Of all the various media in the MFA’s collection, the graphic arts—prints and drawings—are among the most nimble. A draftsperson can pick up a pencil or a graphic designer can open a laptop and respond with urgency to current events. The history of activism in printmaking—of artists creating images that can be quickly multiplied and distributed to affect social change—stretches back centuries. A famous example in Boston is Paul Revere’s 1770 engraving decrying the Boston Massacre.
When the lockdown took effect in mid-March and the pandemic upended our daily lives, curators in the Museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings began looking for ways to document artists’ responses to the crisis, keeping tabs on developments from our new workplaces at home, following up on invaluable suggestions from colleagues, and comparing notes via Zoom. In June, the MFA purchased a varied group of COVID-related works on paper by artists from around the globe. The posters capture a range of approaches to the pandemic, from stoic calls for perseverance and recognition of frontline responders to the simple but effective use of typography, and even humor.
Angel of Hope and Strength is one of several works in this group by Shepard Fairey, the RISD alum now famous for his red-and-blue “Hope” poster, designed for the 2008 Obama campaign. In April, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo commissioned Fairey to design the poster for an online initiative that uses art to bring state residents together. Angel of Hope and Strength features a young woman with a red cross emblazoned on her lapel, her rolled-up sleeves and the torch in her upraised arm evoking both Rosie the Riveter and the Statue of Liberty. With the governor’s approval, Fairey revised his original design, replacing the Rhode Island seal’s anchor and motto of “Hope” with a globe and the words “Strength in Service—Strength to Overcome.”
Harriet Salmon similarly created a drawing to promote healing and solidarity through art. It was one of many submissions to an open call for art, launched in March by artist Elizabeth Jaeger and Manhattan ICU nurse Cady Chaplin. Their idea was to make artists’ designs available as free downloads that could be printed by anyone and posted in hospital break rooms to show appreciation and support for health-care staff on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Salmon’s drawing of a female medical professional in a mask transforms the coronavirus into a garland encircling her head. Stylistically, it recalls both the Art Nouveau designs of artists like Alphonse Mucha and World War I–era posters for the Red Cross. The MFA bought the drawing directly from the artist, who donated the funds to support frontline medical staff.
Many artists have volunteered their talents to help raise funds for combating the virus. These two posters were designed for 19 Artists versus COVID-19, a project initiated by London-based graphic designer Álvaro López and the paper manufacturer Fedrigoni. López brought together an international collective of 19 artists, who submitted designs based on the theme “stay home.” The posters sell for £19 each, and all profits support Britain’s National Health Service. López’s design is comprised entirely of typography, with “stay home” in multiple languages forming the international symbol of the Red Cross. Nick Cook also restricted his design to typography, suggesting the blur of endless days in quarantine by allowing the names of the days of the week to pile on top of each other, forming an indistinguishable tangle.
Jennifer Baer, a senior graphic designer at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, initially made this poster for her own amusement, partly out of frustration as some acquaintances ignored social distancing guidelines. It is one of three designs inspired by vintage travel posters: Take a Trip to Your Own Bathroom, Visit Your One House Plant, and Surf Your Couch. The text at the bottom of all three posters reads: “Issued by the Coronavirus Tourism Bureau. Stay the F* Home.” Baer’s tongue-in-cheek images project resilience and good humor, something we can all be grateful for.
As the COVID-19 crisis took hold in the United States, we looked to the collection for material that might reveal parallels between our current situation and the flu pandemic of 1918. Given the MFA’s deep holdings of graphic art from that period (including a comprehensive collection of more than 1,500 World War I posters), we were surprised to find few examples reflecting that historic public health crisis. It is our hope that a century from now, Museum visitors will have the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of our current moment through the artistic responses we’re collecting today.