Drawing at his kitchen table

Womerah Lane, Tom Carment, Giramondo.

Painter Tom Carment lives in Darlinghurst, in an area typical of inner suburban Sydney, a narrow street of two-storey terraces where the residents are in close quarters, old sandstone walls flank footpaths, jacarandas flamboyantly decorate the skyline, bougainvilleas spill over fences. Carment describes the area, where he has lived for decades, as formerly seedy, now somewhat gentrified (Bill Granger’s café is on the corner, I note) but retaining a sense of community. He describes the neighbours’ kids drawing at his kitchen table, neighbours borrowing his ladder, neighbours bringing in his washing when those sudden Sydney storms threaten.

His lovely book of autobiographical essays sprinkled appropriately with examples of his art documents in words and pictures his neighbourhood, and spirals outwards to his excursions to Sydney’s beaches and bush, and longer trips to the Outback. He is a plein air painter – it’s ‘about all I do,’ he says humbly – and with his artist’s eye he notices what the newcomer sees and the resident becomes oblivious to, as well as the little things locals know about but newer arrivals need to fossick out. His illustrations are dappled, impressionistic, pleasantly loose, but with a surety of composition, proportion and perspective. They are not showy, or pristine or sublime, but, rather, show a somewhat Australian acceptance – love, even – of a level of roughness and quirkiness, as well as conveying the brightness of our Australian light. In the streets of Sydney he is attracted to power poles and old walls revealed by demolitions. I particularly like how, when commissioned to add to a collection of artworks commemorating the building of the Sydney Opera House, Carment decides to paint just the steps, with lingering tourists, instead of the grandeur of the sails.

His writing, similarly, shows a light touch and a familiarity, but with an inquisitive nature, punctuated by a little joke or odd reference. He writes about his still life painting, particular familiar trees in the Sydney streets, as well as visits to remote places, where he paints trees and windmills and fences. As well as his ramblings through the landscape, the book is a ‘geography of people’. Landscapes are never abstracted from people. He remembers novelist Gillian Mears in Grafton and Brett Whiteley at Lavender Bay, full of energy. (Whiteley is encouraging but describes Carment’s style as ‘a bit toothbrushy’.) He helps clean out photographer Olive Cotton’s studio in Cowra.

He writes about Albert Namatjira, who was something of an inspiration for Carment’s plein air painting. He recalls liking Namatjira’s art despite the sniffy criticism it received for supposedly being merely ‘illustrative’, neither modern art nor ‘authentic’ desert art. (Although desert art/dot painting was a triumph, it did create expectations of what Indigenous art was supposed to look like, a prejudice that has sometimes hampered Indigenous artists since, especially those not from the Outback.) As an artist well-versed in art history and knowledgeable about technique, as well as a fellow watercolourist, Carment can describe exactly what’s happening in Namatjira’s art. Namatjira had a deceptively exquisite handling of the medium, conveying his appreciative sense of place. Carment turns a similar sharp eye and warm heart to his landscapes and streetscapes.

Look harder

The Lives of Lucian Freud: Youth, 1922-1968, William Feaver, Bloomsbury

How do we assess the life of an artist? How much does an artist’s personal life affect what they convey in their art? Does it matter, at least to their art, if artists keep bad company, think only of themselves, aren’t particularly nice? In the case of an artist such as Lucian Freud, could it be that a level of ruthlessness is actually required to create such intense art?

In the first of William Feaver’s two large biographical volumes, Freud is an almost comically picaresque character – morally reckless, unrepentantly self-indulgent, but in an inverted ethic, disciplined in his ‘unremitting’ self-obsession. Freud saw this as an awkward kind of honesty, emphatically telling another biographer, Martin Gayford, ‘I follow my feelings’ (in Man with a Blue Scarf, an insightful commentary on sitting for a portrait).

At school he showed a disregard for rules and learning. His father once introduced him by saying, ‘this wild animal is my son’. Freud claimed that in Paris at night he would bound across the roofs of parked cars. He fathered many children, with little commitment to them or their mothers (Feaver sardonically calls the children ‘complicating circumstances’), and said he might have been a career criminal without art.

