Coronavirus. From the plague to the Second World War, the art born during isolation
The Savoy-born French writer and military, Xavier de Maistre, owes celebrity to his first novel, the ‘Journey around my room’, written in the busy period between the 1700s and 1800s, between the French Revolution and the advent of Napoleon. The work was born during the confinement period, a bit like what we are experiencing these days, forced to stay home because of the new coronavirus, COVID-19. On the eve of the Carnival of 1794, due to a duel, Xavier de Maistre was placed under house arrest for 42 days. Instead of sinking into depression or crying over himself, the French author took the opportunity to compose the famous booklet.
‘Journey around my room’ is made up of 42 chapters, how many were the days of isolation, during which Xavier de Maistre travels long and wide and diagonally, zigzagging and often making the chair from which he does not walk on his rear legs he loves to get unstuck, the 36 steps to the side of his square room, commenting on furniture and objects and recalling old memories. The author’s monologue often splits in a dialogue, between two parts of himself, the soul and what he called “the other”, the beast, that is the body, which bick with grace, calling themselves with respect even “ Madame “, and from which” the other “ often comes out the winner. There is also a beloved dog, Rosine, and a servant, Joannetti, also beloved and irreplaceable, who however abandoned him, because he got married and had to move to another city. Each object that the author presents to us is an occasion for digressions and anecdotes, for philosophical observations based on a current morality, benevolent, generous and witty. The rare moments of melancholy, such as the memory of a missing friend, are always overcome by momentum with a pure, sincere and never bigoted faith, of authentic and universal spiritualism that can inspire the reader who now retraces those pages during the quarantine.
Over the years many artists have taught us to look at the spaces that surround us from new points of view, Giorgio Morandi, one of the protagonists of Italian painting of the twentieth century and considered among the greatest world engravers, painted his main masterpieces during the period of isolation of the Second World War. From his studio in the house in Via Fondazza, in Bologna, where he lived with his mother and three sisters Anna, Dina and Maria Teresa, Morandi painted his famous oil on canvas, where light represents the foundation of his works. The apparent simplicity of vases, bottles, bowls, flowers, landscapes is enhanced by the pictorial quality, but also by the study of lights and shadows, the result of the long observation with which the artist used to kill time. Using very few colors is one of its particular characteristics, which makes his operas poetic and surreal and, even if it did not detail its subjects, it can be seen that they don’t lose their realism.
Marisa Merz, who in her home in Turin, Italy, urged us to look at the world with closed eyes, which for her were “extraordinarily open”, is another great artist who during the moments of forced closure at home, has embarked on new journeys within the perimeter of her room, to try to discover new fantasy maps and new vanishing points. In 1966 Merz used her home as an atelier to exhibit her works of “poor art” making the boundaries between intimate space and public place indistinct. Weaves wefts of copper and nylon threads. Then she melts small objects, such as postcards, in the white wax that acts as a protective cocoon, evoking the feeling of protection she probably felt in her room, just as we also feel protected in our homes today from the monster, from the coronavirus circulating outside.
If it is true that history is made up of occurrences and recurrences, covid-19 is only the last virus to afflict humanity. Artists, sculptors, painters and writers have witnessed the most disastrous plagues in their works. The black plague exterminated a third of the European population between 1343 and 1363. In the introductory pages to the first “Decameron” Day, Giovanni Boccaccio describes the plague epidemic that shocked Florence in 1348, a “horrid beginning” which explains why the ten storytellers meet in the church of S. Maria Novella and decide to leave the city, justifying the raison d’etre of the novels. The opening piece of the work is a grandiose scenario of the terrible plague, in which, however, a sense of astonishment amazed by the scourge prevails and the doubt remains whether the pandemic is due to divine punishment or to some evil astral influence, already anticipating the modern mentality of the centuries to come, and which still in those who do not have faith in science, as well as among some Muslim countries.
Boccaccio seems to describe our cities today when he describes not only the rapid spread of the disease, but above all when he writes that the plague has disrupted the social fabric of Florence and has upset normal relationships even in families and to dominate it is the unbridled search for profit, especially by unscrupulous individuals. Scenes that are still repeated today with the skyrocketing prices of antibacterial gels, masks and disinfectants and in many countries, unfortunately, also foodstuffs. Numerous testimonies of the seventeenth century plague, as well as the Spanish influence that between 1918 and 1919 cost to Guillalme Apollinaire, Gustav Klimt, Amedeo De Souza Cardoso, Egon Schiele and his family the life. At the end of the quarantine, sometimes even earlier thanks to internet and social networks, we will discover art in the time of the coronavirus, as the revisitation with ‘Amuchina’ and facial masks of the famous Hayez ‘Kiss’ appeared in these days in an Italian mural, in the city of Milan, one of the most affected by the COVID-19 modern pandemic.