Introduction: Art in Apocalyptic Times

Edwin Coomasaru and Theresa Deichert

The Destruction of Pompei and Herculaneum 1822, restored 2011 by John Martin 1789-1854 i Fig. 1: John Martin, The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (1822, restored 2011). Oil paint on canvas, 161.6 × 253 cm. Tate, London. Tate N00793, digital image © Tate released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported).

In 1928 the Thames burst its banks and London flooded. Fourteen people were killed and thousands made homeless. The river wall opposite Tate Britain collapsed–waves cascaded across the road and surged up through partially-filled subterrain ruins of the former Millbank Prison (demolished in 1892). The nine lower ground floor galleries and basement filled with water: 18 artworks were considered beyond repair, a further 226 badly damaged, and an additional 67 slightly affected. Among the oil paintings submerged was artist John Martin’s The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (1822, Fig. 1). After Martin’s work was rescued, it was rolled up and stored in another part of the building–subsequently forgotten about until rediscovery in 1973 and restoration in 2011. The painting had been placed in Tate’s basement in 1918 as the artist had fallen out of fashion, decades after once having thrilled nineteenth-century audiences with spectacular scenes.

The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum depicts the eruption of Italy’s Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. Is it possible to imagine the end of imagination itself? What might the catastrophic events—both pictured by but also witnessed upon the painting—reveal about the complex entanglement between fantasy and reality when it comes to the ways artists have envisioned the end times? This book will explore the politics of creating images for crisis, and the way such disasters are depicted by artists and politicians. The essays in this edited volume range from recent queer utopias in South Korea to monstrous beasts in eighteenth-century France. Each contribution considers the ways in which apocalypticism is not just a neutral description but a conceptual frame with a narrative structure. Specific to their time and place, visions of Armageddon often involve the organisation of violence: they are usually accompanied by militaristic rhetoric of an in-group under attack from an out-group.

This connection with violence may have informed the earliest origins of apocalyptic discourses, which can be traced back to the Middle East’s ancient monotheistic religions – or even further back to older Near Eastern and Persian mythologies.1Armageddon as a cultural current has always contained a series of conceptual contradictions: beginnings and endings, annihilation and revelation. But the notion of worlds ending is not unique to Judaism, Christianity, or Islam: it can also be found across the globe from Hindu eschatology, to Buddhist prophecies, or Norse legends.2 It can be both a lived experience and phantastic projection: art and visual culture sit at the very interconnection of the two. Artists and image-makers have long drawn on eschatological thinking to reveal or challenge deep fears or traumas in their societies. But is it possible to illustrate an event that by its definition represents near total destruction?

Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum’s flood damage is not the only instance where calamities reminiscent of apocalyptic conditions collided with the realms of art and culture. In recent years, as climate change is leading to ever more intensified weather conditions and natural disasters, museums and cultural institutions all over the world have faced destruction and invaluable losses due to floods, wildfires, and environmental contamination. The floods in Western Germany of 2021 brought on by torrential rainstorms, for instance, caused city archives to be submerged in water and mud that damaged artefacts and archival materials.3 In the same year, wildfires brought on by global warming-induced heatwaves were threatening the Acropolis in Athens Greece.4 When the earthquake and tsunami of 2011 hit the East coast of Northern Japan, they damaged museums, artworks and cultural assets.5

Moreover, as these catastrophes led to the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant which caused widespread radioactive contamination four public museums had to be evacuated and their artefacts became radioactively contaminated.The Fukushima Prefectural Museum of Art was one of the museums, which had to suspend their operation due to being hit by the earthquake. Reminiscent of the double symbolism of the flood’s effect on John Martin’s apocalyptic painting 83 years earlier, the Fukushima museum displayed layout illustrations of Studio Ghibli’s post-apocalyptic film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) at the time when the disaster struck. Warning of potential disasters to come, director Hayao Miyazaki’s film depicted a world where war has destroyed society and led to ecological crisis, rendering the environment toxic to humans.

