Friday, December 5, 2008

The Apocalyptic 20th Century

In Advent where we contemplate the final things, let's not forget the century just past. The 20th century will be remembered as a century of catastrophes. To those who lived through them, it seemed that the world was coming to an end, several times over. It's no accident that some of the most powerful apocalyptic imagery of the early 20th century comes from Germany.

Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation, 1911.

Kandinsky "invented" abstract painting, at least in its modern form. He did so with an almost missionary zeal to prepare humanity for what he believed to be a coming apocalypse. Kandinsky was an enthusiastic follower of the Theosophical movement which proclaimed a basic unity behind all religion and spirituality, and prophesied a coming age of the spirit where the material world would be consumed into the timeless world of the spirit. Kandinsky believed that our senses, and all of our language and ideas based in our senses, would be of no use in this new world of pure spirit. He made paintings like this one to prepare people for a new way of seeing and thinking which he believed was imminent, and which he believed would be a joyous liberation.

Franz Marc, The Fate of the Animals, 1913

Franz Marc, The Tyrol, 1914

Franz Marc, Kandinsky's close friend and fellow painter, shared Kandinsky's belief in Theosophy and its apocalyptic message. However, Marc believed that this apocalypse would take place at the cost of great pain and suffering. Marc believed in the innocent eye of animals, uncorrupted by the greed and ambition of human civilization. He believed that animals in their innocence were closer to the timeless truths that he believed lay behind the veil of appearances. The rending of that veil, in the end time, would bring great agony to all of life, but would ultimately be redemptive.
The alternative title to his Fate of the Animals, was "The Trees Show Their Rings, The Animals Bare Their Veins." The fabric of the world and the bodies of animals are rent asunder by unnamed forces. Those same dark forces seem to lie just beneath the surface of trees and mountains in one of his last paintings, The Tyrol, a painting full of menace and foreboding.
The world did end for Marc. He was killed in the First World War at the Battle of Verdun in 1916. After his death, The Fate of the Animals was badly damaged on its right side in a fire. It was restored by the artist Paul Klee.

Ludwig Meidner, Apocalyptic City, 1913

Ludwig Meidner, Burning City, 1913

Ludwig Meidner, from Silesia in what is now Poland, worked for many years in Berlin as an unremarkable commercial illustrator. In 1913, he painted a remarkable series of paintings of cities and landscapes being destroyed by unidentified forces. In retrospect, these seem to be amazingly prophetic paintings of what cities throughout Europe would experience in the coming decades. He never painted anything like these again. He eventually died in exile in Britain, forgotten and impoverished.

In August 1914, the world really did end, though not quite in the way the Theosophical movement anticipated.

Paul Klee, The Tympanist, 1940

Paul Klee, Death and Fire, 1940

These are 2 of Paul Klee's very last paintings made in the year of his death. In 1933, the new Nazi government dismissed him from his teaching post in Dusseldorf, and revoked his citizenship. Klee was forced to leave his adopted country of 30 years and return to Bern in his native Switzerland. In 1935, he was diagnosed with the sclerosis that would eventually kill him. In 1937, his work was seized from German museums and public collections and featured in the Degenerate Art Exhibition created by the Nazis to end modern art in Germany. Many of his works featured in that show were among the thousands burned in the courtyard of the Berlin Fire Brigade headquaters. World War II began in September 1939.
Paul Klee knew he was dying as he saw a catastrophe even bigger than the one that claimed the life of his friend Franz Marc break out all over the world.
These final works have the concentration and timeless quality of ancient hieroglyphs. The arms of the Tympanist merge with his drumsticks as his cyclopean eye dominates the picture. He seems to slowly beat out the stroke of doom as he stares back at us without blinking.
What seems to be a death's head dominates Death and Fire, rearing up and confronting us before a field of fiery orange and red, and before a series of mysterious and timeless hieroglyphs.  It is painted on an unstretched swath of very rough industrial canvas.

The artists of the Middle Ages imagined world-ending catastrophe. The artists of the 20th century witnessed it, and without the consolation of that Medieval world view where the truths of revealed religion were believed to be apparent everywhere in Creation. Theirs is a very personal and direct witness to catastrophe.


it's margaret said...

strange. I like them. all.

(on a side note --got up the courage and tried to find the Harvey Milk film locally --to no avail. Either it has not yet opened here, or it might not.... --it is Richmond, after all!)

Counterlight said...