He befriended gangsters and drunks, as well as members of the royal family. His social circle was wide and dazzling. He knew Giacometti, Picasso, Francis Bacon, George Orwell, Iris Murdoch, Ian Fleming, W H Auden, all while still a penniless up-and-comer. He got into fights, and had an upper-class disregard for money, driving a Bentley but living in dilapidated public housing. He threw away thousands gambling, saying it was not worth betting unless there was a dizzying anticipation of winning big or losing all. His friend and fellow painter Frank Auerbach said Freud couldn’t see the point of attending funerals, and described him as ‘spoilt’, ‘cruel’ even (though also ‘fun’), with his ‘own morality’.

He brought this intensity to his art. One art teacher told him to look harder, and he seemed to take this as a mantra. It’s uncomfortable to hold together an acceptance of his roguish nature and an admiration of the brilliance of his art, and admit that his often-inexcusable behaviour was related to the focus in his art. His tendency not to follow rules meant he was at the forefront of the post-war revival in Britain of the figurative tradition, and he continued to follow his own artistic feelings no matter what was fashionable in the art world.

Early on, critics lumped him with the surrealists, but that was just because of his odd choice of subject matter, often dictated by the sparseness of his surrounds. Whatever his subject was – animal, vegetable or mineral – they were all subjected to his unremitting gaze. Feaver, who with all the pages, has the luxury of not only documenting Freud’s social life at length, but also takes many pages to analyse the art, says, in case it wasn’t obvious, that Freud was never interested in abstract art, partly because abstraction tends towards the universal, whereas Freud was a painter of the particular.

In this regard, Freud was different to his friend and rival Francis Bacon, whose distorted paintings suppressed the individuality of his subjects (as well as, Freud suggested, hiding Bacon’s inadequate draughtsmanship). Freud was both lauded and criticised for the cold, obsessive detail in his painting, but there was a shocking loosening of his style in the 1960s, though with the same intensity, with Freud learning to use the fluidity of the paint to mimic texture, in particular skin.

He is largely a portrait painter, and became famous – notorious even – for his nudes, but, ironically, his are not conventional nudes – he didn’t do classical nude studies, which, traditionally, are a kind of generalisation and idealisation – anonymous bodies. Rather, Freud’s nudes are naked portraits. This can be confronting for some, but they are not pornographic or titillating, even if they show his typical disregard for decorum. They are a part of his capturing of the truth of his subjects, flaws and all, the detail making the person the individual (and the stark setting of his studio further focusses attention on that individuality). One could argue about the value of this frankness. It can seem sometimes that his honesty is a kind of brutality, a lowering of the beauty and interest of the human to corruptible flesh. But this teetering on the edge of pushing it too far is interesting, and this honesty is what is important in his art, and what links him to the great painters of the past, in whose company, surely, he can be included, even if he wasn’t very nice.

Simplistically rendered painting

Summer, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Harvill Secker.

So Much Longing in So Little Space: The Art of Edvard Munch, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Harvill Secker.

A can opener is a small instrument with two handles and a circular blade which slices the top off a tin can when pressure is applied to the handles and the blade is rotated. Although in essence the most basic of technologies, and although I never gave it much thought in my childhood, or indeed until recently, it recalls childhood camping, the pleasure of cooking beans over a fireplace, the joy of simplicity over the desperate thrill of more contemporary, complicated technologies…

And so forth. It’s easy enough to parody Karl Ove Knausgaard’s style in his quartet of diary-like essay collections centred on the seasons, and indeed the latest and last, Summer, begins with a discussion of lawn sprinklers. It’s a feature of his writing that he can write on whatever the topic, and does, in a similar way to John Updike, who revelled in the commissioned piece, as an excuse to flaunt his craft, though Knausgaard is not doing that exactly, just happy to think about whatever his attention bumps into. Interestingly, he writes about how seeing something involves thinking about it, and how we don’t see something we are not thinking about, how seeing something involves placing meaning on it, which he is doing constantly in his writing. (It would not be out of place to see similarities to some spiritual traditions in Knausgaard’s writing.) This is somewhat different to an older idea of writing as something which was supposed to explain the meaning already inherent in things, usually the grand and lofty, and that the mundane is not worth writing about. Knausgaard’s writing is postmodernist, in its almost profligacy, but also in its refusal to play to set hierarchies. In this, there is something understated, if rather long-winded, and honest about his writing. This honesty and understatement extends to his writing self-reflectively about the craft of writing too, what the creation of art involves.