Events such as the examples above not only call into question the boundaries between culture and nature, they also make us aware that we live in calamitous times, where the prospect of apocalyptic conditions of our current age of the Anthropocene have become even more palpable. As scholar of culture and media Heather Davis and philosopher Etienne Turpin have pointed out, the Anthropocene is a sensory phenomenon characterized by the experience of living in an increasingly toxic world.7 Moreover, they highlight the potential of art to address a damaged lifeworld through ‘experimentation’ and a ‘non-moral form of address that offers a range of discursive, visual, and sensual strategies that are not confined by the regimes of scientific objectivity, political moralism, or psychological depression’.8

In this context, the current moment of lived precarity presents itself as an opportunity to interrogate how artists have confronted conditions of socio-political, environmental, economic and personal instability through the subject of the apocalypse not just in recent times, but also looking back. This book aims to contribute to the study of art and apocalypses by examining the subject across a variety of historical times, events and artistic genres. Returning to our first example, to what extent can a damaged artwork be thought of as a portrait of the catastrophe itself? In the case of Martin’s work, the waterlogged and cut canvas seemed to represent two tropes of Armageddon: toxic smog (the volcanic eruption) and watery deluge. The ruined object also seemed to embody a tension between the end times as a cultural concept and as a material reality – in this case the latter seems to have rendered the former unreadable.

The tension between Martin’s artistic ability to picture disaster, and the material effects of deluge itself, came into complex contact in the waterlogged painting. Art critic and curator William Feaver implored Tate not to repair the giant hole in the canvas: ‘such a painting needs not patching up but respect for what it is: a picture of an act of God (or the gods) that happens to have been dealt a titanic whack’.9 He elaborates: ‘[t]he missing area may be considered actual loss visited on a graphic representation of catastrophic loss. Here, after nearly two centuries, Thames embankments and Pompeiian waterfront align. History encircles us’.10 Perhaps The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, as both a portrait of destruction and an object that underwent its own seeming annihilation and resurrection, reveals something of the tensions that underpin Armageddon as a cultural concept.

The artwork went on display in Tate Britain’s major retrospective exhibition, John Martin: Apocalypse (2011). Curator Julie Milne believed that Martin’s spectacular scenes resonate in the twenty-first century, a time anxiously filled ‘with reports of ecological disaster, pandemic and terrorist threat’.11 But reviewing the show, art critic Jonathan Jones concluded that cultural representations of Armageddon were just simply overblown nonsense. Asking ‘is our own sense of impending disaster just a product of our febrile imaginations?’—he insisted that nineteenth-century and contemporary British public experience such untrammelled peace and prosperity as to render any anxieties over the top.12 Jones dismissed primary accounts by and historical research of: ‘[l]ooking at, and reading, the Victorians, you might conclude that they lived in a time that, like our own—as we imagine it—stood poised on the brink of catastrophe’.13

‘Nothing could be further from the truth’, he proclaims, ‘[n]ineteenth-century Britain was a peaceful, prosperous society’.14 Perhaps the critic is not a fan of apocalypticism as an artistic subject. In 2015, he dismissed Japanese artist collective Chim-Pom’s exhibition Don’t Follow the Wind (2015-ongoing) as a ‘fatuous plan’.15 In his review titled ‘Apocalypse no! Why artists should not go into the Fukushima exclusion zone’, Jones claimed that the exhibition was a ‘a mere stunt, a gesture’.16 As such, he completely missed the point of the project, which centred on the installation of artworks inside of the publicly inaccessible exclusion zone as a way of raising awareness of the former residents of the area or those affected by the disaster. Instead, Jones claimed that, contrary to scientific facts, the nuclear accident was being ‘well-managed and successfully contained’ and nuclear energy was in fact a clean and viable solution to the threat of global warming.17

