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’.
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collapse, facing a terrible new world where thugs in Viking helmets ride round on motorcycles, ready to battle over an out-of-date tin of baked beans?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.