Capitalist Apocalypse in the Painting of John Martin and Gordon Cheung

Martin LANG


Abstract:

Taking as its starting point Tate Britain’s recent John Martin retrospective, entitled John Martin: Apocalypse, this paper considers the possibility that depictions of biblical apocalyptic scenes in Martin’s paintings are actually metaphors for revolution (French and American). The frst half of the paper investigates possible links between Martin’s apocalyptic imagery, British imperial ambitions and the rise of capitalism. It also considers how Martin’s plans for urban redevelopment are linked to his preoccupation with cataclysmic doom. Through iconographical readings of Martin’s paintings the paper hypothesizes that themes such as the fall of great civilizations and the wrath of god are not coincidental but concerns contemporary to Martin caused by capitalist expansion. The second part of the paper goes on to investigate the possibility that our contemporary interest in the apocalypse is in fact, just as it was in Martin’s time, a metaphor for militant unrest, which is manifested in theory and culture because of our inability to imagine the end of capitalism – in this context the paper turns to contemporary painter Gordon Cheung to reconsider the idea, attributed to Jameson and Žižek, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

Keywords: A pocalypse, Art, Painting, John Martin, Gordon Cheung, Capitalism

Download