In the context of Britain, Jones overlooks the violence of imperialism and anti-colonial movements or the class struggle and conflict that took place. He reassured readers that nineteenth-century Britain had ‘a growing empire, and an industrial revolution brought wealth and security to bourgeois Britain even as, in the British Museum library, Karl Marx toiled to demonstrate the doom of this pleasant capitalist way of life’.18 Jones insisted that the Victorians were merely overthinking things: ‘[t]he fears, or secret dark desires, of Martin and his contemporaries were rooted in imagination, not reality’.19 But why may Jones be willing to write off the events and cultural products of an entire century of profound strife and unrest? His critique was made in the aftermath of the 2007-08 global financial crisis: government austerity policies from 2010 were met with protests as the public began to polarise between left and right, while the police killing of an unarmed Black man Mark Duggan sparked riots in 2011.

The unrest took place just weeks before Jones’ review was published. His concluding paragraph reads: Martin ‘prompts us to ask if we, too, in 2011, are not feeding on fears that bear little relation to what is by the standards of all previous ages a comfortable and peaceful era … maybe we should gaze on his nightmares to relax’.20 Jones would go on to spend the next decade mixing his art criticism with angry critiques of left wing political activism: a time of rapidly widening inequality and renewed interest in socialism, resurging white supremacy and anti-racist movements, and ever louder warnings about climate change. Perhaps The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum does in fact reveal something about eschatological anxieties amongst the British public in 1822, 1928, or even 2011.

For Milne, ‘Martin’s 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’.21 At the time gender was also seen as a battleground for apocalyptic fears: in places like the US, for example, misogynists and feminists drew on a familiar language to picture potential threats and futures.22 In 1881 suffragist and Native American rights activist Matilda Joslyn Gage proclaimed: ‘the male element has thus far been held in high carnival … The recent disorganization of society warns us that in the disenfranchisement of women we have let loose the reins of violence and ruin which she only has the power to avert’.23 End-times rhetoric has been repeated across centuries by with opposing ideologies.

Recently health and fitness coach Daniel Kelly called for cisgender men to take testosterone injections to supposedly reclaim their manhood, complaining: ‘[t]be 21st century male has become a maligned figure. The movement to empower women has swung the pendulum too far’.24 He warns: ‘[w]hen there is no masculinity in society, there is no order. And where there is no order, there is chaos … society breaks down’.25 Such rhetoric might sound ridiculous but is not unique. In 2020 art critic Alastair Sooke lamented: ‘the battle of the sexes has been rumbling on forever, recently the conflict has intensified – to the brink of nuclear Armageddon. Traditional masculinity is now considered so destructive, so “toxic”, that an entire gender is, arguably, in crisis’.26

But while there are peoples for whom Armageddon is a script for reading reality, rather than reality itself – there are also those who have experienced world ending events throughout history: such as Indigenous experiences of genocide and settler colonialism, or the Atlantic slave trade’s mass scale abduction and murder.27 Such theft and destruction contributed to climate change, as geography scholar Kathryn Yusoff points out: ‘[t]he Anthropocene might seem to offer a dystopian future that laments the end of the world, but imperialism and ongoing (settler) colonialisms have been ending worlds for as long as they have been in existence’.28 Political scientist Jairus Victor Grove, moreover, recognises that ‘human apocalypses and geologic apocalypses … [are] implicated in the other’.29

In fact, in 1500 Christopher Columbus described his conquest of the Americas as a divine mission: ‘as St. John writes in the Apocalypse … He made me the messenger thereof and showed me where to go’.30 For both perpetrators and survivors, Armageddon seems to offer a way of articulating world-shattering violence. Centuries later and on a different continent, a resident of Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo described the 1994 Rwandan genocide as: ‘the beginning of the final days. This is the apocalypse’.31 Similar end-time semantics are to be found in the title of Rob Lemkin’s documentary African Apocalypse (2021), in which poet and activist Femi Nylander travels to West Africa to explore colonial legacies. Recent poetry by Black feminist scholar and activist Alexis Pauline Gumbs has explored ‘the realities we are making possible or impossible with our present apocalypse’.32