All of which links with his latest book, on the artist Edvard Munch, which is unlike the usual artist monographs, with their confident theorising, professional, assertive, proficient and impersonal judgements. Knausgaard is happy to offer opinions, personalise, admit to being wrong, fret about being seen as incompetent and naïve. He puts a finger to his cheek, furrows his brow, followed by raised eyebrows and a slap to the forehead. (He is no Robert Hughes, but this is not a detraction.) He is honest about his limitations as art critic and curator (a job he is asked to do for a Munch exhibition) and understated, if at times getting off track. He notes that Munch talks about himself as a defence, in order to fill the dangerous, uncertain, intimate space between people, and Knausgaard does the same when he is supposed to be giving a speech about Munch’s art. He can’t help but intertwine Munch’s story with his own, which, rather than being hubris, is perhaps a helpful way to view art.

He writes that ‘The Scream’ is now ruined by its ubiquity and our familiarity, when the subject matter is supposed to be unfamiliarity – an unhinged alienation. (Perhaps why the character in ‘The Scream’ looks like an alien?) So he doesn’t write much about it, except noting that Munch painted ‘it’ many times. Munch would copy his own work, much in the way, Knausgaard notes, Orthodox art uses stock figures and poses. Munch is modern in the way, unlike the Impressionists – although his colouring has similarities – he goes for the strength of a conception rather than an attempt to register reality, an inward reality over reconstructing the way light hits the retina.

And Knausgaard even likes the way Munch’s less successful paintings show the struggle of what he was attempting to do. Knausgaard is worried about his tendency to be attracted to second-rate paintings, especially when knowledgeable critics point to the deficiencies of Knausgaard’s favourites, but there is also a gentle challenge to such opinions, because Knausgaard is, as in his other writing, finding something in the previously overlooked. At one point in the Munch book he writes about how he likes the rambling contemplation of mundane subjects, ‘long, empty descriptions’. Elsewhere he writes about the formality of his writing – and this is a quality of his writing, the tendency to balance a formality with informality – that it helped him imitate life’s relentlessness, and one can see in his writing the sense of one damn thing after another. In all this there is a tight connection to the paintings Knausgaard is attracted to of Munch’s. He concludes the book by  writing about a simplistically rendered painting of a housepainter – note: not an artist but a housepainter – a familiar scene that nevertheless conveys something of the particularity of domestic life, that finds something of interest and, yes, even meaning in the particular, nevertheless mundane moment – of course much like Knausgaard’s writing.

Making connections

A Writer for Our Time: The Life and Work of John Berger, Joshua Sperling, Verso.

I like how in Ways of Seeing, John Berger’s innovative art documentary from 1972, he takes a fellow art critic to task for the sin of ‘mystification’. This certainty that art was approachable, explainable, that it could be discussed openly without pretention is why he was an ideal TV presenter, why he could democratise the appreciation of art.

In A Writer for Our Time, Joshua Sperling shows how Berger changed and mellowed, but what remained was his belief that art was connected to everyday life. In this he followed in the footsteps of figures such as Goethe and Alexander von Humbolt, who refused to compartmentalise life. Art is inextricable from life, and even high art that claims to be non-political can be tied to elitism, money, indifference to the poor, a focus on possessions. Berger noted how much Western art was about appropriation, hierarchies, capitalism, consumerism, sexism. In Ways of Seeing he said this forthrightly, ushering in a new critical attitude to the canon of Western art. If the series (and less so, the book) has dated stylistically, the message remains relevant. Pretension, mystification and glamourised detachment still reign in the world of high art.

