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René, Are You Social Distancing?

By Brittany Ashley


In the past, this painting has provoked energy I can only compare to the “ameno hatsune miku” audio on Tik Tok and the peaceful sax-playing seal vine. Quasi-supernatural, but in the most calming and interesting way possible. 


Through the rosy lenses of Covid-19, however, it has taken on a new interpretation. 



My eye, once finding slight discomfort in the number of bodies suspended in a space so close together, now zeroes in on the space between each figure. (6+ feet apart, folks!) My focus is immediately pinned upon the windows behind the men. My thoughts turn to what lies inside them, because surely someone, if not the entire household, is currently at home behind those curtains. Before times, their color fades together with the beige of the building, and the much more interesting part to look at is hovering all around those homes, not inside them. 


I’ve always pictured these figures as headed to work. Perhaps it’s their clothes, their tense stance, or the familiar image from many a childhood witnessing: an exodus of businessmen racing the sunrise from their urban residences. Their motivation has remained the same, although it now brings with it less comfort and more concern. Are they safe? Are they being careful? Are they sick?


These thoughts may be a change, a subtle shift in the instincts my mind has chosen to bring front and center. But instead of seeing this as progress, I feel stuck. In our current world, billboards exclaim good news and beg the stubborn majority to respect basic hygiene. Radio stations gossip about a “return to normal” and play songs detailing lifestyles now banned for all. And, unsettling in its subtlety, when I escape to this particular piece of art, I realize I don’t find safety or seclusion from the news there. Instead, I find new discomforts, new interests, & a new interpretation. When we’ve moved on from living through this historical event and the wreckage it leaves us to reckon with, those instincts will change again. But for now, I just feel stuck.


While you’re vibing with art history, check out these (very, very brief) histories of underrepresented, understudied groups in the western art canon. And then go learn more. 


Black Art History:


LGBTQ+ Art History:



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