Be it Hopper pastiche or Hockney original, art offers vital comfort in times of crisis | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett


Two Russians – a man and a woman –­ gaze gloomily from a photograph. He is wearing glasses, she a floral pinafore. In the foreground, so close that it looks enormous, is a kitchen fork. It is, unmistakably, American Gothic. Except this couple are inside their apartment, standing in front of a window, through which we see huge tower blocks.

Confinement has, for lots of us, led to hours of dead time. Our cultural institutions, which house the pinnacles of human artistic achievements, are all closed. And so the people have taken art into their own hands, meticulously reconstructing famous paintings using themselves as the subjects. The American Gothic pastiche comes from a Russian “isolation” Facebook group in which we also see The Townley Discobolus replicated by a nude man holding a saucepan lid, and the ruffs in an Anthony van Dyck portrait reconstructed using toilet rolls. Over on the Instagram account Covid Classics, which is run by “four roommates who love art and are indefinitely quarantined”, are recreations of Magritte’s The Son of Man, Diego Velázquez’s Old Woman Frying Eggs, and the Arnolfini Portrait with the bride’s gown constructed from a sleeping bag.

We need art in an emergency. Since lockdown began, I have found myself turning to it, especially landscape painting, which had never especially interested me before. When you can’t really go anywhere, looking at Van Gogh’s Provencal harvest is soothing and evocative. It also feels much easier to engage visually at the moment, as we find ourselves bombarded by words. Several art memes have “gone viral” (we need a new phrase for this phenomenon) since the crisis began: Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks diner, darkened and empty; Da Vinci’s Last Supper, but on Zoom, with Jesus seated alone at his table; unpopulated canvasses, directing us to stay home and save lives. They are clever, and poignant, and funny. Hopper especially, with his images of isolation, has become symbolic of this time of social distancing.

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Art offers meaning in times of crisis. When David Hockney publishes his new pictures of the Normandy spring, it grants solace (Do Remember They Can’t Cancel the Spring, is the title of his cheering daffodil picture). When I look at Tracey Emin’s photographic diary of self-isolation, I feel less alone and gain insight into the life of an artist I have long admired.

When humanity is under threat, art reminds us that we are capable of creating great beauty. It is a shared visual language, representing the best of our achievements. Humans have always felt a drive to make things and, whatever difficulties we face, that drive will remain.

“I think art is an articulation of resilience. People create art through war and pandemics and hardship, and the work lives on for hundreds of years in museums or people’s homes,” says Tatum Dooley, a Toronto-based writer who took up the painting challenge. “If I’m re-enacting a portrait of Simonetta Vespucci from the 1400s, she’s continuing to live on in the world, and maybe I will too.” In some ways, it is an articulation of one’s place in our shared history, a way of remaining part of the communal whole.

We have yet to see what art will emerge from this crisis, but artists all over the world are already creating. Social media means that I can see my friend Lucy Whitehead, a student of the Royal College of Art and now unable to display her work at her end-of-year show, painting in her garage. A cross-section of work by artists responding to isolation can be viewed on the Politico website. Art goes on.

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Isolation has historically proved fruitful, and artists are producing new work all the time. Social crises have given rise to new movements throughout art history, from the birth of dadaism and surrealism after the first world war to the shift towards abstraction after the second and the horrors of Auschwitz. The current tragedy is not on that scale, but it might still come to mark an important cultural deviation.

In a recent essay for the New Yorker, the art critic Peter Schjeldahl claims that the art of the old masters has “so much more soulful heft than the moderns” because the former have a “routine consciousness of mortality”. This is nonsense, especially for someone who has praised the resonance of Gerhard Richter’s Holocaust-haunted retrospective Painting After All, and not least because, for women, threats to our lives don’t merely “exist at the extremes of the statistical and the anecdotal”. We still inhabit a world of mass femicide, a worsening of which will be just one consequence of this pandemic. (He also goes on to call the five-year-old Las Meninas “stunningly pretty”, a timely reminder that the critical establishment remains dominated by the male gaze. But I digress.)

Many of us may be confronted by less death on a day-to-day basis than the people of the past, but the pain we feel is a historical constant. Many of us – male or female, young or old – have watched or will watch someone we love die. Today, people are dying in intensive care units, or at home without access to medical attention. Eventually, that pain will inspire artists, and will follow spectators into museums, shifting the way we view and perceive art. For now, what we can do is seek comfort in that which came before.

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Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist





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