Downstairs at Tate Britain has been given over to an exhibition of works by John Martin, a nineteenth-century painter renowned for his dramatic retellings of biblical stories and myths. His somewhat everyday name gets lost by the wayside but Tate has gone for a striking exhibition title – Apocalypse – to grab everyone’s attention.
Martin’s, often fantastical, paintings attracted huge audiences when they were displayed across the country, whether at galleries, commercial venues or public spaces. Apparently one exhibition required the equivalent of crowd barriers to stop the work from being damaged. While the public adored him, the critics degraded Martin’s work saying it was sensationalist. I don’t regard this comment as a criticism; his paintings depicting the sublime are often sublime themselves. Many consider his works personify the extravagance of Victorian bad taste but their immense scale and detail is very impressive.
John Martin, Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, 1852. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.
This exhibition is the most comprehensive survey of Martin’s works staged since his death in 1854 and finally acknowledges his importance to 19th century art history. The exhibition focuses on all elements of Martin’s oeuvre. He was not just a brilliant landscape painter but also a highly skilled watercolourist and draughtsman. Characters of Trees, published in 1817, consists of seven plates that were to act as a drawing book intended for amateurs learning to draw various species of tree. He was a known draughtsman and, two years prior to this publication, had been appointed Drawing Master to Princess Charlotte, the daughter of George IV.
The first few rooms of the exhibition follow Martin’s progression to more apocalyptic subjects. His expressive nature becomes apparent in Room Two where some of his early blockbuster pieces are shown, spectacular works such as Belshazzar’s Feast (1820). This is the story from the Book of Daniel in which writing on the wall prophesises that Belshazzar will be killed and succeeded by Darius the Mede. We join the spectators flocking to look at the writing on the wall, lit, by Martin, to extraordinary effect. His paintings of actual, rather than
imagined, scenes do not have the same impact – imagination and romanticism are fundamental.
John Martin, Belshazzar’s Feast, 1820. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.
Room Four presents a rather unexpected side to the artist looking at his surveys and engineering drawings, focusing on suggested improvements to London’s sewage and transport systems. Through these drawings, Martin is trying to ‘save’ London from the disasters he depicts in his paintings. Although, during his lifetime, none of these schemes was realised, and the pursuit of these projects nearly bankrupted Martin they have all since come to fruition, in one way or another.
The exhibition progresses chronologically through Martin’s life. Although his works are quite varied in colour and subject, they all maintain power, skill and impact. Even the small paintings have an imposing presence. One room focuses on his mezzotint illustrations including those for John Milton’s Paradise Lost and his Bible illustrations. The works are brilliant although you really need a magnifying glass to view those in the cases. Martin was a big fan of the mezzotint and one of the earliest artists to rely on mechanical means, which allowed him to reproduce his works in books and magazines.
John Martin, Paradise Lost, 1827 edition. Image via www.spaightwoodgalleries.com.
Martin’s paintings have a striking visual impact with their sharp focus and incredible use of light. His strong use of verticals and his red palette provide drama and powerful dynamism as we, alongside his characters, rather like a 19th century action thriller, teeter on the brink of world destruction. My choice of footwear felt rather apt as I too hovered at an extreme height, afraid of going over the edge.
The exhibition is well curated and, although, here, it does work, Tate is back to using its favourite grey wall paint. The one yellow room later in the exhibition came as such a shock that my eyes had to adjust slowly to the use of colour.
John Martin at Tate Britain. Own photograph.
Tate wanted to try to re-capture the sense of excitement felt by Martin’s original audience and, to this end, it has created an ‘extravagant’ light show around one of his final triptychs – the culmination of his on-going obsession with divine and destructive forces. This triptych, The Last Judgement (c. 1845-53) was shown as a spectacle in theatres and music halls, occasionally accompanied by light and sound installations. This was not just art but cinematic entertainment. The works are beautiful and some of Martin’s most powerful pieces. Working with a theatre company, Tate has used narrative and special effects to attempt to refresh the traditional gallery experience and recreate the original scenario. This ‘sensation’ takes place every 30 minutes, but what a disappointment! The work was broken and took a while to get going – when it did it was the sort of thing you’d expect primary children to enjoy…maybe! It did little to depict the sensationalist nature of the 19th century but we are different people with far greater expectations than the original audiences so maybe it is impossible in such situations to create authentic performances. They always come across as slightly tacky. We cannot be expected to have a similar appreciation to the Victorians as we are not the same.
John Martin, The Last Judgement, c. 1845-53. Image via www.tate.org.uk.
The exhibition closes with a room of Martin’s watercolours or so we think… In a final annex we find Glenn Brown’s The Tragic Conversation of Salvador Dali (after John Martin) where he manipulates Martin’s The Great Day of Wrath. Yes, the work is clever with distortion, the inclusion of science-fiction buildings and clever twists and turns, but it’s not Martin and what a shame to end on someone else’s work. This is a retrospective of Martin’s works and I’d have liked to leave with him making his own final impact.
Glenn Brown, The Tragic Conversation of Salvador Dali (after John Martin), 1998. Image via www.independent.co.uk.
Martin had no formal training, he was never destined to be an artist yet his works, following a series of apocalyptic subjects, are enigmatic and powerful. The Victorians loved catastrophe so no wonder they fell in love with the melodrama of Martin’s vivid imagination. This is a great contrast to the Flanagan show on display upstairs and, unlike that, definitely worth a visit.
John Martin, The Great Day of His Wrath, 1851-3. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.
After this, I popped along to see some of the building work at Tate as part of The Millbank Project – a huge undertaking, by architects Caruso St John, to make the navigation of the gallery more coherent, introducing a more circulatory environment. This £45 million project involves repairing and restoring galleries, removing false walls and ceilings to open up the building and introducing new stairs and lifts. Tate aims to increase the capacity of its galleries, transform the main Rotunda and enhance the visitor experience to the galleries.
Tate Rotunda. Own photograph.
The upper floors of the Dome are set to become the new members’ rooms – this space used to be storage for the Tate archives and is now a general dumping ground but is set to be stunning. Although the route up is currently a tad dangerous in stilettos on a slippery stone spiral staircase, by 2013 we’ll all be able to glide up in a lift. I can predict I’ll be spending a lot of time there once this project is completed.
John Martin: Apocalypse is at Tate Britain until 15th January 2012, www.tate.org.uk.