Apocalyptic Visions: From Medieval Fear to the Movie 9

Slide 1: Introduction

The decimated landscape, one transformed by battle, pestilence, God’s fury or, more recently, nuclear war, has provoked artists from the Middle Ages to the present. Whether they are illustrative of Biblical warnings, the destructive potential of man, or just ghoulishly cool reflections of man’s darker imaginations, portraits of the apocalypse comprise an alternate history of all our possible End of Days. Accordingly, any filmmaker, screenwriter, production designer, or visual effects artist has a rich array of imagery throughout history to draw upon when designing our demise.

Shane Acker’s upcoming 9 takes place in a “too near” future when machines have rebelled against their human creators, destroying mankind before being largely shut down themselves. Acker has said that when conceptualizing the characters he was inspired by the great animators Jan Svankmajer, the Brothers Quay and the Lauenstein brothers. When it comes to the design of the film’s world, there are various influences in 9 ranging from steam punk to the paintings of the Polish artist Zdlislaw Beksiński, whose eerie, haunted landscapes seem formed by the traumas of World War 2. 

On the following pages we take a look at a number of artists throughout history, ranging from canonized masters of fine art to artists working in illustration and commercial genres, who have tackled the subject of the apocalyptic landscape. Throughout these images you can trace the evolution of our fears as they move from a theologically proscribed world to one terrified by the specter of nuclear Armageddon and beyond.

Slide 2: Hieronymous Bosch and Hell on Earth

Painting in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Dutch artist Hieronymous Bosch is surely the father of apocalyptic landscape art. Perhaps his best known painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights, is a triptych showing God presenting Eve to Adam; Adam and Eve amidst a throng of nude, sexualized figures and animals; and a dark, third panel showing death, destruction and damnation. Believed to have been painted in 1503 or 1504, the meanings and context of The Garden of Earthly Delights is still debated by scholars. Some see the central panel as a paradisiacal dreamscape, whereas others see it as representing Man before the Fall.  Some say it was commissioned by a lay person whereas others say it was an altarpiece painted for a heretical nudist Christian sect, the Adamites, that Bosch is said to have belonged to. Indeed, the mysteries of the painting’s symbolism, its fantastic imagery, and its panoramic view of man and landscape, have influenced artists for generations following, including the 16th century painter Peter Bruegel, later 20th century surrealists Joan Miro, René Magritte and Max Ernst, and even contemporary theater and dance artists like Martha Clarke, who based a celebrated evening-length work on the painting. In an article for Smithsonian magazine, “The World of Bosch,” Stanley Meisler discussed Bosch’s influence on various 20th century philosophies and art movements before concluding, “… there is little doubt that Bosch somehow strikes a chord with his modern admirers…. Bosch described terrible, unbearable holocausts crushing mankind for its sins. In a century of turmoil and strife, it is hard not to feel that the absurdities pictured before us may, after all, be our own.”

Slide 3: Michelangelo reveals Revelations

Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment is perhaps the most famous artwork depicting the apocalypse as depicted in Revelations. Painted from 1537 to 1541 on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, the fresco shows the second coming of Christ, with the souls of mankind floating around Christ and his saints as their await their judgment. The painting has been subjected to much exegesis over the centuries. In addition to its religious subject matter, some claim that its circular ordering of Earth, Heaven and Hell symbolizes Copernican ideas of the cosmos. Others have read into Michelangelo’s inclusion in the fresco of a self-portrait as Saint Bartholomew a personal statement. And others still discuss it as a historical parable. Writes Frances Carey in The Apocalypse and the Shape of Things to Come, “In its epic scale, the Sistine fresco is a magisterial statement that reflects the religious and historical perils confronting the papacy, not only the challenge posted by Protestant heresies to the North but also the terrifying events of the Sack of Rome. Yet despite the institutional prominence of the Sistine Last Judgement, Michelangelo was apparently permitted the liberty of declaring his own deeply personal identification with the subject. This autobiographical revelation can be partly accounted for by the influence of Dante’s Divine Comedy…. Although Michelangelo drew upon it lavishly in his conception of hell, he must have been as much affected by the spiritual odyssey that structures Dante’s poem, making of it an allegorical self-portrait of unprecedented scale as he was by the intensely evocative imagery of self-damnation.”

