I see from Sanjiv Bhattacharya’s interview with Ewan McGregor in the Observer Magazine this weekend that ‘the end of the world’ is ‘a trending topic this year – the end has seldom been so nigh’. 

John Martin The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum

John Martin
The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum
Signed and dated 1822; restored 2011

Tate

The article is picking up on McGregor’s new film, Perfect Sense, and the slew of other apocalyptic movies coming out this year – including Lars von Trier’s Melancholia which is being reviewed all over the place right now. Elsewhere in the same magazine I spotted a pigeon-based headdress sported by Lady Gaga being described as ‘post-apocalyptic’.

So I guess that those of us in the team behind John Martin: Apocalypse can feel smugly prescient? After all, one of the key paintings in the show, The Great Day of his Wrath has made it onto the most recent Private Eye cover. And the brilliant cinematic trailer for the exhibition grafts a very contemporary vision of apocalypse with the same painting by John Martin pretty seamlessly (24,000 hits on YouTube to date). Do John Martin’s images of volcanic eruptions, divine retribution, and the chaos of empires falling touch a nerve today? Are we really on the brink of societal collapse, facing a terrible new world where thugs in Viking helmets ride round on motorcycles, ready to battle over an out-of-date tin of baked beans?

I’m not sure. For one thing, I suspect we’ve all got more mundane things to think about (like when will Nando’s Brixton re-open after the riots? As far as portents of the End of Days go, that one’s a particular irritation to me).  But there is also the feeling of déjà-vu, that the threat of apocalypse is a recurring (maybe even fairly constant) cultural theme. I know from conversations I’ve had while preparing the exhibition that those of us of a certain age remember the feelings of genuine, impending doom in the period 1979-84 (or thereabouts). The threat of nuclear apocalypse felt very real then, and ever-present in culture (from the book London After the Bomb through the terrifying BBC drama Threads and Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Two Tribes). I’m sure that other generations feel the same about the emerging sense of ecological disaster in the earlier 1970s, or the Cuban Missile Crisis.

But I also wonder whether our sense of anxiety is the same as that experienced at other points in history? The original viewers of John Martin’s paintings and prints had their apocalyptic fears shaped by the framework of Christianity. Reporting on the exhibition of The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum in London in 1822, a highbrow literary magazine imagined the response of a naïve provincial visitor: ‘Becky said it put her in mind of what is written in Revelations, about the sky being turned to blood, and indeed it seemed to take all the colour out of her face when she looked at it’. Religion has not, perhaps, been the immediate reference point for many art gallery visitors in modern times, and has certainly been only very rarely evoked by the professional art world. The emotional response attributed to ‘Becky’ in that article of 1822 could look ‘unsophisticated’ and ‘uninformed’ to art world people, and the essay-writer was intending to make fun of her kind. We are much more used to a secular, and perhaps more rarefied, idea of art, and the decline of John Martin’s reputation in the twentieth century occurred at least in part because his brand of religious art felt very alien to modern critics and art historians.

So when we look at Martin’s paintings now, are we merely experiencing them as secularised entertainment? Or only as historical oddities? Or are we sensitised to these images by the way the mass media is saturated by news of disaster, terrorism and financial collapse? Perhaps – perhaps – we can rediscover a more spiritual or personal sense of apocalypse with these paintings now? I’ve been struck reading the Comments put online by how personally attached many people are to John Martin’s art  – above and beyond an interest in nineteenth-century art history as such. I’d like to hear more.

Comments

d.mcardle

and you know Damien,you can't BUY the Zen ,man ! You have to BE it.

tin tuc

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d.mcardle

anyway "Hell has no rage like love to hatred turned/Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned" ! (Congreve 1697)

Of course one COULD be reminded of 'etant donnes' another work with a hole in the middle (yes the peephole ,of course ) (and likewise Tracey's money bag ) These are times for us to take responsibility for BEING not just to be in awe and fear.

d.mcardle

in the '70's people tried to bliss out( see the Doors "The End") but soon realised it was just as difficult as being in the TUC, negotiating rights in a commune ! (by the way see wot TUC currently say about a certain auction house )

d.mcardle

"discover a more spiritual or personal sense of apocalypse with these paintings now" careful now, you are seriously in danger of insulting the intelligence of your audience!

d.mcardle

und we must remember that this term at Cambridge in the History and Philosophy of Science Dept.they are rereading Kant's Critique of Pure Reason 1781. These days compounded by knowledge of phenomena such as a Pulsar 100 billion times more energetic than visible light - we've come a long way from St.Louis baby,but baby we've still got a long way to go.

d.mcardle

then swiftly on to Nietzsche and there are no absolutes ? which leaves us sitting in a kind of dirty bathwater(that gives rise to paintings like Richter's ? yes there's beauty even in that ,but, hasn't the baby gone ?) the only way through being to increase knowledge,but what should be the focus of this knowledge ? society of course, even Wordsworth intimates that I think . With the capacity for space flight and bio engineering, banking and war ,what are we for.

d.mcardle

yes "heaven has no rage .... " well spotted batman !

d.mcardle

"whither has fled the visionary gleam" ? yup,ask Wordsworth and while you're there ask him about Richter too !

d.mcardle

the aesthetic school of disinterestedness may whistle its happy tune and fair do's ; the codified look out at any old visual field of Richter's squares ( which I like ,they are amusing in their disinterestedness, free from object naming and shaping even !) However we must surely bear in mind (ha) the years of looking at the brains of Macaque monkeys (Crick wasn't it ?) etc still has not yielded that much about the electro chemical operations inside our heads. Memory, history (whatever that is) are all interactive systems that might simply not be the provenance of the artist ? "They" do say all comes to intuition first so,maybe that is not the case ,it would be good to think artists could pitch with science. I try to remember what exactly Beuys was saying as he burbled in the lobby at the Tate ,he was sort of desperate to say too much and it wouldn't quite come through the funnel if you know wot I mean. But I think it was something about to be real to be responsible and that society is yours as much as it is anyone elses. Well that would require some forward thinking.

d.mcardle

there is, of course a lot of good work from younger people,down at Shape of Things... and Brit. Art Show lots of healthy babies kicking and trying to stand for all that they might look naive , there's a sort of healthy folk art element to that isn't there? like Picasso's corn dollies and Telly Tubby Rubens in their jazz locations. Many of them stand a good chance of being serious rock and roll. There is lots of trying stuff/wishing. Total abstraction does not take a lot of people with it does it? well not until it reaches a mythologised status of Pollock or Rothko (neither of whom were after the lyrical but a child like pure life experience ? )

d.mcardle

the problem is that people are still saying things like " LIGHT , a symbol of the immaterial and of enlightenment" ( on a certain gallery's website) it's just embarrassing isn't it,it's not modern and its ,well, dosey .