She lists: ‘[a]fter and with the consequences of fracking past peak oil. After and with the defunding of the humanities. After and with the removal of people of colour from the cities they built’.33 Mentioning a series of Black thinkers and organisations, Gumbs concludes: ‘After and with the multitude of small and present apocalypses. After and with the end of the world as we know it. After the ways we have been knowing the world’.34 By contrast, white supremacists and imperialists have long used apocalyptic rhetoric to try and justify the theft of land and destruction of lives. The ‘great replacement’ or ‘white genocide’ conspiracy theory, that white Europeans are supposedly being bred out of existence, is one such example.35

In 1968 British politician Enoch Powell’s 1968 ventriloquised the real or imagined words of a constituent: ‘[i]n this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man’.36 For Powell, it was ‘like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre’.37 The so-called EU ‘migrant crisis’ in 2015 was also cast in a somewhat apocalyptic framing by politicians and the press. In fact, in the decades after Powell’s speech there seem to have been no end of events or anxieties that have been relayed through end time narratives in the media: fears of nuclear war, climate change, neo-imperial conflicts, financial crises, technological anxieties, claims for ‘the end of history’, pandemics, unrest – as well as social conflicts over gender, sexuality, and race.

The millennium also provoked talk of Armageddon, with fears the date would cause computer errors.38 In 2000 London’s Royal Academy held an exhibition on Apocalypse: Beauty and Horror in Contemporary Art. In the catalogue curator Norman Rosenthal argued that ‘all art is essentially apocalyptic’, and that ‘the coming of the twenty-first century – two thousand years after the birth of Christ … is a subliminally apocalyptic moment’.39 Such an account reveals a recurring feeling of living at the end times, which would only go on to be exacerbated in recent years. The essays in this edited collection were first presented during a conference at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London on 18-19th October 2019. A month later, the Chinese government recorded its first case of Covid-19.40 The pandemic has certainly been experienced as world ending – both in the massive loss of life and dramatic social changes brought about by attempts to mitigate the disease’s spread.

Around the world newspaper and blog headlines have read: ‘End of the world: Jesus warned of deadly pandemic as sign of the apocalypse’, ‘Covid-19 resurgence – a glimpse of the apocalypse’, ‘Is this an Apocalypse? We certainly hope so – you should too’.41 When the UK Prime Minister spent time in hospital after catching the virus, journalists hoped for a Christ-like resurrection. Although some insisted that ‘[a] brush with death has empowered the Prime Minister’, others worried about ‘the picture of naked vulnerability it painted so entirely at odds with our rambunctious hero’.42 Declaring ‘your health is the health of the nation’, the implicit message was that if he had died it would have been the end of the UK itself.43 But what is it specifically about apocalypticism as a frame that is so often invoked to call upon male saviour figures?

Christ’s crucifixion is an obvious reference, but is there also an authoritarian and patriarchal politics at play here? Artist and theorist Joanna Zylinska has tackled these questions in her book The End of Man: A Feminist Counterapocalypse (2018). She explains: ‘[t]he prophecy contained in the book’s title ostensibly points to the extinction of the human spices, yet it also signals the expiration of the White Christian Man as the key subject of history’.44 For Zylinska, ‘”The end of man” pronounced as part of the current apocalyptic discourse can therefore be seen as both a promise and an ethical opening rather than solely as an existential threat’.45 While the book reworks many end-times tropes, it also fits within an apocalyptic tradition that evokes both endings and beginnings, with utopian and dystopian potential.

The End of Man critiques responses to climate change that centre male saviour tropes or renewed drives for mastery: from business-as-usual neoliberals looking for an easy technical fix, to rising tides of eco-fascism on the far right directing violence towards those they consider threatening.46 Her book contains plenty of irony and parody, but is sincere in its conclusions: that rather than autonomous or militarised, subjecthood should be rethought as relational and interdependent.47 ‘In doing so’, Zylinska insists, her microvision of a feminist counterapocalypse ‘promises liberation from the form of subjectivity pinned to a competitive, overachieving, and overreaching masculinity … what kinds of coexistences and collaborations do we want to create in its aftermath?’.48 Herein lies the conceptual contradictions that apocalypticism as a discourse, containing both beginnings and endings.

