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Seeing Art Through a Pandemic Lens

Hear personal reflections from three staff members at The Met about how specific artworks have taken on new meaning for them since the pandemic.

Apr 20, 2022

Illustrated portrait of Alison Hokanson, Abraham Thomas, and Margaret Golden

How does the pandemic change our interpretation of art? Since lockdown, staff members at The Met have discovered that familiar artworks now appear different in profound and personal ways. For Alison Hokanson, Assistant Curator in the Department of European Paintings, a painting by Edvard Munch speaks to her need for quiet introspection after so much time isolated indoors with her husband and three children. For Abraham Thomas, Daniel Brodsky Curator of Modern Architecture, Design, and Decorative Arts, a Finnish lounge chair designed to support recovery from tuberculosis reminds him how integral design can be to healing. And for Margaret Golden, a Met docent and retired physician, a medieval Islamic mortar connects directly to the efforts of frontline medical workers saving lives today.

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Alison Hokanson:
When we were at the height of quarantine, there were works in our galleries that I approached with a new appreciation. There was a sense of solace, to see works of art that really addressed aspects of what I was feeling and living through in a profound way.

Barron B. Bass:
Welcome to Frame of Mind, a podcast from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, about how art connects with wellness in our everyday lives. Even people who see art every day, like people who work at The Met, find that art can shake up their perceptions and take them by surprise.

This week, we’ll hear stories from three people, who’ve recently had that experience with three totally different works of art. A symbolist painting, a therapeutic chair, and a medieval Iranian mortar. Each of these works took on a new resonance during the pandemic.

First, meet Alison Hokanson, an associate curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. She oversees works in the European paintings department, from the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. One work, painted more than a century ago, became especially relevant to her life during this period of forced isolation.

Alison Hokanson:
The Met was one of the first, if not the first, Museum to announce that it was going to be closing and closing indefinitely because of the pandemic.

I had no idea that that would be the last time that I would see the building, that I would see the art that we care for. And my department head said, “Be prepared to work at home for four to six weeks.” Both my husband and I were working from home, in Forest Hills, in Queens, in New York.

It was really challenging because I am in a crowded apartment with my husband and my three children, three boys. There was a three-to-four-month period where we were both trying to work and do our full-time jobs, while also taking care of three small children, who at that point were one and four.

Right now, I’m at our dining room table. You know, in about two or three hours, I will clear away my laptop and the table will be transformed into two-year-old lunchtimes. Everything kind of has these multifaceted roles. In some ways, the space is much more a part of me, and a part of our lives, than it would otherwise be because our lives really do unfold even now for the most part within these walls.

And I think in particular that early experience of quarantine, there were symbolist paintings in our galleries that acquired this new meaning for me. I felt like I was bringing something new to these pictures, that they were resonant to me in a way that they weren’t before.

One is the work that’s been on long-term loan to our collection. It’s a work by Edvard Munch, who many people know as the painter of The Scream. It’s called Night in Saint Cloud, and it’s an interior scene. It’s painted in shades of blue, and what we see is the silhouette of a man in a top hat, sitting with his chin on his hand, looking out a lit window.

Painting of a man sitting looking out the window in a dark roomEdvard Munch (Norwegian, 1863–1944). Night in Saint-Cloud, 1893. Oil on canvas, 27 9/16 x 22 5/16 in. (70 x 56.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Private Collection, (L.2018.2)

He’s framed on either side by these very dark curtains. And then we see on the floor, the stretched-out shadow of the windowpanes. What I really responded to in this work is this image of this isolated figure. He and we are on the inside, in this interior, and there’s the window, which is his access to the outside world, but also a barrier. The window is closed.

And to me, that really embodied that early experience of the pandemic. You know, we were all inside our apartments that felt like the safest place to be, but with this incredible longing, desire, to go outside. But at the same time, fear and anxiety about what was occurring outside and this risk of getting sick. And although that’s obviously not what this painting is about, it’s not necessarily what Munch had in mind when he painted it — it spoke to me in a new way.

Symbolist artists tried to evoke the inner world — of the mind, of the imagination. It’s an artistic movement that was interested in the unconscious, in things that we cannot see. So that was, in some sense, a reaction against artistic movements like impressionism, which were seen as very invested in what the artists could see, representing the external world.

That was one of the aspects of this art that appealed to me right at the beginning. You know, symbolist paintings, they’re often filled with these dramatic light effects. There’s the sense of eeriness. And the first version of this painting, which was done in 1890, was painted soon after the death of Munch’s father.

Munch had actually moved to Saint Cloud, where this work was done, to avoid an influenza outbreak in Paris. So, in fact, this connection of pandemic is closer than I even anticipated.

I think this is a work that you can approach without knowing those aspects of the artist’s biography, of the artist’s experience, and still, you can get that sort of subdued quality of meditation. And that sense, I think that we’ve all had, of being alone at night, perhaps when everyone else is asleep, and to have this time to think.

And to me, I think there was an added dimension to this picture because being at home in a crowded apartment with young children, in fact, my only opportunity to have the sort of contemplation and meditation was at night. I mean, how many times have you made that joke about, oh, “I would love to just go home and stare at the wall.”