Nothing strange about it. I like them all too.

Well, if "Brokeback Mountain" ever played in Richmond, then "Milk" is bound to play there too.
Michael and I are planning to see "Milk" this weekend.

it's margaret said...

Well, usually I am so point-counterpoint Bachish in my preferences, I was surprised at myself for finding these works very appealing!

I will keep looking for "Milk" --maybe we are a late-blooming market.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Funny that the fascination with the Apocalyptic nowadays is alive only in the USA, which escaped the 20th century horrors unscathed, whereas in Europe it's dead.

It once was very big in Sweden though, not only in the Sects but also in the Church.

I remember a trembling 93 years old man in an old peoples home, tucked away in the forests, telling me (visibly shaken) about the tales his late wife's confirmation priest had told her: Oh! how I deplor you young folks who will live to see the Tribulations (apparently coming in the 1990ies).

The 1990ies came - and were just as all other Ages since day one...

Every Age is outest, nearest to God.

That is was eschaton means; it's spacial, not temporal.

But the old man wouldn't stop trembling. And it wasn't even his own memories, but those of his late wife! Don't actually think he was confirmed - and little wonder...

Counterlight said...

I too have been similarly puzzled by the American fixation on end times. In my experience, most of that is concentrated in the South, though not exclusively.
I understand that there was a similar apocalyptic obsession in white South Africa in the last years of the apartheid regime. I wonder if a troubled conscience might have something to do with it, or the dread of a coming change.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

A hundred years ago it was very clearly the Fear of the Future and Democracy and all that...

So you may have a point ;=)

Grandmère Mimi said...

Masterful post, Counterlight. I like all of the paintings, too, perhaps Kandinsky and Marc the best.

Perhaps we are in the end times now, but not the end times as the fundies envisioned them.

This post was partial inspiration for my post on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. I'd read part of it earlier and had to leave, and I'm just now getting back to leave a comment. The 20th century was bloody, all right.

Counterlight said...


As I posted on your blog, I had a relative who went through Pearl Harbor.
Blanchards and Blanchard relations just seem to turn up all over history.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Good people those Blanchards. Just look at you and me.

Counterlight said...


Pagan Sphinx said...

Hi. jcf sent me over to ask for technical help, so I've been reading your top posts.

I've not taken a great deal of interest in Kandinsky or Klee. I like Marc's animals, particularly the horses. Reading your post allowed me to see beyond the surface of the canvas and into the what inspired the paintings. Interesting. The Fate of the Animals is amazing.

And about that tech help. Is there hope for fixing this problem (which I don't really fully understand) easily through an email communication? I've not had anyone else express any problems with viewing my blog.

I too look much forward to seeing Milk, though it won't open around here for another couple of weeks.

Take care,

Counterlight said...

Gina, aka Pagan Sphinx,

You can reach me at

I don't know how much my limited expertise will help you. I'm having trouble making that instant message thing work on your profile. I don't know where JCF gets the idea that I might be an expert, but I'll try.

Pagan Sphinx said...

I'm rarely signed on to AIM for instant messaging, as it messes everything up on my computer. But I'll try opening it to see if you can get through, if that's the problem.

Otherwise, I'll email you. Thanks.

JCF said...

Heh: so I see you guys DID make contact (spares me a second email, I guess).

It's just about the "Pop-Up Half-Width" comment threads, Counterlight. Since you just made that change (at my nagging! *g*), I thought you could tell Gina/PS how to do it, too.

Some of the art on this thread, reminds me of art in a book I have, Art of the October Revolution (Russian, obviously!).

Expressionism: as a movement, still don't know how I feel about it.

But individual examples can certainly have their own beauty.

Counterlight said...

So, all you want to do is switch to Pop Up window comments?

I figured it out by trial and error (which is why I'm not an engineer or a technocrat of any kind).

-Go up to the top of your blog page where it says "New Post."

-Then go to the tab at the top that says "Settings"

-There is a row of categories in blue text on beige at the top of the "Settings" page. Hit the category "Comments."

-Scroll down to "Comment From Placement"

-you will see 3 settings, "Full Page" "Pop-Up Window" and "Embedded Post Below"
Hit the bubble next to "Pop Up Window."

-Then scroll down to the bottom of the page and hit the button that says "Save Settings."

And you're done!

Leonardo Ricardo said...

Good Lord that was wonderful...I don´t know how I missed it when it opened here at Counterpoint!

Thanks again