Illness as Metaphor in Sweerts' "Plague in an Ancient City"

Michael Sweets, Plague in an Ancient City, about 1652–54
On a recent visit to the Getty, a Michael Sweerts painting was attracting a van Gogh crowd. No one was snapping selfies; they were remarking on the painting's uncanny relevance. Sweerts' Plague in an Ancient City is one of best pictures of a pandemic to be found anywhere. It's owned by LACMA and is on loan at the Getty Center.

Sweerts, a peripatetic Flemish artist, painted Plague during his Rome sojourn, where he experienced the outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1648-50. He must have known Poussin's Plague at Ashdod (1630) and a lost Raphael painting, The Plague in Prygia, recorded in an engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi. The LACMA painting is of such high quality that it was attributed to Poussin until the 1930s. It's in much better condition than the abraded Poussin in the Louvre.
Nicolas Poussin, Plague at Ashod, 1630. Louvre. Another version, also autograph, is in the National Gallery, London
Marcantonio Raimondi, after Raphael, The Plague in Phrygia, after 1520
Plague paintings were sometimes commissioned as ex votos, to thank God for a miraculous survival. Yet they had a mixed reputation. The superstitious feared that looking at a painting of illness could itself tempt fate. Neither Sweerts, Poussin, nor Raphael depicts a contemporary pestilence. They each distanced the disturbing subject by setting it in Classical or Biblical times.

Sweerts remains a mysterious figure. No one knows why painted what he did. But Poussin wrote about Plague at Ashdod and even testified at the trial of a patron who used the painting in a money-laundering scheme. Poussin cities Aristotle's discussion of plague victims who murder ill family members to save themselves. Poussin's painting is a series of moral dilemmas in a society that is falling apart. It's possible Sweerts saw his subject similarly–but we really don't know.

Unlike the Poussin, the Sweerts painting is divided into a gloomy ruin on the left and a light-filled plaza on the right. Scholars have tried to connect this to paganism v. Christianity, or Pope Innocent X's then-raging feud with Cardinal Mazarin of France. In 1648 Pope condemned his political foes for "the plague of heresy."

LACMA bought Plague in an Ancient City in a big-money 1997 auction. It went for $3.85 million; remarkably, the underbidder was another institution, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. At the time some commenters remarked on its contemporary relevance to the AIDS epidemic.

Curator J. Patrice Marandel wrote that the Sweerts is "a painting that speaks very personally to us, a modern painting. It is a history of life and death, of hope and redemption, of triumph of light over darkness.… What may have attracted me to it was precisely the message of hope the painting delivers. Valid in 1650, that message is still valid today."
Detail, Sweerts' Plague in an Ancient City


Anonymous said…
The Getty should avoid giving that painting back to LACMA. As J. Patrice Marandel commented not too long ago, all his years of work in enhancing the European collection at LACMA have - to paraphrase - been trashed and pummeled.

Michael Govan is a cultural version of the Covid-19 Virus.

Anonymous said…
Anonymous said…
If only the Save-LACMA mob were as insightful as Michael Govan...

Here is Govan in conversation with Chris Burden:

"When we looked at this space in front of the museum, it was an instant eureka moment, because these lamps had been assembled into architecture; they have this feeling of a Roman colonnade or some kind of ancient structure. While they’re from the ’20s and they’re modern, they still give this feeling of walking through an ancient temple. And immediately it seemed to me this was the perfect image for a museum in Los Angeles, because all of those East Coast museums, even as far west as Chicago, have their Greco-Roman temple façades; that’s the sign that you’re walking into a museum—you see the temple façade. But, of course, this is a kind of faux temple. It’s an interesting reversal because those Greco-Roman temple façades on East Coast museums are really faux; they’re neoclassical. And here you’ve assembled an honest-to-goodness Los Angeles temple made of local materials, in our time."

Zumthor's building is also "an honest-to-goodness Los Angeles temple made of local materials, in our time." But some of you are so blind you can't see how and why. Here's a good place to start --- Edith Hamilton, The Greek Way, pp 201-02
Anonymous said…
Big deal. Govan also wanted LACMA to go further into debt several years ago by hiring artist Jeff Koons to hang a silly hanging train piece in front of the museum.

Govan, however, wasn't quite as successful in conning benefactors for that than he has been with his planned debacle from Peter Zumthor.

LACMA's director is doing to the museum what the Covid-19 Virus is doing to various grocery stores: Stripping them bare.
Anonymous said…
Con the benefactors? How does one con David Geffen? He had the foresight in 1985 to buy the Hockney painting The Splash?.