Perhaps the flood-damaged The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum evoked some of these tensions: Feaver might have argued against its restoration, but resurrection and rebirth is also a conventionally apocalyptic trope. But there is a larger question at stake in his response: is The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum a projection of end-time fears, or somehow a sign of an unfolding Armageddon itself? Jones insisted it were merely the former. But writer Amitav Ghosh insists: ‘let us make no mistake: the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination’.49 For art historian T.J. Demos, ‘[w]e are entering the endgame – the terminal point of democracy, of liberalism, of capitalism, of a cool planet, of the Anthropocene, of the world as we know it … Time itself is endangered, as much as imagination’.50 What does it mean to try and imagine something that represents the end of imagination?

For Zylinska, ‘the most dramatic message of the Anthropocene narrative … [is] the fact that soon there will be nothing to see – and no one to see it’.51 Theologian Catherine Keller argues that Armageddon ‘presents “the unrepresentable”’.52 Martin’s waterlogged painting, not an artistic gesture but the result of rising tides, seems to embody such symbolic and literal destruction: the flood rendered the painted surface unreadable as a figurative scene and a large hole was torn through the centre of the composition. But the end times represent not just annihilation but also revelation: and whether it be the very real prospect of ecological disaster or the murderous projections of white supremacists, apocalypticism reveals structures of violence as well as fears and fantasies of power and powerlessness.

Armageddon is a cultural framework which has developed a series of conventions over centuries: the promise of rebirth after death or a saviour to turn chaos into order. Artists have long worked with and against such narrative tropes, and this book investigates the tensions between visual culture and political discourse that draw on or disrupt apocalyptic thinking. Grove complains that ‘the conceptual and temporal boundaries of apocalypses are frustrating diffuse’—but such flexibility is exactly why Armageddon has been profoundly generative as a cultural and social metaphor.53 The word ‘apocalypse’ derives from Ancient Greek, meaning ‘unveiling’, and this edited collection aims to explore and understand what modern and contemporary images of the end times may tell about the societies that gave rise to them.

Chapter Overview

In Part 1 ‘Queer Visions’, essays by Robert Mills and Andrew Cummings consider how artists have invoked apocalyptic imagery to challenge homophobia. In Chapter 1 Mills examines the practice of British filmmaker, artist, and gay rights activist Derek Jarman, whose work responded to environmental destruction, the potential threat of nuclear war, and the socially conservative government of Margret Thatcher during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and early 90s. Taking Jarman’s The Last of England (1987) as a starting point, Mills considers how the artist’s own HIV diagnosis was bound up with collective homophobia and mass death during the pandemic. His films and paintings reference apocalyptic narratives from the Bible’s Book of Revelations to divine punishment for homosexuality, pre-Raphaelite paintings, and the British media’s framing of the AIDS as a ‘gay plague’.

Mills argues that Jarman also turned to Old and Middle English poetry as a way of critically confronting the conditions of his present, subsequently visualizing ‘more ideal, open and queer futures’.54  Presenting an analysis of contemporary queer South Korean artist Dew Kim’s work, in Chapter 2 Cummings considers the potential for utopian futures in Succulent Humans (2018). The sculptural installation responded to South Korean’s capitalist society that originated in the country’s former history as a Japanese colony. For many in South Korea, non-confirmative expression of sexuality and gender is seen as a threat to the natural order. In this context, Cummings proposes that a prevailing cultural conception of apocalyptic homophobia is rooted in the juxtaposition of the monstrous queer body as open, porous and connected to nonhuman existence vis-à-vis a conception of the ideal human body as bounded, discrete and sovereign.

