Exhibition Review | The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Death and Disaster. Reviewed by Katrina Grant

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Death and Disaster

Reviewed by Katrina Grant

Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, from The Apocalypse, published 1498, woodcut. National Gallery of Victoria.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Death and Disaster. National Gallery of Victoria, International, until January 28th, 2013 (Closes THIS MONDAY).

The ‘Four Horsemen’ exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria draws together a rich, varied and evocative selection of images of death: the horseman crushing rich and poor alike beneath the hooves of his skeletal horse; the shadowy figure stalking the young and the beautiful; the horrors of war; the terrors of the final Apocalypse. The images in this exhibition are a window into a period when belief in the imminence of the Apocalypse was coupled with the more mundane fear of death from disease, accident or war. There is much that still resonates strongly today. We may not fear a religious apocalypse—though the, mostly, tongue-in-cheek panic about the Mayan prediction of the end of the world in 2012 suggests that traditional ideas of the apocalypse still capture our imaginations—but we have our own fears: the sense of the impending doom of climate-change, the fear of our own death or that of our loved ones. This exhibition gives us a chance to reflect on how the ever-present fear of death and disaster was dealt with in Early Modern Europe; it reminds us too that, although much has changed, the fear of brutality and death remains a common preoccupation.

The theme of the apocalypse was particularly topical in the late fifteenth century as there were many predictions that the world was to end at some point before 1500. Recent events had also encouraged a sense of doom and uncertainty in Europe. A rapid rise in population had resulted in famines across many parts of the continent, while bubonic plague was an ever-present threat. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the discovery of the Americas in 1492 had dramatically changed the world-view of many Europeans and shattered old certainties.

Albrecht Dürer is very much the star of this exhibition, with the largest number of works, most of which are also among the most powerful images on display. The scenes from his Apocalypse series—on your right as you enter the gallery—act as an introduction or conclusion of the exhibition, depending on which circuit you take. These fifteen images (thirteen on display) of the end of the world represent the beginning of Dürer’s career as one of the most successful of Renaissance printmakers. During his lifetime, between 100,000 to 200,000 versions of his prints circulated throughout Europe, a testament to his skill, his entrepreneurship and to the important role that prints played in the visual culture of the period.

Fig. 2 Anonymous, Four Riders of the Apocalypse, c. 1478, folio CCCCCLXXVII recto in Bible, vol. 2, Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, 1483, hand coloured woodcut. State Library of Victoria.

Dürer’s Apocalypse series is here presented as individual framed prints, but they were originally bound into a book with the print occupying an entire page and an accompanying text from the Book of Revelation on the facing page. In contrast to earlier illustrated books, Dürer’s Apocalypse gave images the same amount of space as text, a clear statement on the equal importance of images. A comparison of Dürer’s prints to earlier examples demonstrates a dramatic shift in the approach to the woodcut as a work of art. In an anonymous woodcut of the Four Riders of the Apocalypse (Fig. 1), we are given the basic visual cues that we need to recognise the scene: the horsemen with their attributes, angels, the mouth of hell and a handful of trampled people carefully laid in rows. The scene is informative rather than threatening. By contrast, Dürer’s famous version of the scene (Fig. 2) prompts us to engage more emotionally with the narrative of the four horsemen charging across the world to bring famine, war, conquest and death to the human race. Dürer’s horsemen recede in space, and the lines of the woodcut give a sense of three-dimensionality to the humans and horses, rather than just acting as outlines. A sense of momentum is created by using the frame to crop the full image: the legs of Death’s emaciated white horse are cut off at the left, while the head of the horse of Conquest pushes hard against the right-hand edge. The background is dominated by tightly massed black lines and what white space is present is transformed into billowing clouds. The faces of Famine and Death are gruesome with their hollow cheeks and unfocused eyes. The faces of those trampled underfoot are deliberately individualised; each grimace and scream is presented as a distinct expression, creating a scene that is as full of emotion and horror as the text that it depicts.

Fig. 4 Albrecht Dürer, St John Devouring the Book, from The Apocalypse, published 1498, woodcut. National Gallery of Victoria.

The chance to see almost the entire Apocalypse series together allows for some interesting comparisons and for reflections on Dürer’s artistic sources. In The Whore of Babylon (fig. 3), for example, he makes direct use of dress and objects to give the image a contemporary setting. The whore herself takes on the garb of a Renaissance courtesan, reminiscent of those the artist is likely to have seen during his recent travels to Venice. She holds aloft a golden goblet, which is clearly based on those made in Nuremberg.  The on-looking worshipers are stylishly attired in the latest fashions.

Some scenes, on the other hand, do not lend themselves to a powerful visual narrative. The scene depicting St John devouring the book (Fig. 4) is problematic. In an attempt to remain faithful to the text, the angel appears as a disembodied head radiating light on a body of ethereal clouds. His legs are columns of fire, one on sea and one on land. None of this really coheres in such a way as to suggest the figure of a mighty angel; to modern eyes he may seem more like an invention of Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam. The right-hand side of the composition, though, is more visually satisfying, with St John grimacing as he literally forces the Book of Revelation down his throat. Most of the time, however, Dürer finds exactly the right visual language for imagining the apocalypse. There is no grace or beauty; instead he revels in horror, ugliness and disaster. Then, as now, societies like to imagine the end of the world; today more as a vicarious thrill but in Dürer’s time as preparation for the coming day of judgement. In the artist’s powerful series of engravings there is no sense of relief or salvation: this is a true apocalypse from which no one escapes.

