NEW HAVEN — Cataclysmic visions of watery death aside, there’s something peculiarly reassuring about “Before the Deluge: Apocalyptic Floodscapes From John Martin to John Goto, 1789 to Now” at the Yale Center for British Art.
Moments of humor and beauty leaven the show. More than that, though, “Before the Deluge” reminds us that floods have frightened and obsessed people for centuries. To some extent, the exhibition helpfully separates fear from its object and looks at it as its own phenomenon. Despite periods of overheated anxiety, true peril, and great loss, the human race is still here.
The small exhibition, organized by Eva-Charlotta Mebius, a doctoral candidate in English at University College, London, with help from Matthew Hargraves, chief curator of art collections, examines torrential imagery in British art since the romantic era, palpating the monster of our existential panic.
That monster sleeps when life and society are fairly serene and prosperous, and awakes in times of turmoil and flux. In Europe, the romantic era — the late 18th century to the mid 19th century — was filled with revolutionary tumult. Monarchies fell and republics rose.
Likewise, social and intellectual upheaval had people scrabbling for purchase. The Industrial Revolution sent a largely rural populace into cities. Science began to challenge the Bible as the reliable source of truth. Ways of life dissolved; bedrock beliefs suffered hard blows.
People were frightened, and apocalypse was all the rage. In 1826, Mary Shelley published “The Last Man,” a novel set at the end of the 21st century with a diminishing cast of characters in a world torn apart by revolution and ravaged by plague.
Artist John Martin became famous for his biblical imagery, paintings of vast scope that inspired Hudson River School painters such as Thomas Cole. Martin’s focus, like Cole’s, was the sublime: God’s love embodied in the magnificence of the land. But Martin was best known for rendering God’s equally awe-inspiring wrath. “The Deluge,” Martin’s 1828 mezzotint here, centers on a blasphemer raising his fists in the air. A woman, perhaps his wife, rushes to cover his mouth — too late. He is met with divine retort in a lightning bolt, and bleak, pounding rain.
Martin treated the same subject several times: His dark, sweeping 1834 painting, also “The Deluge,” is in an upstairs gallery. What a master manipulator of scale and telescoping perspective he was! Craggy mountains and promontories loom, while tiny, deftly rendered, nearly nude people huddle and writhe.
In Martin’s time, meteorology and geology were nascent fields, and the idea began to take hold that floods might be climatological phenomena instead of, or as well as, divine retribution. That tension between religion and science perhaps sparked the period’s trend in antediluvian imagery. (Martin, it should be said, while a romantic and a devout Christian, was also an engineer and a pragmatist: He crafted designs for the Thames embankment to help prevent floods.)
Mebius fascinatingly traces many social, political, and psychological underpinnings of flood imagery.
In a zany political cartoon from 1796 based on imagery from the book of Revelation, William O’Keefe turns Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger into Satan, in the form of a red dragon floating over bodies submerged in blood. Pitt had failed to make peace with revolutionary France, and Britons were nervous. O’Keefe gives this demon his comeuppance: The Archangel Michael, depicted as fiery golden feathers, attacks him with lightning bolts, and Pitt’s political rival appears between parting clouds, like the sun.
Even smaller works here have a fearsome tone. Joseph Mallord William Turner’s elemental watercolor “Yarmouth Sands” touches on imminent shipwreck, an obsession of his. The people scurrying along the beach in the foreground are of uncertain moral character: Are they plunderers or lifesavers?
Before jumping from the romantic era to our present-day terrors, Mebius alights in the turbulent early 20th century, when C.R.W. Nevinson, a veteran of the Friends Ambulance Unit of the Royal Army Medical Corps and an official war artist during World War I, produced a blue, roiling, tightly composed lithograph, “The Wave” picturing the engulfing waters of change brought by that conflict.
In this show, today’s artists hold pressing concerns about climate change in one hand and their own psychological knots in the other. As a child, Jem Southam had a recurring dream of a tidal wave flooding his back garden. His silky photo “Burton Bradstock, River Bride,” shot on New Year’s Day, 2000, captures the river emptying into the sea at Chesil Beach and reminds us how delicate the land is in the face of water’s force. John Goto’s digital print “Deluge,” from his “High Summer” portfolio, veritably depicts Southam’s nightmare: a landscaped garden under water.
The crisis point now demands that we reckon with the certainty of rising waters. Our fear is not merely a phantom ignited by societal uncertainty (although heaven knows there’s plenty of that); it is grounded in facts. “Before the Deluge” testifies that shattering change has come before and humankind has survived. Today, that may be cold comfort, but it’s comfort nonetheless.
BEFORE THE DELUGE: Apocalyptic Floodscapes From John Martin to John Goto, 1789 to Now
At Yale Center for British Art, 1080 Chapel St., New Haven, through March 24. 877-274-8278, britishart.yale.edu