Icons of Art Wearing Masks: Frida Kahlo, Mona Lisa, Girl with the Pearl Earring & More

We hear the phrase “unprece­dent­ed times” every day now, but the truth is few calami­ties in human his­to­ry are more prece­dent­ed than plagues and pesti­lences. In West­ern his­to­ry, at least, dis­ease epi­demics seem always to have been fol­lowed by Machi­avel­lian oppor­tunism and cultish con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries that only made things worse.

Dur­ing the 14th cen­tu­ry, almost six hun­dred years before Nao­mi Klein defined the shock doc­trine, the Black Death “strength­ened the pow­er of the state and accel­er­at­ed the dom­i­na­tion of key mar­kets by a hand­ful of large com­pa­nies,” write Eleanor Rus­sell and Mar­tin Park­er at The Con­ver­sa­tion (hel­lo, Ama­zon). In their argu­ment, dis­as­ter cap­i­tal­ism may have pre­ced­ed actu­al cap­i­tal­ism, and it start­ed with the plague.

In his his­to­ry of the Great Plague of 1665, Daniel Defoe described how “every­one behaved bad­ly, though the rich behaved the worst,” as Jill Lep­ore writes at The New York­er, forc­ing their ser­vants to put their lives at risk to pro­vi­sion the great hous­es. “This Neces­si­ty…,” writes Defoe, “was in a great Mea­sure the Ruin of the whole City,” though few in Lon­don then under­stood how to slow trans­mis­sion of the dis­ease.

That was not the case when the Influen­za epi­dem­ic took the lives of hun­dreds of mil­lions around the world between 1918 and 1920. Doc­tors under­stood how the flu spread and rec­om­mend­ed that every­one wear a mask in pub­lic. Cities passed ordi­nances and imme­di­ate­ly resis­tance sprang up, lead­ing to orga­ni­za­tions like San Francisco’s Anti-Mask League, whose rhetoric sounds like that of anti-mask pro­tes­tors of today.

The times may be unique—for the speed at which COVID-19 spread around the world, for instance, along with the disinformation—but humans have lived through many ver­sions of pan­dem­ic, and many dis­as­trous­ly self­ish, oppor­tunis­tic, and short-sight­ed respons­es to it. We may con­tem­plate these his­tor­i­cal rep­e­ti­tions as we admire the Insta­gram cre­ations of artist Genevieve Blais, who has been post­ing images of famous paint­ings, stat­ues, and pho­tographs with their sub­jects wear­ing masks.

More than nov­el­ty memes or high­brow pub­lic ser­vice announce­ments, Blais’ cre­ations are part-whim­si­cal/­part-sober­ing reminders of the per­sis­tence of plagues through­out history—their influ­ence on the rise and fall of dynas­ties and pow­er­ful patrons, and the igno­rance and fol­ly that led to so much pre­ventable death. Tech­no­log­i­cal­ly speak­ing, humans are bet­ter posi­tioned than ever before to com­bat epi­demics of dis­ease. But it’s worth remem­ber­ing the prece­dents for our cur­rent con­di­tions. Plagues have shaped human his­to­ry. We don’t always have to respond to them the same way. See all of Blais’s masked fine art images at her Plague His­to­ry Insta­gram page. If you DM her, she will make you a print.

via Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Hap­pened When Amer­i­cans Had to Wear Masks Dur­ing the 1918 Flu Pan­dem­ic

Vin­tage Sci­ence Face Masks: Con­quer the Pan­dem­ic with Sci­ence, Cour­tesy of Maria Popova’s Brain­Pick­ings

Down­load Clas­sic Works of Plague Fic­tion: From Daniel Defoe & Mary Shel­ley, to Edgar Allan Poe

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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