Similar to Jarman’s, in Kim’s work homophobia is also conceptualized in connection to ecological crises, climate change, and environmental collapse. Kim’s installation draws on science fiction narratives, in which bodies become more-than-human as human-plant hybrid to reflect on present conditions and to project them into a post-apocalyptic future. Speculative or imaginative visions of the environment are also the subject of Part II, ‘Ecological Anxieties’, with essays by Theresa Deichert and Harvey Shepherd. Deichert’s Chapter 3 explores work by contemporary Japanese artist and director Sono Sion, including the film The Whispering Star (2015). Deichert considers the use of science fiction to contend with the socio-political and ecological conditions of Japan in the aftermath of the 2011 nuclear disaster.

Tracing the film’s origins from the 1990s to its realization in 2015, Deichert examines The Whispering Star’s portrayal of a postmodern apocalypse of post-bubble economy Japan of the early 1990s that came to a head anew and with urgency in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster of March 2011. In focusing on the artist’s post-apocalyptic representation of human disillusionment with science and technology, time and memory, and the non-human, Deichert argues the film contains an implicit warning about the consequences of a neoliberal political system and government-imposed censorship. But taking on a posthumanist stance, Deichert also highlights the film’s failure to fully engage with the ecological implications of the nuclear disaster, which called into question the delimitations between nature and culture. Such a neat binary is also contested in Shepherd’s Chapter 4, which shifts focus to eighteenth-century France.

The European Enlightenment conceptualized a division between humans and nature, as the former tried to exert control over the latter. In visual representations of the Beast of Gévaudan, which reportedly ravaged the south of France in 1764-65, Shepherd argues that the beast as apocalyptic symbol and portent of doom was based on cultural traditions and myths of the wider Languedoc region. Parisian imagery, by contrast, linked the beast to zoological origins as a wolf or hyena. Such symbolism became prevalent at a time when public faith in absolute monarchy had been shaken by unsuccessful wars and ongoing social grievances. The supposed killing of the Beast of Gévaudan provided an opportunity for King Louis XV to assert his power and order over the population. Such folk accounts reveal the ways in which political crises are often articulated through and bound up with environmental fears.

Part 3, ‘Conflict and Colonialism’, also considers links between end times imagery and violent wars or systems of rule: highlighting how the trope of Armageddon can be used to challenge or entrench structures of power. In Chapter 7 Lucy Byford studies a 1919 action by Dada artist Johannes Baader in Germany’s Weimar National Assembly. She argues that Baader’s anti-government stunt was a key event in the history of Berlin Dada. Byford presents detailed historical reconstruction with close examination of contemporary reportage, political context of Germany’s new republic, and Berlin Dada’s engagement with eschatology. She considers the artist’s employment of millenarian language and imagery, such as that of the Horseman of the Apocalypse in his handbill. Baader used such concepts to critique of the new government as a continuation of imperial ideology in the guise of a newly established democracy.

In Chapter 8 Tobah Auckland-Peck provides further insight into the role of end times imagery in the context of the aftermath of the First World War. Aukland-Peck examines The Defences of London stage performances in the 1924-25 British Empire Exhibition in London, which juxtaposed scenes of apocalyptic destruction with the successful defense of the British capital against an unknown military force, the Royal Airforce Display London Defended, and the reenactment of the 1666 Great Fire of London. Combining episodes of imagined and historical Armageddon, these displays reacted to Britain’s internal and external destabilizations during the period. Growing nationalist movements in the UK’s colonies challenged the British Empire, while the experience of the London air raids in World War I and the threat of class struggle were seen as a risk to national security.

Aukland-Peck shows how the stage displays aimed at promoting nationalism and faith in government. She argues that such representations sought to promote Britain as an undisputed imperial power. Chapter 6 also considers relationships between colonialism and apocalypticism: Ian Dudley examines the work of Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris and artist Aubrey Williams in the 1950s to 80s. Dudley demonstrates how their writing and paintings responded to and reworked the apocalyptic violence subjected to Indigenous peoples and enslaved Africans by imperialist conquest, accompanied by untold environmental devastation. Harris and Williams challenged imperialist-capitalist narratives of linear progress by drawing on Mesoamerican Indigenous cultures, Modernist art, and mythological sources to fashion alternative temporalities and anti-colonial consciousness.