Slide 4: William Turner's Satanic Mills
The British painter William Turner, who painted at the end of the 18th century into the first half of the 19th century, revolutionized the field of landscape painting with his oils and watercolors that often depicted shipwrecks, fire, and other natural catastrophes that were proof of man’s inability to shape his surroundings. A controversial artist in his time, Turner created canvases in which the physical environment — light, smoke, fog, clouds, the sea — fused in blinding, almost theatrical flashes of color. His paintings were clear precursors to the French Impressionists, who were similarly fascinated by perception and the physical environment. Important works include the 1835 Burning of the House of Lords and Commons and the 1838 The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to Be Broken up, which was voted by BBC viewers as the best British painting of all time.  While most of Turner’s landscapes are expressions of a romantic imagination, they also touch on cultural anxiety of the new industrial age. Behind the cities of flames is the suggestion of the “dark Satanic Mills” that William Blake wrote about in “Jerusalem.”
Slide 5: Gustave Doré and the Illustration of Hell

The 19th century French artist and engraver Gustave Doré was arguably the most successful literary illustrator of all time, creating engravings to accompany books by authors ranging from Rabelais and Balzac to Edgar Allen Poe. And although he illustrated both children’s and adult literature and is considered one of the pioneers of the comic strip, he is perhaps best known for his series depicting scenes from the The Bible and Dante’s Inferno. The New York Times called his painting Dante and Virgil meeting in Hell “more horrible and more fantastic than was ever conceived in the delirium or enthusiasm of a poet. The whole picture is such only as the feverish and apocalyptic imagination of Gustave Doré could have conceived or put on canvas.” In his later life, Doré, who struggled in France for acceptance as an artist instead of an illustrator, moved to sculpture and then, after relocation to England, painting. But it was his dark engravings that have exerted the most influence. His work can be found on t-shirts as well as part of the production design of films ranging from Se7en to What Dreams May Come.

Slide 6: Yves Tanguy and the Abstraction of Destruction

Along with artists such as Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy was inspired by André  Breton and the Surrealist movement. The French-born, self-taught artist met Breton in 1924 and embraced the tenets of the movement, including the practice of painting practice of automatism. He went on to create a distinctive series of abstract landscape paintings that drew on not only the subconscious but also research in things like unusual rock formations. Reminiscent at times of Dalí’s work, Tanguy’s paintings are nonetheless distinctly his own, with brightly colored, biomorphic yet entirely non-human shapes littering desolate, almost lunar landscapes. Tanguy moved to the U.S., settling in Connecticut, in 1942, and his later work seemed haunted by nightmares of the Cold War. José Pierre, writing in Grove Art Online at the MoMA website, noted that in the 1950s “the atmosphere of Tanguy’s pictures became steeped in a sense of anguish even more penetrating than before, with cathedrals and obelisk-like shapes in desolate expanses beneath storm-threatened skies. An inexorable sea of stones invaded everything in his final paintings, Multiplication of Arches and Imaginary Numbers, which were endowed with a sublime and funereal beauty.”

Slide 7: Richard Powers's Dream of Disaster

If artists like Salvador Dalí and Yves Tanguy visualized the surrealistic possibilities of dream landscapes, then it was artists like Richard Powers who, inspired by their experiments, affixed their imagery to the specific imaginings of a Cold War-frightened mainstream population. Arguably the best science fiction book cover illustrator of all time, Powers took what might have been an amoeba-like blob plucked from our subconscious by Tanguy and reshaped it to form an alien life form or a bomb-scarred landscape. He illustrated literally hundreds of book covers from the 1940s through the ‘60s for Doubleday, Dell and Ballantine, moving from his early “techno-realist” style to one that incorporated a heavy Surrealist influence. Among his most well known covers are the 1953 paperback edition of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End and then, later, 14 paperback covers for J.G. Ballard, including many of his “disaster novels,” each of which involves the destruction of the planet. Powers, who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the New School and was shown at the Museum of Modern Art, painted many other subjects, including conventional landscapes and political cartoons, but it was for his importation of modern art styles into the realm of sci-fi illustration that he’s best remembered.  His work is collected in a book, The Art of Richard Powers.

