Plague, Pestilence and Art

13 October 2021


Giacomo Borlone de Burchis, The Triumph of Death (1485). Detail of a fresco on the exterior of the Oratorio dei Disciplini in Clusone, Italy.

Plague, Pestilence and Art

A public lecture by Dr Clarissa Ball, Head, the History of Art, UWA School of Design, and Director, UWA Institute of Advanced Studies.

Between 1347-1351, the bubonic plague devastated Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. By any measure, the Black Death was world-shattering, and at the very least it shows how the microbial world can at times steer the course of human civilization. We now find ourselves in the same predicament, and while there is no doubt that our generation of the plagued is more fortunate, many of the responses to Coronavirus come from that plagued past. As does much of Europe’s greatest art.

This talk examined how artists have portrayed pestilence and plagues with a particular focus on representations that emerged out of the Black Death. Artists continued to respond to that catastrophic event for many centuries and while much of that art brought the warnings of the dead into the world of the living, within our current pestilential context, the unfamiliar art of plague suddenly seems all too familiar and visceral.

Dr Clarissa Ball is an art historian with particular interests in late nineteenth and twentieth century art and photography. She is currently the Head of Department of Fine Arts and History of Art at The University of Western Australia, where she is also the Director of the Institute of Advanced Studies. In 2018 she was appointed to the position of Deputy Director of the International Consortium, University Based Institutes of Advanced Studies. She previously held the positions of Dean of the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Fine Arts at UWA (2009-2005).In 2019, Dr Ball was appointed to the Board of the Art Gallery of Western Australia.