The last picture show

JMW Turner, “The Destruction of Sodom”, first exhibited 1805

As a child I was startled by the depiction of Hell in Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earth Delights (c1500) – not because of the weird creatures and lurid, gleefully depicted narratives of human torture, but because his highly detailed doomsday scenes were so different to how I’d always imagined the end of the world, namely, vaporisation in a flash, from nuclear war.

As a society convinced it’s living at the end of days, what can we learn from historic and contemporary artistic takes on the genre? Walking around Tate Britain, there’s a host of apocalyptic visions. Fans of end-time scenes will be pleased to know the 2023 rehang has left the galleries satisfyingly full of world-ending comets, erupting volcanoes and smouldering cities. These were all a central part of what Edmund Burke called the “delightful horror” of the sublime, which proved to be hugely popular for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century painters and their viewers.

Religious scenes of fiery retribution, from John Martin to J M W Turner, act as a clear counterpoint to our own uncertain times. When the button gets pushed, I know I’d rather be part of the world they depict with such moral clarity, divided into the saved and the damned. Yes, hell terrifies me but at least its corollary is heaven. Martin’s  The Great Day of His Wrath is remarkably akin to a film still from a CGI-heavy Noughties disaster movie (The Day After Tomorrow or 2012, say), in which the mountains become solid waves of rock that crash into a yawning abyss, while a sci-fi-red glow suffuses the scene, showing us what remains of cities and their inhabitants. But then his serene counterpoint to this inferno is The Plains of Heaven.

Clearly, Victorians also felt a need for moral certainty, since these works from the 1850s (part of a triptych) were on tour for twenty years in a paying exhibition that travelled to galleries, theatres and music halls in the UK, and eventually as far as New York and Australia. Eight million pairs of eyes are thought to have gazed anxiously at Martin’s masterpiece, remarkable in a time before mass media. His spectacular scenes were partly a helpless Victorian howl at a changing world. As one Martin scholar points out: “[His] apocalyptic vision was firmly rooted in the reality of his nineteenth-century world… a period of economic, political and social transformation, beset by the upheaval of revolution and war, rapid scientific developments and industrial revolution.” It’s no surprise the pictures still resonate today, amid reports of ecological disaster, pandemics and AI.

Not every depiction of nineteenth-century destruction is so engrossing. Fifty years earlier than Martin, Turner painted The Destruction of Sodom, which hangs nearby. The scene shows Lot and his two daughters fleeing the city as “the Lord rained brimstone and fire” in divine retribution for the sins of its citizens. Something about Turner’s painting doesn’t land: he seems more interested in the play of light, the people a distraction from his romanticised ruins, their suffering sanitised by dramatic shadows.

But the Tate’s rehang has rightly brought William Blake into the light and space of the main galleries. Hellish visions seep into his work as if flames continually licked the edges of the paper he was working on. Blake depicts fire by wrapping and bending it into sinewy lines that ripple rhythmically around the edge, rather than as a distinct object or event as it is with Turner or Martin.

Fire was both subject and atmosphere for Blake, with much of his oeuvre illustrating apocalyptic moments from the Bible and other texts. One small watercolour on view at the Tate, The Simoniac Pope (1827), is taken from his Illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy and this violent scene illustrates the eighth circle of Hell described in Dante’s Inferno. Typically, the fire envelops the body of the victim (Pope Nicholas III) and then spirals freely to the top of the picture.

A lone visionary, Blake’s work was barely seen outside a small circle in his own lifetime, so we don’t know what contemporaries made of it. It is clear, however, that Blake used the apocalypse as a critique of the oppressive political and social structures of his era – be it hypocritical Christianity or restrictive marriage laws. He believed fervently in the power of the imagination, and his doomsday imagery often depicted a cosmic struggle between good and evil.

William Blake, “The Simoniac Pope”, 1824–7

Hellish visions seep into Blake’s work as if flames licked the edges of the paper he was working on

World-ending scenes inevitably take place in imagined or fantasy worlds, not the here and now. That’s partly what makes  Chris Ofili’s recently unveiled mural Requiem so remarkable. Spanning three walls above the open north staircase, it turns the tragic Grenfell Tower fire into a fable of loss and transformation. Ofili’s memorial to the London disaster is clearly inspired by Blake – the seated figure on the left wall is a direct reference to Newton – and channels his imaginative and spiritual language. The mural is consciously rooted in centuries of painterly tradition showing the end of the world. The space is even made to feel like a chapel, and the journey from fire on the left to heavenly landscape on the right is a reminder of Bosch and others’ triptychs of hell, heaven and judgement day.

Does modern painting still play a part in envisioning the apocalypse? While there’s definitely a sense of approaching disaster, we don’t experience it with a sense of biblical terror – more like fretting over news headlines on our laptops.

The US artist Josh Kline is the contemporary artist who perhaps best depicts the end of civilisation as we fear it. His eerie work Productivity Gains (2016) used scans of unemployed people to produce 3D-printed sculptures of their bodies. These life-sized objects, arranged in a foetal position, encased in plastic bags and scattered across the gallery floor, suggest that the unemployed middle class are regarded as expendable commodities in the AI economy.

Olafur Eliasson found the simple act of planting 24 icebergs from Greenland in front of the Tate Modern in 2018 was as far as he needed to go. He asked us to “put your hands on the ice, listen to it, smell it, look at it – and witness the ecological changes our world is undergoing”. We don’t need to visualise the end of the world anymore: just reach out and touch it.

Max Lunn is a journalist based in London

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April 2024, Arts & Culture, Horizon Line

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