Slide 8: Zdzisław Beksiński's Snapshot of Nightmares

The artist Zdzisław Beksiński studied architecture and film in Poland, briefly became a photographer, and finally settled on painting as a way of expressing his bleak, forbidding visions of a destroyed world. Influenced by Bosch, Romanticism, and the Surrealist’s focus on the subconscious, Beksinksi in the 1970s and ‘80s — during what is known as his “fantastic period” — created oil-based paintings in which evidence of the brushstroke was eliminated in an attempt to create for the viewer a realistic vision of inner nightmares. Writes the critic Tomasz Gryglewicz, “Beksiński paints vast expanses of wilderness or boundless stretches of billowing sea, dramatically convoluted vortices of clouds over the horizon; mysterious burial-grounds and ruins; Gothic cathedrals structured as if of bone or built of dry, twisted boughs; shipwrecks; skulls, skeletons, wolves, nocturnal scenes; the glow of moonlight etc. But he penetrates even more profoundly into the world of unreal reality than was possible in the art of the nineteenth century.” And, commented Beksiński himself, “'I wish to paint in such a manner as if I were photographing dreams. This is an apparent reality, which nevertheless contains an enormous amount of fantasy details. Perhaps other people's dreams and imagination work in some other way, but with me they're always images which tend to be realistic in terms of the play of light and shade and perspective.” In the ‘90s, Beksiński’s work began to exhibit the results of his experiments with digital photography and Photoshop manipulation. In 2005, he was murdered by two boys, including the son of his longtime aide.

Slide 9: Anselm Kiefer and the Burnt-Out World

Germany’s Anselm Kiefer, whose stark, dramatic paintings became linked to the Neo-Expressionist movement of the ’70s and ‘80s, resists being called a landscape painter. But, as Mark Rosenthal writes in his book-length monograph, Anselm Kiefer, “while in a literal sense he is not one, he does use landscape as the basis of much of his art…. Landscape is the central motif by which he expresses a disintegrating, violated, or suffering condition of Germany; for much of his career, the blackened, burnt landscape has dominated his subject matter.” Indeed, writes Simon Schama in The Guardian, Kiefer “...doesn't do droll, he does the big embarrassing stuff, the stuff that matters: the epic slaughters of the world, the incineration of the planet, apocalypse then, apocalypse often; the fragile endurance of the sacred amid the cauterised ruins of the earth.”

In Kiefer’s dramatic, large-scale paintings, with dark, ash-streaked skies, and sometimes painted on burlap with sticks of straw embedded, the viewer is overwhelmed by art that is both a sensory experience as well as a deep meditation on German identity after the War, a historical conversation that also incorporates themes and ideas from the Kaballah, alchemy, German artists such as Goethe and Wagner, and Norse mythology. More recently, themes of re-birth and regeneration have appeared in Kiefer’s work, but he has disavowed explicit interpretation of his paintings. In an interview with the Times of London he said, “I have no beliefs. It’s a black, black hole. You can never know why you are here. These are questions which are completely unresolved. It makes you have vertigo, thinking about this… I don’t produce work to get away from the black hole. I produce work in the black hole. In way it makes me more connected to a possible answer. You feel something but you cannot grasp it.”

Slide 10: H.R. Giger's Biomechanical Future

The Swiss artist H.R. Giger is perhaps the best-known science fiction and fantasy artist within the film community. His 1977 book Necronomicon provided the inspiration for the creature and landscape design of Ridley Scott’s Alien. Indeed, Giger was part of the film’s art department, winning an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. Wrote Scott, who discovered Giger’s work in early pre-production, “I started leafing through [Necronomicon] until I came to this one half-page painting and I just stopped and said, 'Good God, I don't believe it. That's it. I'd never been so certain about anything in my life. I thought we would be arguing for months about what the beast was going to be. Looking at the painting, I thought, 'If we can do that, that's it.”