Berger was on the left, and was an innovator, but he didn’t praise modern art if it failed to relate to the everyday. He said that only with time can art be appreciated away from the politics of its time, so contemporary art was especially susceptible to criticism if it claimed to be at a (usually lofty) remove from the political. This was why he was enthusiastic about the so-called Kitchen Sink painters (an epithet conceived by rival critic David Sylvester), who chronicled everyday existence in an effort to bring artistic attention to the working class, and why he was bewildered by and angry at Pollock, Rothko and co., who claimed to strip art back to the aesthetic. (There is irony, notes Sperling, in the fact that the CIA sponsored British tours of this American modern abstract art.) Of course his opinions on modern art could be contested, and were, but they didn’t spring from a mystical vision of art.

At the same time, as part of the same outlook, although he was on the left politically, Berger was wary of pure Marxism. He felt most Marxists didn’t allow the necessary room for doubt. Berger had the confidence to admit to being occasionally unsure. His was actually a middle way, but, says Sperling, he was the victim of the Cold War’s with-us-or-against-us mentality held by both ideological sides.

Although not an arch-traditionalist – he became engrossed by Cubism, which he felt was a key turning point in the history of Western art – he brought art down to earth. Sperling emphasises how much of Berger’s writing, no matter how philosophical, always intertwines the practical, tactile, sensual and workmanlike. (How often a writer’s biography sends you back, all enthused, to the writer’s own work is often a measure of the biographer’s success, and Sperling’s does this often.) I think the fact that he was a lifelong drawer, and included drawings in his books, helped with this. Drawing is a primal activity. He once described drawing as private and painting as public. Drawing connects one with one’s surroundings, and can find interest in the smallest of items.

His practicality included respect for the mysterious, which he thought the modern world evaded. He was also respectful of the spiritual, which he did not see as the opposite of the grounded. All these qualities he found with his infamous move to the French Alpine peasant village where he would spend most of his life. Sperling agrees that it was a retreat of sorts, from the pugilism of the art world, and a search for utopia on one level, but Berger had always prioritised place and community, including local culture and religion, as aspects of being grounded. (He felt much modern abstract art lacked these qualities, being untethered and blandly universal.) And he worked hard to understand and participate in a rural community, in order to champion them from the inside.

Despite Berger being dead and gone, these things still matter, and only continue to be more pressing. As Sperling’s biography reaches a crescendo, he writes how Berger, later in life, talked about God and evil. Berger saw the modern world destroying so many, both spiritually and materially. He felt, crucially, that modern art failed to combat this, with its nihilistic representations of the bad, and detached resignation. (Francis Bacon, the darling of David Sylvester, was, Berger thought, an example of this.) He felt it was vital to build up, to make connections, to love. (Even when criticising America’s Middle East wars in a late book, he titled it Hold Everything Dear.) This, he felt, was real life.

Between the viewer and the heavens

Heaven on Earth: Painting and the Life to Come, T J Clark, Thames and Hudson.

Art critic T J Clark sees parallels with the Middle Ages in our current sense of environmental and political apocalypse, accompanied by what he sees as the problem of a global religious resurgence. He argues that the desire for a better world is universal – shared by Marxism and Christianity – but advocates the importance of attending to this world instead of being distracted by pie-in-the-sky solutions.

In this book, which in typical Thames and Hudson fashion is nicely laid out with imagery at close proximity to the text, he argues that while painting has been traditionally a vehicle for conveying what he suggests is a central message of religion, that a better world beyond this one offsets the tribulations of this one (and we see this in most of the paintings he discusses), within these same paintings is a more subversive message, perhaps inadvertent, that draws our attention back to the realities of this world, and to the inadequacies of the religious idea. Painting has a special ability to do these two things at once because, like music, it has a special ability to convey ideas without words. In this book he focusses chiefly on Giotto, Bruegel, Poussin and Veronese, and in Veronese, for example and to summarise his approach, he notes that the foreshortened view from below could be seen as focussing our attention to the heavens, but it rather draws our attention to the bodies that lie between the viewer and the heavens.

