Outbreak is the current temporary exhibit at the Center for Disease Control’s Global Health Odyssey Museum. The show is the work of Bryn Barnard, showcasing his paintings created for a middle school textbook to teach about the history of infectious disease on civilization. The paintings are medium to small-scale oils, realistic and illustrative with an abundance of detail, but the meat of the show is the historical background.
Disease and war are two major agents of change, and often follow one another. Barnard shows how turning points in civilization are often linked to catastrophic illness- hence Baron Rothschild’s axiom: “When there’s blood in the streets, buy property.”
This was especially true in the middle ages, when the bubonic plague brought about the end of the feudal system through much of Europe and the rise of the middle class. One of the most striking images, “The Plague Doctor”, approximates a Vermeer or Van Eyck interior, with the central figure wearing goggles and an enormous bird like beak, which the accompanying text tells us, is stuffed with vinegar-soaked rags and spices to counter the smell of rotting flesh. In the background a man is being bled to release his “ill humours” while the bizarre practitioner comforts the soon-to-be widow.
Another set of images show the effect of smallpox on natives of the New World, decimating invaded Aztec cities within weeks and racing up the continent to wipe out entire populations. This left a vacuum of power to be filled by the Europeans, who arrived in the Pacific Northwest to find empty beaches littered with the bones of the dead. This same lack of immunity to disease defeated Napoleon’s attempt to quell a slave uprising in Haiti, when yellow fever caused his forces to withdraw from the area entirely, making way for the expansion of the fledgling United States through the Louisiana Purchase a year later, and the establishment of Haiti as the first nation founded by former slaves a year after that.
There’s even a bit of romance if you bring a date: apparently tuberculosis was called “love sickness” in pre-industrial Japan, and was seen as caused by unconsummated desire. The Romantic poets, pale and wan, bloody handkerchief in tow, led to the idealization of tuberculosis not as an infectious disease, but an enviable sign of genius and a sensitive constitution.
The style of the painting in Outbreak fits well with the purpose of the works- it is illustrative. Its purpose is not to question, but to reveal and explain- the paintings accompany the text, and not vice versa, with few exceptions. Regardless, most of the images are interesting on their own, and they don’t tell the whole story. There is a matter-of-fact bizarreness that draws the viewer in to read the history behind the painting. It’s well worth a visit to the CDC to check it out- just make sure to wash your hands.
Outbreak is up through January 30. The CDC Global Health Odyssey Museum is located at 1600 Clifton Road, N.E. at CDC Parkway, Atlanta, Georgia 30333 (404) 639-0830