John Singer Sargent, Interior of a Hospital Tent (1918). Image courtesy Imperial War Museum.
In the last month there’s been a volley of writing looking for the 1918 Spanish flu’s impact on art. All start from the same enigma: the catastrophic damage wrought by this pandemic of a century ago, juxtaposed with how very little we are left with in terms of images or stories that directly reckon with its horrors.
Michael Lobel’s thoughtful Artforum essay tries to find traces of the 1918 pandemic by looking at a pair of works usually read as about the effects of chemical warfare in World War I, both by John Singer Sargent: Gassed (1918-19) and the less famous Interior of a Hospital Tent (1918). He speculates that their depictions of the wounded drew on the contemporaneous experience of the Spanish flu. While working as a war artist, Sargent himself was laid up at a military hospital with influenza, where he recovered alongside both gassed and sick soldiers. In Interior of a Hospital Tent, above, the different-color beds in fact indicate whether the patient was “contagious” or not.