Well, that’s, that’s basically what he’s done, and he’s turned it into something beautiful. To me, thinking about this painting, what interior scenes like this show me is in fact how the home can become a whole world, right? And can become its own almost self-contained space — but a space where there’s more to see and experience than we normally acknowledge or give credit for.

Barron B. Bass:
Art is as diverse and infinite as the people who create it. But one thing about art stays constant — its ability to find renewed significance over time. Just as Alison found new meaning in Munch’s painting during the pandemic, her colleague Abraham Thomas started considering a piece of furniture in a new light.

Abraham Thomas is a curator of modern architecture, design, and decorative arts at The Met. He describes a chair that’s not only beautiful but has a very unusual history. One that puts healing and wellness front and center.

Abraham Thomas:

One of my favorite objects in The Met’s design collection is the Paimio Chair by Alvar Aalto. He created this chair for a tuberculosis sanatorium in this town, Paimio, in Southern Finland, around 1930. He was commissioned to create the designs for the building, but also all of the furnishings. So, it was a really important landmark example of integrated design, because it was really designed to think about wellness and ease of breathing and that type of thing.

Bentwood chair devoided of right anglesAlvar Alto (Finnish, 1898-1976). Model No. 41” Lounge Chair, 1931-1932. Laminated Birch, 26 1/2 × 24 × 36 in. (67.3 × 61 × 91.4 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Friends of Twentieth Century Decorative Arts Gifts, by exchange, 2000 (2000.375)

The chair is made of birch plywood. It’s this beautifully elegant, organic shape that consists of these very finessed and distilled lines, essentially. So, you have two separate loops of plywood on either side, which essentially form the armrests, the legs, and those sort of floor runners. There are no right angles. There’s no sort of rigid geometry in this form.

He’s really thinking about the material choices to create something that’s a lot more tactile and warm. It’s really a chair that was intended to aid recuperation. And, you know, the idea is that the angle of that backrest, which was intended to create the perfect angle for a reclining patient so that they could breathe more easily as they’re recovering.

It’s now very much a twentieth-century design classic, and probably the most famous design object that Aalto created. So, I think that the way in which he managed to combine both those things to have function and material choice and the aesthetics in such a holistic way. I think is quite inspiring and where every detail was thought through very carefully.

I guess one of the key things I’d love visitors to take away from this chair when they see it at The Met, is just to reflect upon the role that design like this can have in our lives. It was much more than simply a design object to occupy a domestic space and, you know, personally, I often think about my, my posture could be better when I’m sitting at work, for example. In fact, right now, I’m sitting at my chair and probably hunching a little bit because I’m trying to speak into the microphone.

There’s so much potential to be more intentional with the objects we choose to surround ourselves, whether it’s our work environments or our domestic spaces. And, uh, perhaps COVID has been an opportunity to sort of think about creating a space that’s conducive to wellness. It’ll be interesting to see what comes from some of the things we’ve learnt during the pandemic.

One of the most, um, obvious ways I’ve seen design manifestations of the pandemic has been outdoor dining. A number of like cafes and restaurants have all had their own specific design solutions. And I wonder whether the pandemic and the sort of resulting change, you know, increasing these opportunities for outdoor dining, you know, the way in which they’ve literally taken up parking spaces or traffic lanes, you know, will that be a permanent change or not?

This will be a moment to reflect upon, um, not only how it changes policy permanently in terms of zoning or sort of new traffic regulations, but also, hope it’ll be a chance to reflect on how we want our streets to exist.

I think it’s really important to offer a place where perhaps these, these questions can be considered, especially in a, in a Museum like The Met, which has such an important role to play in modeling the world we might want to create. And it’s a careful balance between contemplating the past, but also offering up these other ideas and other sort of perspectives. And I think that’s so important in a Museum, which should be a key civic space, that allows for not just education and reflection, but it allows for communities and different audiences to come together to discuss these things.

Barron B. Bass:
Abraham’s story begs the question of how a museum might become a better resource for wellness and surrounding communities. For Margaret Golden, a volunteer docent and retired pediatrician, an object dating back to the 1300s gave her an unusual way to consider the question.

Margaret Golden:
I am a retired pediatrician and what I said in my application to become a docent, or a tour guide was that I thought everybody, regardless of their status, their abilities in the world deserves a chance to connect with art.

At The Met, my concentration has been on school groups that include a high proportion of children with special learning needs. And I’ve thought a lot about how teaching in the galleries reminds me of teaching as a physician. Every patient has a story to tell, every work of art has a story to tell. During the pandemic, having the opportunity to give virtual tours to students, it made such a difference for me because I felt like I could do something constructive in the midst of a desperate and desolate period of time.

There were 300 out-of-hospital cardiac arrests a day, lines out the emergency room door. I just, I can’t imagine what it was like for the people who did that. And I think that’s one of the reasons why I am so attached to The Met because it was someplace to go mentally to calm my anxiety. And I hope the experience of being in The Met for those students can have the same effect for them.

