The Prophetic Visions of Painters before the Age of Coronavirus

Artist Jen Brown
Mar 28, 2020 · 7 min read

For a year now I have been writing about a different narrative painting every day; half are historical paintings and half are contemporary. When I reflect upon my posts and the paintings made by my contemporaries I notice a trend.

There’s been a collective anxiety building in narrative paintings in the last decade or so. Although it would be impossible to provide statistics about how many artworks deal with the end times, it certainly feels like I see more paintings of the post-apocalyptic era. Artists have definitely ramped up production during the Trump presidency and it is amazing to see how many exhibit fears about the future, be that economic, environmental, or personal physical health. I will focus on three painters that have made these themes central in their work.

Chris Pothier, It’s a Goddamn Mess, 2012

Let me start with my dear friend Chris Pothier’s work. During and after the Great Recession of 2008 Pothier was painting images that reflected the general anxiety that most Americans felt about the economic instability. Pothier’s 9 to 5 series is chock full of businessmen looking fearful and nervous.

Chris Pothier, Post-Apocalyptic Man, 2019

But by 2019 Pothier had started a series called American Apocalyptic - a series in which figures in gas masks navigate their way through a strange new world, unsure of where to go and what to do next. The first painting in the series was Post-Apocalyptic Man. I remember seeing it in his studio in March of 2019 and we discussed how bold it was to paint a naked self-portrait.

Chris Pothier, American Apocalyptic, 2019-20

Pothier has created more in the series since, most notably the above painting titled after Grant Wood’s famous painting American Gothic of an older couple standing in front of their solid and stable farmhouse in the American Mid-West. Pothier’s figures are not afforded the same secure world though, for they stand in the middle of a road with no destination in sight. They are nomadic and must adjust to the harsh environment in which they find themselves. The painting offers a glimmer of hope though; no matter what is thrown at them, the couple remain strong together. Their bond is what will see them through.

Chris Pothier, Miss America 2042, 2020

Pothier often injects a bit of humor into his work; Miss America 2042 deals with who will wear their state-issued gas mask and orange jumper best.

Erik Thor Sandberg, Thing of Ruin, 2018

It’s impossible to deny to the influence that Hieronymous Bosch has had on Washington, D.C. artist Erik Thor Sandberg. His surrealist figures are often beautiful and grotesque at the same time. They fight with each other. They exhibit vices and virtues. They are symbolic of our human nature.

Erik ThorSandberg, Thing of Ruin (detail), 2018
Erik Thor Sandberg, Untitled, 2016

The artist writes “I have come to the realization that at least half of my work looks like it is a product of living in this current coronavirus world. The painting of the skeleton gobbling up people has been making the rounds with hashtags for the virus. My newest work seems even more prescient to the times even though I had the ideas formed months ago.”

Erik Thor Sandberg, Death Proof, 2019
Patrick McGrath Muñiz, The Vessel, 2015

Patrick McGrath Muñiz is another artist whose work seems remarkably prescient. His larger works, like The Vessel (72 x 48") above, touch on a variety of big picture issues facing society such as capitalist greed, climate change, and human migration.

Patrick McGrath Muñiz, The Vessel (detail), 2015

In the painting we see the Virgin Mary as captain at the helm of a small boat carrying migrants across the sea. Her halo is made up of the logos of transnational corporations. A woman offers the Virgin a bottle of water and prescription medicine. In the background a Trump-like baby with a cell phone rests on the shoulders of Central American migrant who carries a satellite dish.

Patrick McGrath Muñiz, The Vessel (detail), 2015

McGrath Muñiz writes that there is “A mysterious woman wearing a cloak, mask and gloves holds a book on her hands. The book has an inscription in Latin that reads: ‘Migramus Trans Maria’ (We migrate across the seas). Another phrase reads ‘Ad Astrae et Lineae Aspera’ (A rough road leads toward the stars and bars) bringing to mind the reality of so many migrants.”

McGrath Muñiz adds “Finally there is an inscription on the boat in Latin that reads ‘Navis Consumptorum Superstitum et Stultorum’ (Ship of consumers, survivors and fools)[…] This ship of new fools is ruled by the corporate conglomerate that acts as holy figure. This nautical scene serves as a metaphor for a new world order which navigates through the seas of human history, constructed dogmas and fictions while downplaying the environmental consequences. We are all in one way or another in the same boat sharing our addictions, personal contradictions and hopes for a better future[…] Will we allow this vessel to go adrift with uncertain fate or are we going to face our responsibilities, take control and steer it in the right direction?”

It feels like we are a turning point in history. The coronavirus quarantine has caused economic activity to come to a stand still. The for-profit healthcare system in the US cannot handle an influx of patients. Americans without health insurance who contract COVID-19 cannot afford their hospital bills. Economic policies of the last 50 years favor corporations over people. As I write this the Senate is preparing to vote on a $2 trillion aid package for workers and businesses, the ramifications of which are unclear now but will surely last years.

Patrick McGrath Muñiz, Geo Iudicium, 2015

And so we reach the crescendo. The moment of the end times encapsulated in this incredible painting by McGrath Muñiz called Geo Iudicium, which translates to ‘Earth Judgement’ in Latin. It’s a painting of the scene of the Last Judgement from the Book of Revelations, with the earthly beings at the bottom and the heavenly above.

Instead of a sword, the archangel St Michael wields a can of Raid insecticide. In his other hand he holds the scales of justice that weigh the blue earth on one side and humanity on the other. Also in the sky we see Icarus falling as the wax melts and his feathers give way. McGrath Muñiz states that “In this given context, it links humanity’s hubris with the devil’s pride and eventual fall from glory.”

Patrick McGrath Muñiz, Geo Iudicium (detail), 2015

McGrath Muñiz explains that we see representations of the four seasons in the earthly realm. “Ver (Spring) kneels down and releases or tries to catch the Phoenix while a green jar spills some water. Aestas (Summer) extends her orange towel while an accompanying infant points a fan towards her. Autumnus (Autum) covers herself from the wind next to some tree stumps and a buried toilet seat. Hiems (Winter) wearing a gas mask, holds a broken umbrella and funeral vase.”

Ver releases the fiery phoenix bird, a symbol of rebirth and regeneration since the time of the ancient Greeks. It would die in a blaze of fire, from which its predecessor would rise from the ashes. In the painting, a gun-toting baby in a plague doctor mask takes aim at the phoenix. We all hold our breath, hoping that the baby misses.

In our waking lives we all hold our breath, hoping that this pandemic ends soon. In the meantime, as we stay home from work and practice social distancing we now have a little more time to take a walk and enjoy Ver’s spring flowers in bloom.

Jen Brown is a narrative painter, curator, and art historian working in Portland, OR. She has a Master’s degree in Art History and a diploma in Curatorial Studies. Her work may be seen on her website, Instagram or on Medium (Artist Jen Brown). She writes daily about narrative painting on Instagram or at narrativepainting.net.