He looks at finer and finer details and makes extraordinary observations on the painters’ celebration of the fragile fleshiness of this world and subtle conveyance of meaning. At times one wonders whether his almost microscopic analysis and subsequent discoveries about the subversive tendencies of the artists is really just accidental. But mostly his close reading is revelatory, from his comments about Giotto’s use of flat expanses of intense blue sky, to Poussin’s extraordinary use of the depiction of drapery to draw attention to the body, to his noticing how painters paint the position of the human foot on the ground, in a commentary on how humans are bipedal, upright creatures, and how this might affect how we think about our relationship to the world.

It is interesting, though, that he takes this view of religion, because fellow Marxist Terry Eagleton is far less dismissive, drawing our attention, alternatively, to how down-to-earth the Gospels are. Clark is perhaps thinking of a more conservative religious outlook, or perhaps a more mystical one. The Jesus of the Gospels, alternatively, shows that the spiritual life is inseparable from such immediate matters as healing the sick and feeding the hungry. It is true that most religions elevate an afterlife, but in the Gospels the afterlife is a refined continuation of what is called the Kingdom of God, and that kingdom, as Eagleton is fond of commenting, is already inaugurated by Jesus’ earthly mission, and is continued by the church. It consists of, or at least should consist of, working amongst the poor and marginalized, advocating for justice, seeking reconciliation, and not simply urging patience for a far off, heavenly reward. In effect, this religious outlook pulls heaven down to earth, even if it is unperfected. The New Testament is wary of utopias, just as Clark is, being realistic about the ways of the world. Clark’s criticism, then, rather than exposing the weakness of Christianity, can be seen as a call for Christianity to stay true to its core beliefs, even if he might be surprised to be told such.

Pale, sun-bleached nature

A Painted Landscape, Amber Creswell Bell, Thames & Hudson.

Australia’s most famous artists are painters of the land rather than figures, cities or abstracts, such is the hold of the landscape on us, which even the irreligious describe as spiritual. Despite the fact that most Australians live in an urban environment, we have the sense of the wilderness at the edges of our cities and towns, which manifests itself in the use of the word ‘bush’ (rather than ‘countryside’). Sometimes we talk as if we are guests at best, interlopers at worst, but to be Australian is to somehow grapple with our place in the landscape.

A couple of decades ago landscape painting was out of fashion, partly because of our cultural cringe-like desire to emulate the cosmopolitan, avant garde art of Europe and the US. There has been a resurgence lately, not just despite, but because of, the increasing predominance of the urban. Not only is the bush a wild alternative, but it is also, as the appropriately named artist Holly Greenwood describes it, ‘replenishing’.

Of course this is not a simple either/or proposition. As A Painted Landscape shows, the urban is landscape too (in fact the word landscape originally meant land altered by humans). The urban has its own points of interest, as indicated by the art of Reg Mombassa, and John Bokor, who paints suburbia in bright, fauvist colours (and makes beautiful charcoal drawings of run-of-the-mill interiors). Bokor says, rightly, that most Australians don’t live in the Outback. On the other hand, artists such as Clifford How are attracted to ‘uninhabited’ areas precisely because they are so different to what is familiar to most Australians. Indigenous Australian artists in remote areas depict landscapes that may be unfamiliar to city-dwellers, but are deeply connected to them. What is other and what is home varies across the continent.

Many of the artists in A Painted Landscape comment on the difficulty in responding to the bright Australian light, which one artist describes simply as ‘so intense’. John Olsen notes how long it took for European artists to adjust. Some artists, such as Ken Done, play up the intense colour. Mervyn Ruduntja (from the Hermannsburg watercolour tradition) and Neil Frazer focus on the reds and purples of rocks. Wendy McDonald’s paintings, alternatively, convey a pale, sun-bleached nature. (The inclusion in the book of photographs of landscapes depicted helps to identify what characteristics artists are pulling out and placing into their work.)

