The end of time has been a popular and evocative source of inspiration and imagination for artists throughout history. Across centuries, artists have been bonded by the shared desire to depict this mysterious, fantastical, ultimate and unimaginable End.
The Apocalypse is commonly considered to be the deliverance of end of the world. The how’s and when’s of the prophesised doomsday have been interpreted in different ways over time, and it is still creatively portrayed in new fashions to this day. Thus, art of this genre is often diverse, inventive and revealing. Often it unveils something of the political, social and economic circumstances of the time; historical crises can be prompts for apocalyptic thoughts and creative expression. The word apocalypse actually originates from the Greek Apokalypsis, meaning ‘unveiling’ or ‘revelation’, sometimes suggested of events known only to God.
The religious roots of the story of the end of time are undeniable and are yet another source of variation when it comes to interpretations of the Scripture; ‘The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John,’ (Revelation 1:1). The prophecy warns; ‘Then there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder and a severe earthquake. No earthquake like it has ever occurred since the human race has been on earth, so tremendous was the quake,’ (Revelation 16:18). Such a phenomenon is indeed ‘well calculated to overwhelm the imagination’ (1).
An age-old and iconic illustration in art of the apocalypse is Albrecht Dürer’s The Apocalypse, a series of fifteen engravings published in 1498. These woodcuts, taken from the Book of Revelation and bringing its prophesy vividly to life and in palpable detail for the public imagination, has ‘for simple grandeur, never been surpassed’ (2). And Dürer’s time was one of unrest. Religious tensions ran high as the separation of the Protestants from the Roman Catholic church was ongoing and rife. ‘Dürer’s illustrations would flash like lightning in a storm upon the minds of men’ (3), men existing in a time that was fraught and defined by challenges and changes to the established order, both in the church and in everyday life, the two being quite inseparable up to this period. The Renaissance being thusly defined as an era of discovery and change, of restructuring and progression, an era whose given title means ‘rebirth’, it is understandable that contemporary artists like Dürer felt compelled to express images of the unknown, when, to an extent, that was indeed what they were facing with so many changes shaking the core establishments and institutions of the day.
Most famous of the fifteen engravings is perhaps The Four Horsemen, now powerful symbols of Doomsday, and each representing a different aspect of suffering that will ultimately deliver the demise of mankind; conquest, war, famine and death; portents of the final judgement and of mankind’s reckoning.
Beyond the ground breaking Renaissance period and looking toward later interpretations of the ultimate question, apocalyptic art seems to move away from its biblical and mystical beginnings. More recent works reflect modern and postmodern thoughts, as well as the trends and challenges of more recent decades. For instance, the evolution of expressionist art broke the boundaries of technicalities and detail, and allowed for the freer expression of emotions and personal revelation.
Artists such as Otto Dix have used apocalyptic imagery, including, like Dürer and William Blake before him, Death’s symbolic steed, in art that depicts modern concerns and current threats to the human race. The most terrifying and unprecedented world war plagues Dix’s depiction of a modern apocalypse. Der Krieg is his series of prints published in 1924, following the First World War, a global awakening to the threatening and destructive capabilities of mankind. The series portrays the ‘ghastly, bottomless depths of life’ (4), and is reminiscent of Dürer’s as Dix uses icons of the traditional apocalypse to illustrate the scale of the destruction, the fear and menace produced by the conflict – a modern-day Armageddon. The horse features in Der Krieg, as in Dürer’s Apocalypse, as a mighty and almost unstoppable creature that, in Four Horsemen, delivers death on its back. In Dix’s print the creature is destroyed amongst the trenches, reasserting the stark reality and power of this modern battle of apocalyptic proportions.
In a move further away from the mystical explanations and the established prophecy of the apocalypse, focusing on individual trauma and personal revelation, Edvard Munch’s The Scream, conjures life-haltering fear in ‘the definitive portrait of madness’ (5). The image is an example of an expressionist take on the apocalyptic genre, and can be seen as a more personal interpretation of the daunting apocalypse theme. The moment captured in this portrait is emotionally charged and life-altering if for the individual rather than for mankind.
The question of the world’s end has been topical over time and continues to occupy the field of creative arts. Depicted in painting, print and modern day film, The Apocalypse, such an incomprehensible event, allows for many multifarious interpretations, each a revelation in itself as to the artist; the creator, and revealing something of the time in which a work is produced.
Text by Sarah Bell
(1) Camille Flammarion, extract from La Fin du Monde (The End of the World) in Apocalypse. Parkstone: Italy, 2012, p. 192
(2) Robert Howard Russell, The Apocalypse. MCM: New York, 1900, p. 6
(3) Robert Howard Russell, The Apocalypse. MCM: New York, 1900, p. 8
(4) Otto Dix quoted in an interview with Maria Wetzel by Mark Henshaw, ‘The Art of War’, National Gallery of Australia. Available from: http://nga.gov.au
(5) ‘Apocalyptic Imagery in Art History’, Huffington Post, May 2011. Available from: www.huffingtonpost.com