the continents through fleas on the back of rats. This peaked in the years 1347 -1351, this was documented to have wiped out nearly half the population of Europe. The plague created religious, social, and economic upheavals, with profound effects on the course of European history.

It is quite hard to find an image of people with the black death, as disease was rife during this time, and many times authors publish images of art work which doesn’t really show this disease, rather the people in the paintings suffering smallpox, leprosy or syphilis, so rather than fall down that trap, I will highlight that one of the plagues that fell out from the Black Death was the Bubonic Plague, which raised its head from the 14th century right through to the 19th century across the world – and still occasionally pops up – although now is completely treatable with antibiotics.

The most notable, for me, is the diaries of Samuel Pepys, who documented the plague in London during the 17th century right up to the Great Fire of London in 1666. The year prior Pepys has written about empty streets and people staying in their houses for 40 days with red crosses on their doors.  At the time, the way the disease was spread was unknown. Many things were blamed from poor air quality to the animals that roamed the streets.  It wasn’t understood that it was the fleas on the back of rats which transmitted it and living in squalor (as the streets were filthy) just encouraged the rats to the living quarters.

It was first mentioned in Pepys diary in 1663, noting an outbreak in Amsterdam and his fear that it would travel to England.  By spring of 1665 his fears had become a reality…

‘nobody but poor wretches in the streets’, ‘no boats upon the River’, ‘fires burning in the street’ to cleanse the air and ‘little noise heard day or night but tolling of bells’ 

It is well theorised that the Great Fire of London stopped the plague, but we all know images from this time of the plague doctors with their intimidating beaks filled with herbs, thought to stop something that was airborne.

This article is not to bring all doom and gloom, but rather to point out that we as a species can survive. We have faced pandemics in the past and come through, we have learned each time, and this will be no different. The diaries and artwork of today’s coronavirus will be much like Pepys diary in years to come.

Remember to show thanks to the frontline workers in your life, and remain creative during this time, as it is that which will help future generations to deal with the next pandemic.

To end on a lighter note, around the world, landmarks have been lit up to raise the moral and bring hope. From Christ the Redeemer in Rio to the Matterhorn in Switzerland, images have been projected onto the iconic places.

Please remember to follow your governments guidance and this time, and stay strong.

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