It is the nature of the book that the juxtaposition of artists highlights just how varied both subjects and styles are. One can turn from a page of Ken Done’s vibrant harbour scenes to misty, moody thunderclouds. Almost anything goes, from Nicholas Harding’s lively but meticulous dabs applied with a palette knife, to Jane Tangney’s meditative blocks of cool tones. The almost bonkers Natasha Bieniek paints micro-realist works inspired by sixteenth century miniaturists. She shows that the Australian landscape can also mean botanical gardens, and she revels in the intricacies of varying foliage. In contrast, Elizabeth Cummings highlights the apparent untidiness, energy and juxtaposition of colours in the bush by using an abstract style that she says conveys qualities not possible through conventional landscape painting.

Charmaine Pike, who reduces the landscape to blunt, outlined, ‘moody’ forms that reminded me of Philip Guston’s style, paints from memory, in the studio, and lets memory dictate what comes to the fore. Robert Malherbe, on the other hand, says he has to be outdoors for inspiration. Others do both. Working from photos and the immediacy of outdoor painting create different outcomes. But many speak of the urgency to hurriedly get down a feeling when challenged by the shifting light or being overwhelmed by surroundings.

Abstract and realist is not always an either/or either. Neil Frazer’s paintings of Outback gorges convey, according to the book’s compiler Amber Creswell Bell, ‘energy rather than actual intricacy’ but he is masterful at using the accidents of oil paint’s application to mimic the random busyness of a rocky landscape. Julian Meagher’s paintings of seaside vistas combine silky backgrounds with free swashes and dribbles, and the eye is pulled back and forwards between the evocation of the sea and the evidence of the physicality of painting such that his paintings become like optical illusions.

John Olsen says that an artist must focus purely on the quest for visual capture, minimising the political, but he also speaks of Australia’s interior as our ‘soul’ or ‘unconscious’. A number of artists comment on the fact that their art reminds them of Australia’s Indigenous history. Contrary to Olsen, the spiritual is not easily separated from the political. Life is not that easily compartmentalized. To recognize Indigenous history and connection to the land is to enter into contentious but unavoidable territory. If art connects us more deeply with the land, it also connects us to the uncomfortable fact that it is appropriated land.

Furthermore, landscape art points to environmental political realities. To see the land properly is to understand the urgency of caring for it. The Australian landscape, says one artist, is ‘incredibly fragile’, underscored perhaps by the fact that the book concludes with Laura Jones’s paintings of the Barrier Reef (stretching the definition of landscape painting again). Of course art puts us in touch with beauty, but the role of art is not merely to make us look again for the sake of looking, but to help us understand the world and our place in it, and our responsibility for it.

A Sunday joyride

The Book of Revelation: A Biography, Timothy Beal, Princeton.

Picturing the Apocalypse, Natasha and Anthony O’Hear, Oxford.

After Donald Trump’s election, a bookshop in the US posted a sign saying that post-apocalyptic fiction had now been moved to the ‘current affairs’ section. This joke works because of the wider cultural association of ‘apocalypse’ with the end of the world, but apocalypse is a Greek word meaning simply revelation or unveiling. There is more to the Revelation story than unimaginable, world-ending destruction, although that is naturally the most attention-grabbing aspect of the book.

The language and symbolism John (whoever he may be – theories differ) used in the Book of Revelation has both inspired and confused Christians and non-Christians. Martin Luther famously viewed it as inscrutable, and set it and the letters of James apart from the other books in the contents page of his German New Testament, effectively relegating it to an appendix, though Lucas Cranach’s illustrations made it, ironically, one of the most popular parts of the Luther Bible, and Luther did use it to interpret current events. Countless others have done the same, in order to try and predict the future, though this is not the way it was originally interpreted. Most scholars agree that the symbolism simply referred to Rome, and John had to write in code to veil his criticisms.