Part 4 ‘Masses and Disasters’ turns to other case studies in the Americas: examining ideas of masses in relationship to apocalypticism, as church congregations or internet memes. In Chapter 8 Kate Pickering combines scholarly analysis with experimental writing practice to reflect on Houston’s Lakewood Megachurch in the US. She maps links between white evangelicalism and therapeutic consumer capitalism, centered on the figure of the charismatic entrepreneurial pastor. Lakewood positions itself as a haven for religious seekers. Pickering demonstrates how the audio-visual and meteorologically-inspired displays and performances in the church’s services serve to create an affective space through which to communicate evangelical apocalypticism and climate skepticism.

Through experimental writing, Pickering evokes a scenario that dissolves boundaries between the church’s highly managed environment and its more-than-human surroundings. Lakewood Megachurch may have to face the consequences of climate change despite their denial, a politics they share with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. In Chapter 9, Arthur Valle studies portrayals of Bolsonaro in internet memes, video games, and cartoons that employ apocalyptic iconography. Valle considers how such imagery illustrates entanglements between economic crises, military state, the covid pandemic, and far-right politics. He demonstrates that end of times imagery is used both by Bolsonaro’s opponents and followers in criticism or support: either presenting him as a Horseman of the Apocalypse or alternative as saviour figure in the face of queer, feminist or anti-racist activism.

The chapters in this book examine how apocalypticism has been long contested between social conservatives and progressives: drawn on to either perpetuate or challenge structures of prejudice and power. Contributors discuss homophobia and queer utopias, climate change and nuclear anxieties, folk monsters and fears of revolt, imperial violence and anti-colonial imagination, the staging of conflict and disaster, popular culture and fascism, faith and denial in church congregations. Each reveal a series of contradictions that underpin the end times: beginnings and endings, annihilation and revelation. Art and visual culture have produced apocalyptic images for centuries, shaping the very imagination of the end times themselves. Artists may have provided warnings and offered alternative visions, but as our planet accelerates towards environmental breakdown, our collective imagination and very existence may ultimately be at stake.

The Destruction of Pompei and Herculaneum 1822, restored 2011 by John Martin 1789-1854
Fig. 1: John Martin, The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (1822, restored 2011). Oil paint on canvas, 161.6 × 253 cm. Tate, London. Tate N00793, digital image © Tate released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported).


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2 Niall Ferguson, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe (New York: Penguin Press, 2021), p.25.
3 Catherine Hickley, ‘German floods damage archives, soaking historic documents in mud’, The Art Newspaper, 21 July 2021,, accessed 14 December 2021.
4 Gareth Harris, ‘Acropolis forced to close amid unprecedented heatwave and wildfires in Greece’, The Art Newspaper, 5 August 2021,, accessed 14 December 2021.
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6 These museums include the Futaba Town Museum of History and Folklore, Okuma Town Folklore Museum, Tomioka Town Art and Media Centre, and Naraha Town Historical Material Museum. See: Kikuchi, ‘Archaeology and Cultural Heritage in Fukushima Today’, p.35.
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49 Demos, Beyond the World’s End p.7.
50 Demos, Beyond the World’s End p.1, p.7.
51 Zylinska, The End of Man, p.64 (emphasis in the original).
52 Keeler, Apocalypse Now and Then, p.6.
53 Grove, Savage Ecology, p.246.
54 Robert Mills, ‘Derek Jarman’s Revelation: AIDS, Apocalypse and History’, in Edwin Coomasaru and Theresa Deichert (eds.), Imagining the Apocalypse: Art and the End Times (London: Courtauld Books Online, 2022), p.15-52.

DOI: 10.33999/2022.84