Curated by Jennifer Bauer and Timothy A. Riggs
Apocalyptic thinking may have been fostered on January 1, 2000 with a large digital rollover, but human beings have never been limited by the calendar in their speculation about the end of things. Apocalyptic literature goes back more than 2,500 years: the book most usually called the Apocalypse, the Revelation of John that stands at the end of the Christian Scriptures, drew heavily on the Hebrew prophetic books of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel.
Apocalyptic writings and pictures reveal visions of the destiny of humanity, usually involving oncoming disaster followed by redemption for those who are faithful. Apocalypse Then focuses on these themes as they have been expressed from the 1490s to the 1990s. This was the age of the printed picture, a new technology that carried its messages to an audience spread over a far wider geographical area than earlier painted and carved images. Dürer's Apocalypse with Pictures (Apocalypsis cum Figuris), published simultaneously in Latin and German in 1498, was perhaps the first attempt to interpret a text through a sequence of images that accompany it but are not subordinate to it - equivalent to making a film version of a novel in the 20th century. Dürer's pictures, especially the famous Four Horsemen, were such powerful visual statements that they have shaped the way people envision the biblical narrative itself - we tend to think of the apocalyptic horsemen arriving all at once rather than at intervals as they do in the text.
For two hundred years after Dürer's time, images of divine judgment inspired generations of printmakers. But in the more rationalistic atmosphere of the eighteenth century, apocalyptic messages came to be couched in broader terms. In Hogarth's picture stories, judgment comes in this rationalistic world - in the form of madness, disease, or capital punishment. The Reward of Cruelty shows a murderer punished by medical dissection after his execution. Yet Hogarth's print incorporates symbolic elements like the dog devouring the murderer's heart that take it beyond a simple documentation of the British justice system.
William Blake, who reacted strongly against eighteenth-century rationalism, followed Dürer's example in creating a series of pictures parallel to a biblical text. But Blake's illustrations of the book of Job are a far more personal interpretation of the text than Dürer's. For Blake, Job's suffering represents the replacement of one idea of God by another in Job's own soul. In Job's Evil Dreams, the God of traditional justice is transformed into Satan - preparatory to a new revelation of a God of love.
In the course of the nineteenth century, prophets of social revolution or nationalism often couched their messages in apocalyptic terms. Although it has continued far into the twentieth century, this political apocalypse reached a climax during the First World War. In 1918, long before nuclear annihilation became a real possibility, Joseph Pennell's poster That Liberty Shall Not Perish from the Earth evoked the fear of mechanical angels of wrath, with a wrecked Statue of Liberty and Manhattan in flames beyond. Later in the twentieth century, political themes sometimes merge with personal ones in an apocalyptic mode. At first glance, Philip Guston's print The Street may seem no more than a jumble of crudely drawn but recognizable objects. However, in combination, the policeman's fist and truncheon, the rain of bricks, and the shoes whose wearers seem to have been thrust down a manhole give us an ominous image of force (just or unjust?) crushing humanity. In addition, at the lower right, a lumpish head is signed with a G for an ear - Guston himself contemplating the scene he has created. As the twenty-first century dawns, we seem to be witnessing the displacement of the still picture by the moving one, and computer-generated images can envelop us in an imaginary reality. Yet if we take the time to contemplate them, these older pictures from the age of the print still have the power to carry us to a world of cosmic struggle or resolution - expanding our minds without overwhelming them.
Assistant Director for Collections
Ackland Art Museum
A 32-page illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition. Click the icon for further information.