In Timothy Beal’s book (part of the Princeton ‘Lives of Great Religious Books’ series), he explains that Saint Augustine, typically, both recognises the symbolism and the dangers of taking it too literally and thinks through in great detail all the implications, such as what resurrected bodies would be like. The medieval Joachim of Fiore thought it was the key to the whole Bible, like the solutions page to a newspaper’s puzzle section, and spent much time working out the chronology.

As a key to reading the signs to predict the imminent future, Revelation has inspired endless interpretation, especially regarding the ‘real’ identity of the Beast, its mark, the whore of Babylon and the like. In the Middle Ages the apocalyptic villain was Islam, or Protestantism or Catholicism, depending which side you were on. In the Cold War, Americans identified the USSR as the Beast, or, later, suspected international bodies such as the UN or EU. Black South Africans utilised Revelation’s imagery against the apartheid regime. Ronald Reagan, Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama have been targets, and there are already conspiracy theorists crunching the numbers regarding Trump. (Weirdly, the fact that these identities keep changing in every era doesn’t seem to upset the tenacity of belief by whoever is currently doing the identifying.)

The book has been a particular inspiration for artists, but this is tricky, as John’s visions, described in words, often defy painterly representation. Beal takes only a selection of artistic representations, but one of the most interesting is that of James Hampton, an American whose work now sits in the Smithsonian Institution. In his garage, and using household items such as chairs, light bulbs, cardboard tubing and, crucially, miles of silver and gold foil, Hampton created a glittering throne room, annotated with biblical texts and his own indecipherable language. Beal describes it as the greatest work of American folk art.

In Picturing the Apocalypse, a more thorough but more academic book, Natasha and Anthony O’Hear describe how in the early Middle Ages artists, fascinated by Revelation, often made a series of illustrations, taking Revelation’s scenes one by one, in almost comic book-like fashion. Later artists tended to cram a number of scenes into one picture. A particularly intriguing example is the fifteenth century Apocalyptic Panel of Hans Memling, which is dominated by John himself, then Christ on the throne, in an unusually calm panorama. The four horsemen are almost insignificant details, and not particularly fearsome, in comparison to those of Durer, Cranach and later comic art representations. They look like they are out for a Sunday joyride.

Other artists take one scene to be representative, such as Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, an iconic image standing in for Revelation’s whole. The Romantic painter John Martin painted huge canvasses, like the artists of the Hudson River School, of the sublime outdoors, with humans appearing only as tiny, marginal figures. As well as Noah’s flood, the apocalypse lent itself to Martin’s grand, brooding depictions, with tumbling mountains and fire-filled skies, although the lifelike renderings tend to make the paintings strangely static. In recent decades, artists like Gordon Cheung, whose works have an affinity with Martin’s panoramas, have associated the apocalypse with the ravages of the global financial system and impending environmental collapse. The Manga Bible passes over Revelation surprisingly briskly, though perhaps reinforcing the difficulty of reproducing John’s visions visually. Their fantastical nature sometimes seems better suited to other art forms.

Apocalyptic themes run through classical music, and heavy metal, where the horror movie imagery fits the violent music. (For some, such as Metallica and Iron Maiden, Revelation’s imagery simply fitted with their interest in mythology, science fiction and the supernatural. Others tended to, notoriously, extend the interest in the Satanic into their personal lives.) But the apocalypse was a surprisingly small influence in African American music. An exception is Blind Willie Johnson’s haunting ‘John the Revelator’.

Apocalyptic themes are found in a panoply of films and novels, often in the wider sense of simply the end of the world. The ridiculously lucrative ‘Left Behind’ series of novels and films sticks more or less literally to the script of Revelation itself, appealing to the American evangelical temptation, despite Jesus’ warnings otherwise, to read the signs and calculate the dates. Timothy Beal describes, as a young evangelical, being spooked by film evocations of the End Times, which were used by youth ministry teams to scare teens into prayerful vigilance.

Apart from James Hampton and Hans Memling, most of the artists listed above utilise the power of the war-like and destructive imagery of Revelation, but the culmination of Revelation is joyous and harmonious. This is one of the ironies of Revelation, and something often marginalised in artistic representations of its lurid, unsettling imagery – that it ends well, and God is in control.