Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The John Martin 'Apocalypse' exhibition at Tate Britain... a devilish visual treat that surveys the work of this Victorian artist whose work was hugely popular with the general public in his lifetime and beyond. Despite this, the critics at the time normally dismissed his work as popularist, gaudy, in bad taste and not painted in the traditions of classical landscape painting. Ironically, now the visitor numbers to this show are generally low and John Martin certainly cannot be considered a household name, whereas some critics of today appreciate his work for the huge influence the spectacularily epic scenes have had on musicians, artists, illustrators and especially film-makers. For example, the accompanying booklet quotes the innovative stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen (from An Animated Life, 2003): 'Martin's work... is striking and visual, illustrating his extraordinary pre-cinematic imagination.' Aside from Harryhausen's Clash of the Titans (1981), other films where his influence can be seen include Ben Hur, Blade Runner, the Lord of the Rings trilogy and some of George Lucas' Star Wars films.

Like many people I had never heard of John Martin before this show, but I was blown away by some of the artworks on display here. One of the paintings where I had to say "Wow!" out loud when my eyes first met it was Belshazzars Feast (1820) below. I like his use of colour, scale and perspective. He is able to create an amazing atmosphere and drama, not just through the central characters in his work, but also smaller elements, such as the contrast between the cold colours of the sky and the moon - and the warm, earthy ones employed elsewhere. For this and 2 other paintings in the room, Tate Britain provide a reproduction of the original booklet that is a key guide to all the features of these artworks, for example the names of the characters and buildings.

Belshazzars Feast (1820)

In the same room (of this chronological exhibition) hangs The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (1822) (below). This was severely damaged in a Thames flood at the Tate (in Millbank) in 1928, but was excellently restored this year for this exhibition. A BBC London news programme featured this story yesterday:

The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (1822) (before, and after 2011 restoration below)

By the time Martin had also mastered the mezzotint printmaking technique, he was offered a lucrative contract to illustrate John Milton's Paradise Lost poem. One of the prints for that was Satan in Council (1831) (below), which portrays Satan with an audience of his demons. Most of these mezzotints displayed in the exhibition have even more meticulous detail than Martin's paintings.

Satan in Council (1831)

Yet another eye-catching work in the show is Pandemonium (1841), which stands out even further because of its beautiful large frame that Martin himself designed and that is adorned by the sorts of beasts that feature in the artists work.

Pandemonium (1841)

Curiously, Martin had ambitions to be an engineer, which in the context of his popularity as a painter and printmaker almost seems quite random. So in the same room as typical paintings such as Pandemonium (1841), theres also his plans for new railway and sewage systems, that were considered at the time but ultimately rejected. As the river Thames was where waste and sewage went then, there was understandably public concern of the possibility of an ecological disaster, so perhaps there is a link between that and the apocalyptive nature of Martins work. In the next room there is another curiosity, the wonderfully named The Book of the Great Sea Dragons (1840).

Print from the cover of The Book of the Great Sea Dragons (1840) by Thomas Hawkins, that Martin illustrated.

The centrepiece of the exhibition has to be The Last Judgement triptych (1851-3) (below), that is displayed in 2 different ways. Obviously theres the conventional way below, but there's also a light and sound show that was inspired by the way these and other of Martin's paintings that were exhibited at the time. Before and after his death this triptych went on a national and international tour, and was actually seen by an amazing 8 million people worldwide. The booklets I have mentioned before, coupled with this (10 minute) performance (every half hour) help to make this show even more memorable for the visitor.

The Last Judgement triptych (1851-3) (above, and below the 3 parts)

The Plains of Heaven (1851-3)

The Last Judgement (1853)

The Great Day of His Wrath (1851-3)

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