Playing with Apocalypse


Gottfried Helnwein, “Untitled (After Caspar David Friedrich),” 1998

“Do not write, ‘Playing with Apocalypse,’ but rather, ‘Now Playing at the Apocalypse: Playing with Apocalypse.'”

Why bother?  why alter what is written before the time, since no one except the elect cares to learn how not to go beyond what is already written?  (Matthew 13:30; 3:11-12; 2 Timothy 2:8-13)

O look it is das Eismeer, 1823/24 in Dresden entstanden, eines der Hauptwerke Caspar David Friedrichs (1774-1840), now in the possession of the Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany.


“The ‘Polar Sea’ is a painting of passion, of agony, the wide expanse of nature displayed should also remind the onlooker of his or her spiritual aims.  Agony versus perfection, death versus moral-spiritual objectives – the painting presents these diametric opposites as conflicting unity…. The entire form of the iceberg strives upward, culminating at its apex as if a pointing arrow toward the light blue heaven, indicating in the Christian sense the continuance of life after death.”

Peter Rautmann, C.D. Friedrich, Das Eismeer – Durch Tod zu neuem Leben/C.D. Friedrich, The Polar Sea – Through Death to New Life (Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1991), pp. 25, 49 (trans. mcduffee).

“For me, the immediate effect is entirely of another kind than earlier interpretations:  The rubble of ice in the painting’s center, with its diagonal thrust pointing upward technically defines the piece with a nearly monotonous indifference.  The icebergs in the bluish background repeat this monotony as if echoing it across the white surface.  The ship was dragged into this movement.  The whole culminates upward and could in the next moment sink.  The steps of this temple of nature lead to nothingness.”

Jens Christian Jensen, Caspar David Friedrich, Leben und Werk (Köln: DuMont Buchverlag, 1999), p. 189 (trans. mcduffee)

Or, as the immanely careful say, “Christian & political allegory may even fuse into one.”  Hans A. Pohlsander, National Monuments and Nationalism in 19th Century Germany (Peter Lang, 2008), p. 32.

The tune we play depends upon the song we want to sing.   In the soul set right the coolness of discernment casts off sin’s dross and the flames of delight melt neglect to restore our sight.  Wisdom is vindicated by all her children.  No matter danger’s reach, or how disturbed the mere or when moraine was deposed, what song we sing my Nietzschean and Christian  friends depends upon the course we strike, taking up goodness of our own free will for glory and honor and immortality or remaining selfishly ambitious under the rod of  easy compulsion (Romans 2:7-8; Philemon 14).

The Artic Shipwreck, 1823/24 was “one of his most memorable works.”  C. D. Friedrich “first thought of this theme in response to a request by the wealthy Leipzig patron Johann Gottlob von Quandt, to provide a ‘sublime’ northern landscape to form a counterpart to a southern landscape by the Rome-based landscape painter Johann Martin von Rohden (1778-1868).  This work – of which the Artic Shipwreck is a related version – is now lost….

“Friedrich earlier had hopes of [Quandt] as a patron… who seemed pleased with the ‘wonderful and great effect’ of Friedrich’s resultant [earlier] picture (now also lost) of a ship off Greenland destroyed in a sea of ice.  Interestingly, [Quandt] particularly praised the treatment of the ice: ‘The transparency and sea-green colour of the ice is achieved by Friedrich astonishingly well because he was born and brought up on the Baltic and so often had opportunity to observe such natural scenes.’  In fact Friedrich seems to have been relying more on the study of ice he made in the winter of 1820-1 in Dresden when the Elbe froze over….

“There could be a deliberate exposition of hubris in Artic Shipwreck – for the ship is shown utterly destroyed.  One version (now lost) was entitled Die gescheiterte >Hoffnung< —  The Wreck of the Hope.  As such, it matches the bleakness of The Monk by the Sea, exposing earthly vanities.  While engaging with the modern world, Friedrich was also offering a critique of it.”

William Vaghan, Friedrich (London: Phaidon Press, 2004), pp. 218, 222-223, 225-226, 228.


The false positive definite article as a demonstrative function diagnosing the modern world as absent of hope, this too is feeding on the wind instead of feasting on every word of God (1 John 5:21; Psalm 71:14; Hebrews 6:16-20; 1 John 5:9-12).

O sinister simulacrum, where is your victory? O hypocrisy abased, where is your sting? O Scientia, your star of the morning, Helel, has fallen from heaven (Luke 10:18). At first blush who wouldn’t want this trickster for one’s accuser? Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands. If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him.  He, who alone does not lie or take a bribe, of His own will brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of His creation. Let us suffer and celebrate what we confess: living our lives as His lover.

inclusio, inclusio.

