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London’s Apocalypse Then & Now

Laing Art Gallery/Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums
John Martin: The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, 1852

Among the most thought-provoking of the several excellent exhibitions mounted in London this fall was “Gerhard Richter: Panorama” at Tate Modern. As with Warhol, Venturi, and Scott Brown, Richter’s breakthrough works of the 1960s seem more impressive as time goes by. One of the German artist’s finest pictures of that period is his 1968 oil Stadtbild Paris, a close-up aerial view of the City of Light en grisaille, a standout in the current survey.

If one approaches this six-and-a-half-foot-square, thickly impastoed canvas at close range, it is difficult at first to decipher the subject matter. But as one moves back from it, the composition quickly comes into focus and reveals itself to be an overhead perspective of an identifiably Parisian quartier in ruins after a saturation bombardment. This vista is purely fictive, but given that it was dreamed up in 1968, a year of woe for Paris (to say nothing of Saigon, Hanoi, Prague, Chicago, and Detroit, among other cities), it is not difficult to read Richter’s scene of urban destruction as a commentary on the political upheavals of that moment.

The Richter show also includes another disaster scene, this one unfortunately not at all speculative. One can readily walk right past September, an unprepossessing 2005 canvas the approximate size and proportions of an average flat-screen TV, without taking much notice of it. The title alludes to the terrorist attack of 2001 on New York’s World Trade Center, but without that elliptical verbal clue one might not infer what the picture depicts, at first or even third glance. The art historian Robert Storr, who organized the Museum of Museum of Modern Art’s 2002 Richter retrospective, makes a strong case for this initially inscrutable composition in his heartfelt and persuasive monograph September: A History Painting by Gerhard Richter.

According to Storr (who witnessed the horror of the Twin Towers’ collapse from a brownstone fire escape in Brooklyn), Richter was dissatisfied with his original photorealist composition—based on an appropriated news image of United Airlines Flight 175 slamming into the South Tower—because he felt it inadequate in comparison to the countless spectacular photos of the event. On the other hand, he also was loath to produce a picture that would exploit the most obviously sensational aspects of the catastrophe for manipulative effect.

Instead, he took a diametrically different tack and scraped away several layers of paint to render the canvas as an atmospheric suggestion rather than an explicit depiction of what happened at the World Trade Center. As Storr explains:

The image is at the very edge of being recognizable, at that liminal point where the information it contains could be read any number of ways and the mind must struggle to create a whole, or pictorial Gestalt, out of the diffuse, ill-defined contours of the forms and the apparent coding of the color. In sum, viewers must mentally reconstitute a likeness that is in effect disintegrating before their eyes…. Compared with what eyewitnesses can recall even with the passage of time and what video and photography have captured and preserved, Richter’s version—or, better said, vision—of 9/11/01 is an eroded representation of a monument blown to smithereens, the ghost of a ghost.

As Storr convincingly argues, the participatory effort this ambiguous image requires of its viewers gives September a psychic power one would have thought beyond the means of painting in an age when images of the utmost emotional immediacy and pictorial fidelity can be transmitted globally in an instant.

Upriver from Tate Modern, at the museum’s original Millbank premises lately renamed Tate Britain, there was ample evidence of a wholly different attitude toward the representation of overwhelming disaster, as pursued by John Martin (1789–1854), the deeply eccentric, hugely successful, and widely disparaged British painter. In sharp contrast to Richter’s reticence and subtlety, “John Martin: Apocalypse”—splendidly organized and stunningly installed by Martin Myrone—revels in its subject’s willingness to marshal every painterly and promotional trick at his disposal to fabricate and disseminate images of doom and destruction that spoke to the deep-seated fears of the British masses in the decades bracketed by the climax of the Napoleonic Wars and the Industrial Revolution in full throttle.

A poor boy from Northumberland with no academic training, Martin apprenticed with a coach-painter and then earned a living in London by decorating china and glass. Ferociously ambitious and endowed with a genius for showmanship, as he approached his thirtieth year he seized upon the idea of producing large-scale canvases based on biblical episodes that combined landscape and history painting—genres then considered distinct and incompatible by the art establishment. With panoramic tableaux like his vastly entertaining and commensurately popular Belshazzar’s Feast (1820)—a roiling, operatic staging of the Babylonian king’s convention-sized dinner party, halted by phosphorescent writing on the wall—Martin proved that he could operate outside the usual channels of patronage and effectively go over the heads of mandarin tastemakers and appeal directly to an unlettered following of unprecedented size and scope.

