Every major world crisis, be it war, financial meltdown or as now, global pandemic, is interpreted through the lens of artists of all genres. It can be graphic depiction, symbolic, allegoric or whatever but all capturing in some way the zeitgeist. Among the first painters out of the blocks to give expression to their immediate feelings about the current Coronavirus crisis is David Downes who has just released a series dedicated to it.
“I would have been a war artist, I think”, Downes tells me when I talked to him on the phone. Indeed, there’s a war-like theme emanating through all this new work. The rows of NHS beds crowded into a field in the top picture together resemble a graveyard set in pretty countryside while the cause of all the misery hovers above like aliens from outer space, beautiful but dangerous. Their appearance echoes the backdrop to news reports that we see on TV every day.“ It sort of reminded me of HG Wells, a very surreal, visual description to describe a virus, like a spore.”
Downes is known mainly as a landscape painter. He completed an MA at the Royal College of Art in Communications and Design in 1996. In 2012, he was commissioned by London’s Savoy Hotel to paint the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant from the roof of the building, the result of which you can view in the hotel’s entrance hall. In 2019, people in Bournemouth may have seen him paint a giant mural commissioned by ITV for the launch of their period drama depicting the fictional coastal town of Sanditon based on Jane Austen’s last and unfinished novel.
The picture above is appropriately named The Front. Instead of armour, those on the frontline wear personal protective gear and their shields are emblazoned with the coat of arms of the regions and counties of the United Kingdom in the battle against what are here depicted as giant stars. People in lockdown open their windows to offer support just as crowds would gather to cheer the troops into battle during wartime.
“There’s a sense of foreboding,” he says. “There’s a monster coming and we’re not ready for it, just as we weren’t ready for fascism in the 1930s.”
That sense of apprehension is best expressed in Our Heroes, above. The heroes are tiny compared to the deadly viruses that hover threateningly above. Those on the front line are what he calls “the valiant warriors of medicine, science and politics.” They walk in single file like a small army facing a monumental task in the fight against a seemingly overwhelming enemy. The inspiration for the scene in which the skyline looks bleak, almost ruinous, was Hampstead Heath in London. It reminded me of the fact that from here, on a still night, one could apparently hear the Battle of the Somme raging during the First World War.
There’s a censorious element to some of these new works. Anyone who has experienced a crammed London tube train would have been appalled by the thought of being squashed up against people who may have been carrying the virus. Yet that was what happened continuously even after all the public warnings about keeping a safe distance. Downes makes the point and introduces a narrative element with the two key workers protecting themselves and each other, she wearing red.
Downes has high-functioning autism and throughout his life has had to struggle with social interaction, monitoring his behaviour, bureaucracy and, as he puts it, “fitting in”. The anxiety that is essentially within, has, he feels, been dwarfed by the current threat. “This isn’t my struggle, this is a world struggle against an invisible force that you’ve got to destroy.”
The mainly pen and ink drawing above sees the yellow line by the platform edge renamed as the two-metre line that we’re instructed to imagine when safe distancing. Again it criticises those not observing the rule. You see the couple in love once again. Her red dress inside the largely monochrome echoes that scene in Schindler’s List, a black and white movie, in which the dress of a young girl, being marched away amidst dreadful atrocities, appears in red. “I hope in the next few weeks to get more colour into my works, more optimism,” says Downes. I think we can all echo that thought.
All images are ©David Downes.