Slavoj Žižek’s publisher in league with him or without his knowledge reproduces Gottfried Helnwein’s work titled, “Untitled (After Caspar David Friedrich), 1988” to serve as the backdrop illustration for the paperback cover announcing the book’s title, Living in the End Times (London/New York: Verso, 2011 — revised, updated paperback edition, first published by Verso in 2010).  Let another explain:

“In untitled (after Caspar David Friedrich), 1998, Helnwein, in Warholian fashion, boldly appropriates and pays deep, cinematic, blue black homage to Friedrich’s charged, nature – melodramatic painting, The Polar Sea (1824). Helnwein quoted this painting before in his triptych, The Silent Glow of the Avant Garde I (1986), flanked by two self portraits like guardian angels: head bandaged and doused in red paint, as though blindly, bloodily scanning the skies for enemy Spitfires. This latest version magnifies the painting hugely in a moody, spectral, sugary icy blue monochrome which heightens the natural contrasts, and the sense of drama thanks to Helnwein’s lighting effects, which impose a peculiar solitude and perspective. However, Friedrich’s original is all there – Nature as a constant, infinite, momentous turnover of forces, the ice sheets bludgeoning into each other in great planar cross collisions of elemental power, splintering into lethal jags and patterns which emulate tectonic processes in a constant universal pattern of pulverising flux. You could nearly miss the tragic little galleon, like a child’s toy tossed from the grinding tumult of splintering Matterhorns – particularly Germanic Romantic celebration of humanity dashed against the intensity and dispassionate cruelty of nature in all her savage pomp.”

Mic Moroney, “Out of the Apocalypse and into the Sublime, Bursting into Irish Landscape: Citizen Helnwein,” 2004, read at


The Silent Glow of the Avant Garde I (1986),


The Silent Glow of the Avant Garde II (1986),

But wait there is more by Mr. Moroney about Herr Helnwein, das irischen Bürger:

“Helnwein’s painting – both cheekily and totally in homage – appropriates the great painting, “The Polar Sea” (1824) by the leading German Romantic landscape artist Casper (sic) David Friedrich. Helnwein here re-renders the painting in a gloomy, cinematic blue-black duochrome and hugely magnifies if from its original scale (about 1 metre by 1 metre 30), although the foundered ship still seems dwarfed and pulverized by the splintering ice sheets. It remains a fine example of the particularly Germanic celebration of heroic humanity dashing itself against the majestic cruelty of nature. Helnwein, in his wry title and borrowing of the image, is suggesting an uncomfortable paradigm behind Friedrich’s painting – a perpetual sense of momentous revolution within nature, raw humanity and indeed artistic culture.

Mic Moroney, Lead White Gallery, Dublin, Ireland, Texts (9/1/2002)

Let still another for us pull this together:

“In drawing, painting and photography, his art constantly moves between the poles of over-definition and dissolution, each motif being the subject of a process of transformation within this movement.  In a set of triptychs, the artist has made this process explicit, for instance in “God of Sub-Humans”(1986) and “The Silent Glow of the Avant-Garde”, an enlarged copy of Caspar David Friedrich’s painting “Frustrated Hope” in cool-frosty blue, framed by two self-portrait busts of the artist apparently covered in blood, an ambiguous ironic reference to his position in the controversial history of art.”

Klaus Honnef, “The Subversive Power of Art,” (1997),


God of Sub-Humans  (1986),

Helnwein’s work titled “Untitled (After Caspar David Friedrich)” was completed in 1998. He did reproduce Friedrich’s Eismeer in earlier works titled, “The Silent Glow of the Avant-Garde I and II,” but they were made public in 1986. Much more about Helnwein the artist and about his art may be learned here:

Thus, for purposes of lectio divina, Helnwein’s triptych displays The God of Sub-Humans as its center panel with Silent Glow I and II its side ones.  Read by Untitled (After Caspar David Friedrich), 1988 (sic) 1998, Helnwein leaves neither self nor his god thou art still standing.  Alleluia!  Whatever ruins remains the hope God broke, ours unbroken

inclusio, inclusio. 

Anything but apocalypse is played at the Apocalypse, with “Playing with Apocalypse” now playing, etc., etc., as if the origin of boredom is unknown and the apocalypse is anything but redundant.  For example, the stillborn child dead at birth is miscarried not frustrated.

