Monday, June 23, 2008
It's hard to imagine the panic of a sudden epidemic. Heinrich Heine was a German poet living in Paris as a journalist in 1831 covering the development of democracy and capitalism in France. His journals recount many things, including the beginning of the Paris Cholera epidemic of 1832. His descriptive account of the frenzy and sudden deaths served not just as historical information, but also as an inspiration for the artist Alfred Rethel. Having read the following passage of the account of the outbreak, the German artist Rethel went to work on his engraving “Death as the Cutthroat”
Here Heinrich Heine recounts the Paris scene:
"That night, the balls were more crowded than ever; hilarious laughter all but drowned the louder music; one grew hot in the chahut, a fairly unequivocal dance, and gulped all kinds of ices and other cold drinks--when suddenly the merriest of the harlequins felt a chill in his legs, took off his mask, and to the amazement of all revealed a violet-blue face. It was soon discovered that this was no joke; the laughter died, and several wagon loads were driven directly from the ball to the Hotel-Dieu, the main hospital, where they arrived in their gaudy fancy dress and promptly died, too...[T]hose dead were said to have been buried so fast that not even their checkered fool's clothes were taken off them; and merrily as they lived they now lie in their graves.
Rethel depicts the scene as he envisioned it. Death plays its instrument with a human bone, the costumed dancers struck dead mid dance at Death's feet. We see disease symbolized as a shrouded female figure sitting in the background, while musicians scurry from the scene with terror in their eyes.
Contrast this with an illustration from the US National Library of Medicine, a picture done by J. Roze entitled "Le Cholera a Paris". This engraving also depicts the cholera epidemic, but from a different perspective.
Which of the two stands out to you? One is more a symbolic representation, one more of a reality. One depicts terror, the other grief. Does either piece of art allow the viewer to experience the experiences of a sudden epidemic, or do Henrich Heine's words give a clearer picture?
Works: Rethel, Alfred "Death as Cutthroat"( 1851)
Roze, J "Le Cholera a Paris" (1832) US National Library of Medicine
Sources: Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, Nina "Blemished physiologies: Delacroix, Paganini, and the cholera epidemic of 1832- portrait of Niccolo Paganini by Eugene Delacroix" The Art Bulletin (Dec 2001). Here