The skies above are a roiling gray as the water reaches halfway up the wheels of a vehicle. The people in the picture may panic, or flee, or face the waves, but they know they’re in harm’s way. The above description could apply equally to John Goto’s Deluge and Frederick Rosenberg’s The Mail Coach in a Flood, two works of art separated by the better part of 200 years but connected by the same concern: rising waters, and our ability to survive them.
Goto’s and Rosenberg’s pieces are part of “Before the Deluge: Apocalyptic Floodscapes from John Martin to John Goto,” an exhibit up at the Yale Center for British Art through March 24 that cannily connects present-day concerns to Biblical preoccupations to offer a sense of the way artists — and more broadly, societies — have worried about the ends of civilizations. “At the start of the 21st century, as we face the threat of global warming, melting icecaps, and rising sea levels, the work of contemporary artists and writers reflects a sense of antediluvianism, that is, of living in a time before the flood.”
Curators Eva-Charlotta Mebius and Matthew Hargraves use our present preoccupations to point out that, though the source of the anxiety — climate change — is new, the specific nature of the anxiety isn’t. Flood stories are built into religious beliefs the world over, and as Mebius and Hargraves point out, floods are also “potent metaphors” for other forces. “Flooding implies the total loss of power,” they write. “The deluge is an elementary image in our latent fear of catastrophe.” It has been applied to societal changes, such as migrations of people and political movements. It has also been used to describe the unchecked movement of money from one place to another. More poignantly, the exhibit highlights how the widespread destruction wrought by the fighting in World War I, and appalling loss of life, were likened to the Biblical annihilation of most of the human race. C.R.W. Nevinson’s lithograph The Wave was meant to evoke that carnage. Nevinson served in an ambulance unit during the war and was traumatized by what he saw. His piece “makes oblique reference to the famous speech of Prime Minister David Lloyd George of 1915, in which he called the war ‘the deluge ... a convulsion of Nature ... bringing unheard-of changes.’”
The exhibit also highlights how people were already quite concerned about the power of the ocean to destroy what humans built even before climate change sharpened the edge of that threat. Tynemouth Pier (above), the accompanying text says, was “a feat of Victorian engineering” but was also “dangerous and caused many fatalities.” The lamps being lit in Hunt’s artwork were to prevent ships from colliding with it in the dark. But the sketch also “captures the power of the sea to inundate the pier and bring the human effort to naught.”
And J.M.W. Turner’s watercolor Yarmouth Sands points out that people need not go to sea or wander out onto piers to face death by drowning. His “vulnerable humans battle against a violent storm and surging waves that threaten to swallow them up” as a ship founders in the background. The notes argue that it is both “an intense investigation of natural phenomenon and a meditation on the frailty of human culture” — one that reads as all too current given news reports of the death and devastation caused by the tsunami in Indonesia at the end of 2018.
The exhibit also marks a turning point in the 19th century, in which the findings of geological studies “were casting doubt on the historical reliability of the book of Genesis,” the accompanying notes relate. “This reconsideration created a vogue for antediluvian poems and paintings.” Answering this call was artist John Martin, who became “famous for his apocalyptic subjects combining Biblical themes and natural history.” His Deluge delivers in epic drama and technical skill. Its approach to the subject, swathed in the visual language of religion and myth, might seen a little dated. But that’s the point. Whether they appear in a print from the beginning of the 19th century, a lithograph from the early 20th century, or a print from the early 21st century, the threat itself, of rising waves drowning the works of man, is the same.
“Do we live after the deluge? Or is the deluge yet to come?” the exhibit asks. With its long view of the subject, “Before the Deluge” makes the wry point that, in a way, the apocalypse has always been just around the corner. At some point a catastrophe will occur that puts the lie to this — a meteor strike, a planet rendered inhospitable to human life, or if humans are even around to see it, the earth’s eventual demise when the sun explodes — but until then, “Before the Deluge” points out that floodwaters actual and metaphorical have risen before, time and time again, dragging catastrophe in their wake. And yet, as societies and civilizations, we’re still here — even if we’re just waiting for the next calamity to befall us.
“Before the Deluge: Apocalyptic Floodscapes from John Martin to John Goto” runs at he Yale Center for British Art, 1080 Chapel St., through March 24. Admission is free. Visit the museum’s website for hours and more information.