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"The Apocalypse"
1999-12-17 until 2000-05-05
The British Museum
London, , UK United Kingdom

The close of the second millennium is an appropriate moment to evaluate the legacy of one of the most vivid and controversial writings in the Christian canon, the Book of Revelation. Its description of an apocalypse that was both destructive and redemptive provided a universal metaphor for the expression of all future eschatology both collective and personal, a rich vein of imagery that remains a force in contemporary culture.

This exhibition, together with the associated publication, will examine the pictorial tradition it engendered as represented principally by illuminated manuscripts, books, single sheet prints and drawings from the 11th century up to the end of the Second World War. Attention will be focused on particular episodes or apocalyptic phases which have often, though not invariably, occurred at the end of centuries and have always been rooted in historical and political circumstances. Most of the material will be drawn from the collections of the Museum's Department of Prints and Drawings and the British Library, supplemented by loans from other collections within the United Kingdom , continental Europe and East Coast American collections. J.Cooke

The Representative of a Great Nation 1799. Hand coloured etching published by Obadiah Prim. After the great medieval manuscript cycles, the defining moment in the development of the pictorial tradition was Dürer's publication of his Apocalypse woodcuts, which first appeared in 1498; their resonance has been felt at all levels of subsequent portrayal, including examples such as the 1921 film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, in which Rudolph Valentino holds the Revelation of St John adorned with copies of Dürer's prints. Apocalyptic imagery was quickly appropriated as a vehicle for propaganda and satire, becoming secularised at the hands of artists such as James Gillray in the late 18th century. Gillray's contemporary, William Blake, evolved through his illuminated prophetic books of 1790-1820 and a series of watercolours c.1805-10, a concept of Apocalypse and Judgement that was part of a personal mythology responding to the millenarian currents and revolutionary upheavals of the period in question.

The growing secularisation of modern society has in no way diminished the power of apocalyptic metaphor which has become embedded in popular culture. Throughout the 20th century it has continued as a vehicle for visions of both destruction and regeneration, of nihilistic despair and futuristic fantasy, in the hands of many writers, artists and film directors, for the cinema has been a critical factor in the transmission of such imagery. As the course of the First World War and its aftermath unfolded exultance turned to despair; the hope of regeneration was replaced by a sense of ultimate destruction on a cosmic scale which continued to gather momentum under pressure of political developments in the 1930s, achieving a terrible realisation in the Second World War.

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