I love giving tours with kids, but I wanted to do more. And what’s different now, is when we are back in person in The Met, I will also start giving tours to adults in the Islamic art galleries.

What caught me about the Islamic collection is that there are seventeen, eighteen galleries. They are full of color and beautiful patterns. Lots of interesting stories in history. And early in the pandemic, I think it was probably in April or May, the curatorial group for the Islamic collection set up weekly lectures, looking at Islamic art in the time of COVID.

And at the end of one of those, one of the curators said, “why don’t each of you pick a new object from the collection and write about it, in relationship to what’s going on with the pandemic?”

The project was to find an object in the collection that you didn’t know. And to use that work of art as a chance to reflect both on the work itself and how works of art give us a chance to think about what’s going on around us. It was an opportunity to go into the history of medicine in medieval Persia, which is staggering. Just staggering.

So, what the research told me, is that our current medical worldview stands on the shoulders of some of these medieval Islamic physicians and scholars. Setting up hospitals that would take in anybody, regardless of ability to pay regardless of religion, which speaks to the fact that the Islamic lands have often been very supportive and welcoming of people of different faiths. An aspect that we sort of lose track of at times in the current climate.

And I think that really resonated with the frontline hospitals in COVID with the same mandate. we will take care of everybody. And we will work very hard to do it as well as we can.

We would not have the tools we have now if it had not been for these Islamic physicians in the eleventh and twelfth and thirteenth and fourteenth century. So, the object I chose to write about was a mortar made in medieval Iran. The mortar itself is brass, inlaid with images and calligraphy and silver. Considering that it’s hundreds of years old, the outside still looks pristine, but it is obvious that it was used. Used by physicians or apothecaries, the ancestors of today’s pharmacists. To prepare medications, to grind various substances, herbs, seeds, who knows what else, to make medicinal preparations in medieval Persia.

Bronze mortar with engraved detailsMortar and Pestle made for Abu Bakr 'Ali Malikzad al-Tabrizi, Attributed to Iran. Bronze; inlaid with silver and black compound, Mortar: 91.1.527a H. 4 1/2 in. (11.4 cm) Diam. 5 3/4 in. (14.6 cm) Pestle: 91.1.527b H. 10 1/2 in. (26.7 cm) Diam. 2 3/8 in. (6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Edward C. Moore Collection, Bequest of Edward C. Moore, 1891 (91.1.527a, b)

And this is a uniquely Islamic style of metalworking, which I had been starting to research as I was preparing to become a guide for that collection. I’m looking at an image of it right now and the gracefulness of the curves in the calligraphy, in the representations of the figures. It’s a piece that would draw me from across the room.

I can stare at it and stare at it and stare at it, which is what art does for me. It sort of takes me away from the other stuff that’s in the back of my mind. Looking at art, reading about art, thinking about art, calms me down. It’s one of the things I do when I find myself getting tense.

I go into a different zone, and the pandemic and other horrific things in the world outside. Aren’t there right then. They’re gone for whatever period of time. I think, um, visits to The Met, whether in person or virtually, can probably work the same way for many, many people. I think part of the reason why art has been so important in human history is that it is a way for us to connect with something bigger and gentler than our daily lives.

Barron B. Bass:
Alison, Abraham, and Margaret have shown how remarkably different objects can resonate in our lives today. Their stories are a testament to art’s ability to stretch far beyond its original purpose, connecting with our health and wellbeing decades, even centuries, after their creation

Thank you for listening. This has been Frame of Mind, an art and wellness podcast from The Met. To find out more about Alison, Abraham, and Margaret, and the artworks mentioned in this episode, please visit the Met’s website at There, you’ll find articles, features, resources, and videos on the endless connection between art and wellness.

Frame of Mind is produced by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Goat Rodeo. At The Met: Head of Content Sofie Andersen, Executive Producer Nina Diamond, Associate Producer Bryan Martin, and Production Coordinators Harrison Furey and Lela Jenkins. At Goat Rodeo: Rebecca Seidel is Lead Producer. Megan Nadolski is Executive Producer. Production Assistance from Char Dreyer, Isabelle Kerby-McGowan, Cara Shillenn, and Max Johnston.

Senior producer is Ian Enright. Story Editing from Morgan Springer. Series Illustration by Sophie Schultz. I’m your host Barron B. Bass. A special thanks to our guests on this episode, Alison Hokanson, Abraham Thomas, and Margaret Golden. This podcast is made possible by Bloomberg Philanthropies and Dasha Zhukova Niarchos. If you liked this episode, please leave us a rating or review and share it with your friends.

Next time on Frame of Mind...

Reena Esmail:
I used to live alone for many, many years, especially when I was living in New York, I was just alone. And there would be days that passed by where I wasn’t teaching. I would just be in my apartment, and I would be completely silent. And I think the practice of singing, however basic, even if it’s just humming one note and just being able to hear your own voice, it kind of confirms for you like, I am alive. 

Supported by

Bloomberg Philanthropies

and Dasha Zhukova Niarchos.

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About the contributors

Assistant Curator, Department of European Paintings

Daniel Brodsky Curator, Modern Architecture, Design and Decorative Arts

Retired physician and Met docent

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