Though his detractors dubbed him “Mad Martin,” this self-made master was a canny entrepreneur who amassed a fortune from prints based on his canvases and affordably churned out by new means of mechanized reproduction. Martin’s awe-inducing images were so universally captivating that we can believe his son’s claim that “in China and Japan they may be seen in all houses of men of rank and education.”

However, one can also understand why the august Ruskin sniffily dismissed Martin’s potboilers as “merely a common manufacture, as much makeable to order as a tea-tray or a coal-scuttle,” for there was something inevitably formulaic in his tunnel-like compositions luridly illuminated by fire-and-brimstone heavens. As an observer of natural phenomena Martin was pitiful—his mingy thunderbolts suggest cracks in glass, his trees resemble mossy rocks—and he drew the human figure every bit as ineptly as his contemporary and friend J.M.W. Turner. But it is hard, and indeed a foolish denial of pleasure, to resist Martin’s dynamism, fantasy, and verve, or to forswear the frisson of impending cataclysm that he conveyed with such inimitable gusto and visionary flair.

However, not all of the artist’s contemporaries considered his works to be the figments of an overheated imagination. Emerson, that great transparent eyeball, saw Martin’s paintings very much as documentary records of what he himself encountered during his 1847 visit to the British capital, under the strange glow of industrially polluted skies, and wrote to his wife Lidian that those works “are faithful copies of the West part of London, light, darkness, architecture & all.” As Emerson divined, although Martin’s subjects were cloaked in Old Testament garb, they stood firmly in the here and now as reflections of the anxieties and terrors of an age that many believed to be careening out of control. After gaping dumbstruck at the molten inferno of Martin’s The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrrah (1852), even the most downtrodden Cockney might have felt lucky to be alive in Dickensian London.

This fall the platform walls of the London Underground were plastered with movie screen–size advertisements for the newly released American video game Rage (“From the creators of Doom and Quake“). The posters depict a blasted postapocalyptic urban landscape emblazoned with the name of the game in the form of four towering burned-out structures that conveniently spell out the title in capital letters and give an instant visual précis of this shoot-‘em-up survival fantasy. The manufacturer describes the storyline of Rage in terms that tap into a pervasive sense of imminent threat and long-term hopelessness felt by many today, and not just those in the usual boys-and-young-males demographic at which most such amusements are targeted:

Fearing a planet-wide extinction from a massive asteroid headed towards Earth, world leaders are faced with the inexorable task of ensuring human survival. Left with few alternatives, life-sustaining pods filled with select people are buried deep beneath the earth’s surface. You are one of the chosen members of these modern day arks and abruptly enter the RAGE universe after surfacing alone. Leaving you to your own devices to stay alive in a world filled with those who prefer you dead, RAGE combines powerful storytelling with heart-pounding action.

Powerful storytelling and heart-pounding action were also two of Martin’s strongest suits, and his images have served as an abundant source of design inspiration for films from D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) to Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004), as well as for sci-fi video games. To be sure, the delivery systems for Rage and Martin’s Last Judgement triptych (circa 1845–1853) could not be more different. When new, those three immense canvases were shown side by side to paying audiences in public assembly halls, enhanced by spoken narratives and low-tech son et lumière effects, a presentation recreated at the Tate with state-of-the-art electronic techniques. Conversely, the video game is accessible via computer, PlayStation3, or Xbox360. But both are alike as safety valves for venting pent-up emotions enflamed by societies in frightening flux.

It does not require an impossible leap of imagination to move from living in a Britain where Action for Children—a government-funded charity aimed at breaking the vicious cycle of poverty, child abuse, and lawlessness—reported during Frieze Week a 42 percent increase in demand for its services even while it has had to reduce those efforts by 68 percent, to accepting Rage‘s premise of being “alive in a world filled with those who prefer you dead.” As winter approached in London this year, the cultural riches of an exceptional fall season had a warming effect on the spirit. But a visitor sensed that before long the real scene of threat would more likely be found in the streets of the capital rather than merely being viewed as handwriting on the walls of the Tate.

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