Giger’s largely airbrushed paintings fuse human with machine-like shapes in a style known as “biomechanical” that is clearly influenced by the painter’s earlier education in industrial design. In Giger’s work, flesh and metal are in the process of becoming one, creating strange new creatures amidst the hollowed-out interiors of metallic caverns and futuristic vessels. Giger’s imagery struck such a chord in the popular culture that in the ‘70s and ‘80s it was seemingly everywhere, adorning record covers by artists ranging from Emerson, Lake and Palmer to Debbie Harry to the Dead Kennedys, was embraced by subcultures like the fetish, Goth and tattoo communities, and even inspired several international “Giger bars.” Since 1998, Giger’s work has been exhibited at the H.R. Giger museum in the medieval walled city of Gruyères, Switzerland.

Slide 11: Edward Burtynsky's Ecology of Catastrophe

For Canadian artist photographer Edward Burtynsky, the apocalypse is not in our future but in our present. In his photographs of what he calls “the residual landscape,” one ravaged by the effects of globalization, pollution and climate change, he creates oddly beautiful pictures of an industrially scarred modern world that are themselves potent and poetic political statements. Burtynsky chooses as his subject landscapes that tie in to our daily existence, depicting the effects of our consumption and oil-based economies on the planet that must sustain us. In his artist’s statement, Burtynsky writes, “These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire — a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times.” Burtynsky was the subject of a documentary film by Jennifer Baichwal, Manufactured Landscapes.

Slide 12: Sam Van Olffren's Steam Punk Dystopia

An artistic subculture that came to prominence in the 1980s and continues today, “steam punk” reworks contemporary science fiction ideas and storylines within a world aesthetically borne out of 19th century Victorian styles, fashions and industrial design. Steam punk is not so much apocalyptic as it is about a world that progressed after taking a left-turn from ours. It assumes that for the purposes of the imagination our world no longer exists and must be recreated in our subconscious from the shards of what we made earlier.

The genre, which is often traced back to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, is certainly an influence on 9 as well as many other contemporary movies, artworks, and even fashion designs. It’s also spawned a crop of artists and illustrators, one of the most interesting of which is the Montpelier, France-based Sam Van Olffren. On his MySpace page, the 33-year-old artist describes himself as “a little gears of the World-Machine who does Graphic Sampling (remixed Pictures) and who loves Slaughterhouse, literature, palmipeds and Cathedrals.” Van Olffen, a former animator, photographs everyday objects and then composites them digitally and creates strikingly realistic artwork of a disturbingly beautiful alternate reality, such as the ones that comprise his “Gas Mask Family Portraits” series, seen here.

Slide 13: Jake and Dinos Chapman's Historical Hell

With visions of the apocalypse so thoroughly rooted in today’s physical landscape by artists like Burtynsky, British provocateurs the Chapman brothers have revived the notion of damnation in several works that force viewers to reexamine their own attitudes towards contemporary history and philosophies. Their 2000 sculpture Hell, presented at the Royal Academy of Art’s Apocalypse exhibition, addressed the Holocaust, positioning 30,000 tiny Nazi toy soldiers committing various atrocities in nine glass display cases in a swastika formation. Ironically, the artwork was destroyed in a fire in 2004.  Four years later, the brothers re-upped their commitment to the presence of evil in our world by making a new sculpture, Fucking Hell, featuring even more soldiers committing violence on our world. Said Jake Chapman at the time, “As an event, we couldn't fail to see something funny about hell being on fire. We couldn't imagine a world without hell and we wanted to rescue the work from the sentimentality that some clothed it in after it was burned. There was an affection for the work that did not exist when it was there as an object before the fire” The piece was part of a larger show entitled “If Hitler Had Been a Hippy How Happy Would We Be.” Other works included 13 watercolors by Hitler himself that the Chapmans bought and then vandalized by painting over with rainbows and smiley faces.

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