Another benefactor is Elaine Wynn, the Board President, who owns Bacon's Three Studies of Lucian Freud, a masterpiece on par with the best paintings ever made. She may not have been one of the first to own the painting, but it sill shows she's a true connoisseur.

Tell us what you have bought recently? What is your taste level? How astute are you? I assume you live in LA. You've had chances --- Wood, Israel, Taylor, Kusaka, all LA-based artists whose value and reputation has risen sharply since 2011. How many of their works do you own?

The Save-LACMA crowd likes to pretend they know a lot about art, architecture, and the encyclopedic museum, but in reality they've got nothing.

Anonymous said…
What does purchasing art have to do with idiotic, unethical, irresponsible management of a museum? It's a non sequitur.

You might just as well imply that because Michael Govan likes eating eggs and bacon in the morning, driving a Mercedes-Benz to work or wearing blue pants and dark socks on the weekend he's therefore the go-to guy in knowing how LACMA should be handled.
Anonymous said…

One must assume that when one refers to the Save LACMA mob one is referring to that inept and half mad architecture critic named Joseph Giovannini. That bitter old queen got slighted by the brilliant Michael Govan and then lashes not by the pen, because no one will publish his pompous and pernicious prattling but under the nom de plume of the dopey Greg Golding and the largess of his rich knitting circle friends who gullibly paid for those horrible, horrible advertisements.

We Angelenos look forward to the glorious day when the even more brilliant Peter Zumthor’s masterpiece is open to the public for all of us to enjoy and appreciate.
Anonymous said…
Mikey Govan, quit your tap dancing and conning the public. While you're at it, please get the hell out of LA. We already have enough problems without a cretin like you making things worse.
Anonymous said…
The New York Times shades and shames the Save-LACMA mob:

"Surely the time has come for one of our encyclopedic museums to opt for unmonumental and anti-imperial as a house style. There appears to be at least one example in the offing in the future Peter Zumthor-designed building for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, though it has proved controversial before ground has even been broken.

The main complaint is that with the new building, which replaces four old structures on the LACMA campus, the museum will lose significant square footage and therefore be forced to show less of its permanent collection. The museum counters that its plan is to rotate its display frequently (this is MoMA’s plan too), constantly refreshing the installation and in that way showing more of the permanent collection than before. In addition, the museum will maintain satellite galleries where further selections from its holdings will appear.

Purely in terms of design, the Zumthor design looks restorative. Spanning Wilshire Boulevard, it’s low-slung, curvy, light. It’s a bridge, not one of the blank interruptive chunks or sky-reaching ladders that fill cities now. Also, the museum’s proposal for rotation and distribution looks, at least in the telling, like a sound and generous one. Its implementation will require continual work and experimentation. But if that results in more people seeing more art, in more variety, over time, some of it in places they might not have expected, that can’t be bad."

The Save-LACMA mob keeps telling us how New York is going to be laughing at us for the LACMA rebuild. Oh, they are laughing all right --- at the Save-LACMA mob!
Anonymous said…
The fact people like you think the Govan-Zumthor debacle is mainly or purely about design and architecture - or an issue of window dressing - is the essence of empty-headed Hollywoodism and look-at-me, selfie culture.

You might just as well say that Covid-19 is primarily about whether free food samples will or won't be handed out at the local Trader Joe's.
Anonymous said…
... The fact that people like you don't even bother to read the article cited above and therefore don't know that the NY Times article is NOT about design or architecture shows just how much the Save-LACMA mob is an "empty-headed" bunch of rustics.

The article is about the fate and future of the "encyclopedic" museum. This is the crux of the article: The big museums "need to rethink the Temple of Beauty branding they’ve coasted on from the start. They need to acknowledge the often conflicted relationship between aesthetics and ethics. They need to address what their collections leave out. They need to reconsider their own role as history-tellers and history-inventors. In short, they need to redefine what “encyclopedic” and “museum” and “art” can mean."
Anonymous said…
Who the hell cares about "Temple of Beauty" this, "Temple of Beauty" that? LACMA is already running up the red ink without even moving into an active phase with its Govan-Zumthor debacle.

Beyond the economics alone, the museum in terms of scale and collections wasn't "holy, great!" impressive to begin with. Maybe it was by LACMA-1965 standards and within the context of Podunk Museum A, Nowhereville Museum B. But not more rigorous ones.

Govan-Zumthor merely solidifies the frivolous, air-headed stereotype of La La Land and the selfie-nature of its entertainment-industry patrons and aficionados.