Arts: It's the end of the world as we know it

In the past, the Apocalypse seemed a step towards a better world. But for us it offers no happy ending.
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The Independent Culture
There's only one lot of people to whom the impending millennium really means anything - millenarians, loony Bible-bashers, those who have read the book, seen the signs, done the sums, and worked out that 2000 is the beginning of the end-time. Only they have a proper reason to mark this date-change, and they're probably expecting fireworks anyway.

As for all the other celebrants, those who say, in their weedy way, that while cynics may sniff, one can't deny the year 2000 does mean something a little bit special - they're just free-loading off the loonies. Free- loading, and at the same time repressing: because, with all the millennium talk, we haven't actually heard much from millenarians lately (even when, a few months ago, earthquakes had reached quite portentous levels and they would obviously have had something to say).

No, the general line is clear. Silence the cranks. Accentuate the positive. The millennium will occasion an irrational sense of celebration. But it will not occasion a no more irrational, but much more traditional, sense of crisis and panic. Oh well. We shall just have to see what happens, won't we?

Meanwhile, the loonies have a show. "The Apocalypse and the Shape of Things to Come" is at the British Museum. It's an exhibition of prints, drawings and manuscripts illustrating the Biblical Book of Revelation, with all its famous, second-coming attractions: the seven seals, the four horsemen, the great beast, the whore of Babylon, the war in heaven, the new Jerusalem.

Durer's great series of woodcuts is there, with its medieval precursors and its many later imitations. There are popular propaganda broadsheets, identifying some political or religious enemy - it might be Luther, it might be the Pope - with the beast or the whore. There are Blake's watercolours, including the one fictionally eaten by a psychopath in Thomas Harris' novel, Red Dragon. There are John Martin's catastrophe panoramas, and his mad brother Jonathan's vision of London's Overthrown. The exhibition concludes with nightmare images of 20th- century art and cinema, and a 3D Mexican "day of the dead" tableau, a phantasmagoria of skeletons enacting a nuclear world-end.

This is certainly the most interesting show in town. It can hardly help it. For who doesn't feel that the Apocalypse is an incredibly groovy kind of subject? Oh, such fantastic imagery - so dramatic, so visionary, so druggy. Yet historically, as still sometimes today, the people who have had most use for such imagery have been utterly deranged. So, going round this horror show, don't just have fun. Imagine what it would be to believe in it. Don't just think "sublime" or "surreal". Think Jonestown and Waco.

The Book of Revelation was written towards the end of the first century in Asia Minor by somebody called John, about whom little is known, though I think it would be fair to assume that he, too, was absolutely barking. It's a pretty horrible document. Of course the imagery is often fantastic, and there are breathtaking strokes - "And when the lamb had opened the seventh seal there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour". But read through, it's like a blockbuster revenge fantasy, a succession of grotesque spectacles and loud bangs and massive exterminations of the unrighteous. It could not encourage respect for human life.

That never seems to have given artists much pause; quite the contrary. The artistic problem is more practical. Revelation is the devil to illustrate, especially if you are obliged to stick to the letter of it. The trouble is that, although presented as a vision, the book's contents are largely unvisualisable. For example, the beast is described as having, among other things, seven heads and 10 horns; no further details.

Now, if you look at the Durer woodcuts, you can see how this is realised. Seven heads are fitted in by imagining a hydra-like bunch of serpents emerging from a single neck (this is an old, medieval solution). As for the 10 horns, they're distributed by giving four heads one and three heads two. Fair enough, you may think. But no, the author of Revelation was also a numerological headbanger, and if he had specifically meant three heads with two horns and four with one horn, he would have specifically said so. What he meant was seven heads and 10 horns. Visualising it was not his business, and any plausible visualisation will probably be untrue to the text.

On the other hand, Durer's image of the beast is a piece of genius - the way the hideous, writhing heads become a bunch of individual crooks, snarling, skulking, sneering and (this is the brilliant touch) preening themselves. And the whole series, cut in 1498 when he was only 26, is so authoritative that it almost supersedes the text it illustrates.

Still, even the Durer scenes may strike us as not quite rising to the occasion. Nowadays, we feel that events of cosmic significance should occur on a correspondingly cosmic scale. We want more of a sense of scape. We expect huge vistas - the Earth and the heavens in convulsion, the new Jerusalem spread out further than they eye can see.

But before the 19th century, the scale is quaint. True, scenes may be absolutely jam-packed with figures. The 16th-century engravings of Jean Duvet make a real effect of such density, to the point where there's so much uninterrupted detail that you can hardly tell what's happening. But still, the last battles of the universe always seem to be fought out on an area not much bigger than a football pitch. The Blake pictures are really the first to allow the subject decently Wagnerian dimensions - not actually by showing a lot of view, but by clear suggestions that these great actions are happening in an infinite space.

The other big change of apocalyptic sensibility is a 20th-century one. When, previously, apocalypse imagery had been used to dramatise political struggles and wars, the focus was combative - a way of stressing the urgency, magnitude or righteousness of the cause, the awfulness of the enemy. And Revelation has, of course, a happy ending; the righteous win. But in this century, as I can still just call it, the focus has been narrower and more negative. Artists have invoked the apocalypse in response to dreadful things happening, like modern war and eco-disaster. Only the destructive episodes of Revelation are stressed. It's an image of unmitigated catastrophe. The end of the world is, indeed, the end of the world, with no new Jerusalem in view beyond.

Actually, apocalyptic visions seem a very unwise response to evil. It's not just (the perhaps pedantic point) that in the book itself, most of the really destructive activity is sponsored by God. It's more that such visions tend to anaesthetise the horror they are trying overwhelmingly to express, to make it seem remote and tremendous and inevitable. This is just what one feels with, say, Frans Masereel's 1940 Apocalypse of Our Time drawings. They are not really the anti-war statement that they think they are. On the other hand, although they appear in this show, Otto Dix's First World War etchings should really be credited with resisting an apocalyptic tone. Their horrible spectacles retain a saving sense of the inappropriate.

Apocalypse, now, is normally a posture of exasperated despair - rather than of deranged, millenarian optimism (though, of course, that still exists). Either way, I'm not sure that it is a very helpful perspective on life. And perhaps we might put it behind us in the next... well, at some point in the future.

`The Apocalypse and the Shape of Things to Come', British Museum, London WC1 (0171-636 1555) daily, until 24 Apr