A Portrait of a Pandemic

Ava Benbow discusses the honesty of art during pandemics, and how such depictions can help us grapple with reality

Image(s): Rania Matar, 'On Either Side of the Window'


One of the first things that I was taught about portraiture was that you have to make a connection. More than the length of the nose or the tilt of a mouth, a good portrait is about finding a way to pin down that intangible and personal bond between artist and subject. There is something captivating about a real connection, something that is perhaps magnified by the current Coronavirus pandemic. When a hug can take weeks of logistical planning, you start to think about genuine moments with more gravity.

It’s a reverence for closeness that can transform into something beautiful. Raina Matar’s photo series “On Either Side of the Window, Portraits During Covid-19.” gives intimate glimpses into people’s homes. Hands pressed against glass, bare feet, and honest eyes. Fragmenting this closeness are the reflections on the panes that separate the photographer from her subjects. Matar doesn’t try to hide this, rather she gives in to the limitations of the pandemic and finds closeness in spite of this. The pandemic acts as another subject, as present and acknowledged as those behind the lens.

The need to document these strange times is reflected in Jeff Rhode’s work. As a photojournalist, he has documented life inside of a New Jersey hospital in the height of the pandemic. He has captured the new normal, the PPE and cleaning and the fear. But between gurneys being moved and rooms being sanitized, there are faces. Shot in black and white with tight focus, there is a sense of intimacy. The viewer has no choice but to look into the eyes of the subjects and try to reckon with the state of the world. Like Matar’s work, the pandemic is also a subject. In the masks and face shields, but also in the tiredness of the hospital staff’s eyes.

It feels like there is a compulsion to archive what this pandemic feels like, and a lot of people have turned to portraiture. Front porch portraits have become increasingly popular and the prevalence of smartphone allows a staggering amount of people to document every detail of their own lives. In this age of filters and media perfectionism, it is particularly gripping to see people document the unglamorous realities of their own lives. More than the statistics and maps and lists of symptoms, we want to remember the truth of the situation that will one day seem strange again. Truthfully documenting a pandemic through art goes beyond the tangible. It requires trust and honesty. I think that this is why art from past pandemics feels so relevant right now. There is a raw authenticity that pulls us in and makes us realize the significance of faithfully chronicling our current circumstances.

We know more than we did in past pandemics. Gone are the beak-nosed masks filled with aromatic herbs and myths of mists that carried disease. But we are still grappling with how to deal with fear, mortality, and solitude, and this is reflected in the art that we make. As we have now, we turned to portraiture in the early 1900s to capture the Spanish Flu. Despair and exhaustion in Edvard Munch’s 1919 “Self-Portrait After the Spanish Flu” are painted as plainly as the green furrows on his orange brow. His gaze is fixed and hard as his surroundings blur into choppy brushstrokes in vibrant colors. His weakness and sadness after recovering from the illness that killed many of his contemporaries is evident, there is no attempt to shroud how he feels. It isn’t a particularly uplifting painting, but it’s truthful. It feels as much a portrait of the Spanish Flu as it is a portrait of him. The same can be said for Egon Schile’s 1919 painting “The Family”, depicting his dead wife and unborn child and himself before he also succumbed to the Spanish flu is palpable. It is jarring and personal, each nude figure painted plainly and vulnerably. The grief that he was feeling, and the desperation, is injected into every brushstroke. These paintings do not shy away from the weakness and devastation of the disease but embrace it.

As history repeats itself, so do trends in art. The honesty and struggle to come to terms with pandemics can be traced along the arcs of humanity. The uncertainty and grief that we have to coexist with recur every pandemic. But almost more importantly, the realization that a universal struggle negates the need for shame allows for a richer honesty in describing your own experience. The boils of bubonic plague blotted on with a heavy-handed grimness transitioning to the overdrawn skeletons hovering over burning cities, the plainness with which art is able to transcend privacy and lies of vanity during pandemics is lasting.