Fig. 7 Hendrick Golztius, The great standard bearer, 1587, engraving. National Gallery of Victoria.

As well as the all-encompassing destruction of the Apocalypse, the exhibition presents a range of images that reveal the period’s preoccupation with mortality in general. The figure of Death stalks through many of these images, usually in the guise of a skeletal figure with flesh hanging from his bones and with an hourglass in his hand, a reminder that life is fleeting (Fig. 5). If some of the works on display emphasise the ephemerality of life, others seem to delight in the details of material goods, themselves often symbols of mankind’s vanities. Dürer’s print of the five lansquanet—foot soldiers who became emblems of death due to their high mortality rate in battle—(Fig. 6) seems to be as much an essay in rich costume and well-turned calves as it is a meditation on death. Is Dürer merely using the popular theme of death as a means to display his skill at rendering costume and figures arrayed in a variety of poses? Or was the intention to draw the viewer in to admire these earthly goods so carefully rendered in print and to thereby remind him of the inevitability of his death and of the need to pay more attention to the health of his soul? Other artists also seem to take the theme of death only as a starting point for prints that display their technical virtuosity. Hendrick Goltzius’s The great standard bearer (Fig. 7) shows a youth in a contraposto stance dressed in a voluminous pourpoint and elaborate ruff collar. He holds aloft an enormous billowing standard, which fills two thirds of the composition and is as much the subject of the image as the standard bearer himself. Goltzius provides a forceful demonstration of his ability to render different fabric textures and to create a sense of movement rather than a realistic depiction of sixteenth-century warfare.

Similarly, Dürer’s Siege of a Fortress (Fig. 9) takes a bird’s-eye view of a siege and imposes a decorative regularity onto a scene of war. Troops are reduced to massed formations or repeated ant-like figures. We are at a remove from the brutal reality of warfare, viewing it only in terms of tactics or as a historical document. The print includes all aspects of sixteenth-century warfare: infantry, portable artillery and mounted cavalry, as well as the supply train wagons and livestock. In contrast, the famous series of etchings by Jacques Callot—The miseries and misfortunes of war—brings us face-to-face with the visceral horrors of war: pillage; rape; fields strewn with the corpses of both men and horses;  gruesome executions by hanging, firing squad, burning at the stake or breaking on the wheel. The small scale of Callot’s etchings forces us to bring our faces close to seek out the detail in the busy scenes. This intimate mode of viewing makes discovering the small tableaux of violence all the more confronting. In his Pillage of a Farmhouse (Fig. 10) close inspection reveals a litany of horrors: women attempting to flee are grabbed by the hair and raped by vicious soldiers;  civilian men are pinned down and run through with swords; one poor man is strung up and slowly cooked above the farmhouse fire, the farm animals lying dead on the farmhouse floor.

Fig. 11 Nicolaes de Bruyn, Knight on horseback with Time and the Devil, 1618, etching and burin, Special Collections, Baillieu Library, The University of Melbourne.

The exhibition also serves as a eloquent reminder of the quality of the print as an art object. When seen with the naked eye, the technical skill of master print-makers such as Dürer is even more apparent than in reproductions, as is the skill of the woodcarvers he employed to create the woodblocks. Dürer in particular manages to both transcend the medium while at the same time draw attention to the perfection of his technique. Many of the prints are very small and you need to get up close to appreciate the fine details. But every print rewards close attention, which reveals tiny rendering of foliage, distant townscapes, and an eye for elaborate costume. Up close you can even see the impressions in the thick paper produced as part of the printing process, particularly in the works of Dürer, Callot and Stefano della Bella. The consistency of subject-matter allows for a satisfying comparison between different artists. For example, compare Dürer’s dark, brooding, chiaroscuro vision of Knight, Death and the Devil (Fig. 11) with Nicolaes de Bruyn’s more mannered, elegant rendering (Fig. 12) made a century later.

The short catalogue is an excellent accompaniment to the exhibition, with very readable essays backed up by serious scholarship. The authors come from various related disciplines—history, art history and print curatorship—and the different perspectives that they provide are clearly one of the reasons this small exhibition is so satisfying. It is worth noting that the works in the exhibition are wholly drawn from the print collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, the State Library of Victoria and the University of Melbourne, a reminder of the rich holdings of these three institutions. The opportunity to see a large number of prints from these collections side-by-side is not to be missed, particularly when so thoughtfully arranged around such a powerful and cohesive a theme. It is also encouraging to see such close collaboration between the world of the public gallery and the world of academia; we hope to see more of it in the future.

© Katrina Grant 2013

See the images discussed in this review below.



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