In spite of the obvious which is always overlooked by those who cannot help but take it for granted (John 8:47; 1 John 4:6), for those who choose to accept it, the pictorial parable as the backdrop to Žižek’s Living in the End Times reminds us prophecy cannot be mimicked because its counterfeit remains unchanged, absent the transformation that converts history into the testimony of Jesus. We make out apocalypse to be fake as if it were a work of art, as if, if there were an apocalypse it would be important for a reason of our choosing, or, if the apocalypse were to have worth at all, then that would be because we serve it up to mean something else as a metaphor of that which we conceive, of whatever we might want it to be and nothing more. A category, a concept, a slave to our method and system, born of our human will, our breathing, seething, screaming (cultural, revolutionary, tenured) will, for whoever speaks in the spirit of the antichrist simply says “just so is Jesus accursed!” No one has any idea how hard life is, we only know how hard it is to live.  What we do means nothing, how what we do is done means everything.  Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything.  Nevertheless, the temple is holy because the firm foundation of God stands having this seal, no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit, who alone glorifies Christ by turning history into prophecy fulfilled. We, who are but His art and critics of His work, are unable on our own either to ask or to answer the question, “What is apocalypse?” For this and for this alone we must wait to see.

Saints! What do you see?  Let everyone who names the name of the Lord abstain from wickedness. In reading all without and within match the world’s impatience with lives of holiness and godliness, wait for what the world wastes and does not want, hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!

And so he went on, listening to students reading Burnt Norton when at the once a wintering gang of American crows just that side of a gawking window, if he had to report it, just south of Old Town on the east side of Wells Street, killed a young cottontail rabbit while its mother horrified was forced to look on.  Everything quickly happened absent instinctive panic, immune to cultural despair.  They could not watch cruel hunger eat its April dish outnumbered, alive.  First their disgust was interrupted; then assuaged and then it died, devoured by indifference.  Fatigue, he thought, comes as much from a lack of form as from spent effort.  He imagined he was at the Seascape vacationing, listening to Charlie explain to Leslie the facts of life. Another trail gone cold tailing off into the apocalypse, rust melting with pollen in the air, “yet surrounded by a grace of sense.” Thankful. There is never one without the other.

inclusio, inclusio.

All this to say, Helnwein’s work titled “Untitled (After Caspar David Friedrich)” was created in 1998 and is best seen as done in c.d. Friedrich fashion with a matching piece, for me the partner summoned is Helnwein’s 2000 work titled, “American Prayer.”


gh48The two together help us reflect, digest, and repent unto remembering our baptism so we may rightly respond to what Slavoj Žižek wants to teach us:

“There are at least three different versions of apocalypticism today: Christian fundamentalist, New Age, and techno-digital-post-human.  Although they all share the basic notion that humanity is approaching a zero-point of radical transmutation, their respective ontologies differ radically:  techno-digital apocalypticism (whose main representative is Ray Kurzweil) remains within the confines of scientific naturalism, and identifies at the level of the evolution of the human species the contours of its transmutation into the ‘post-human’; New Age apocalypticism gives the transmutation a spiritualist twist, interpreting it as the shift from one mode of ‘cosmic awareness’ to another (usually from the modern dualist-mechanistic stance to one of holistic immersion); finally, Christian fundamentalists read the apocalypse in strictly biblical terms, searching for (and finding) signs that the final battle between Christ and the Anti-Christ is nigh, that things are approaching a critical turn.  Although this last version is considered the most ridiculous, though still dangerous in terms of its content, it is the one closest to a radical ‘millenarian’ emancipatory logic.”  Living in the End Times, pp. 336-337.

The time to ignore Him is always opportune, nevertheless, now, even today is the acceptable time, the day of salvation.  Let us listen to see if we hear Him speak so we may see Him.

The kneeling mannequin models the habitus corresponding to scientific naturalism’s fantasy of our transmutation into the post-human.  Donald Duck serves well as a suitable avatar for suggesting cosmic awareness as a holistic jest always in the market as offering the western psyche one more snap or jolt or juice around the spiritual track.  Only the rugged grandeur of Friedrich’s scaffolding made of soiled ice suspended above the waiting abyss while floating beneath faith’s hint of faintest hope aptly expresses the biblical landscape of apocalypse.  Helnwein’s illuminating the scene in the comic-book color of a super-hero deserving tenebrous blue only heightens our interest in its mystical witness to the truths of Scripture.  Here is place enough for worker, criminal and saint. Here both nature and culture are doomed to death.  Here each viewer picks his or her spot.   Entering this painting we hear the whole creation groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.  Here we see ourselves condemned, freezing with dejection and acedia or among those whom we once belittled, beating our breasts together praying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  Here the sky’s fire will be most wondrous and welcome, for even here the works of darkness shall be exposed by becoming visible in the melting night.

1 Corinthians 10:15, 14.

inclusio, inclusio

Published in: on April 21, 2013 at 4:42 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Loved the painting at the top.

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