Tuesday, 27 December 2011

John Martin: Apocalypse

Verdict: Go see it
Where: Tate Britain, Pimlico
When: 21 September 201115 January 2012

What is it?  An exhibition of the works of John Martin; a Victorian artist who was famed for painting large dramatic scenes of disasters.  He was very popular in his time but derided by art critics for being overly sensationalist.

My opinion:  I came into this exhibit with no foreknowledge of John Martin’s work but as I am a fan of sweeping landscapes (who isn’t), I was intrigued and further so by the entrance fee - £14 is quite steep for a relatively unknown artist.

The exhibition takes you through the ups and downs of his career, so although it may seem a little haphazard in its arrangement, that is probably an accurate representation of his life.

His early works highlight his excellent attention to detail, on a par with Canaletto.  However, when painting the day to day his paintings seem stale and lifeless, allowing you to sense that his heart isn’t in it.

It’s only when his imagination is let loose that his truly inspiring works are created.  Whether he is painting biblical or mythological scenes his use of a deep red, hellish background gives a sense that the canvas itself is bleeding – one can only imagine how vibrant it must have looked before the years faded its impact. 

The exhibition informs us that people flocked to his exhibits but the critics were less than impressed – he was the Roland Emmerich of his time.  Not many people would place Independence Day in their top 5 movies of all time, but everybody enjoyed it.  The exhibit points out that many film directors have been inspired by his work and its obvious to see how – most disaster/epic movies look like they must have had Martin in mind when designing setpieces.

The paintings present a strange contrast in that the titles of the works suggest that the people are the focus of the paintings yet they are overshadowed by the scenery, but still the persons are painted in a manner that makes them stand out while the background seems to fade away in comparison.  This contrast is apparent in the ‘Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum’ where the exploding Vesuvius first catches the eye but the fleeing masses in the foreground are accentuated to the point where they seem like they may pop out of the painting.

The level of background detail in his works can leave you staring at each painting for a good 15 minutes before you can absorb all the detail – ‘Belshazzar’s feast’ has so many detailed actors in the piece that it adds to the chaotic feel to the scene, with priests sacrificing children almost hidden away in the centre of the painting.  This painting is one of several of the fall of Babylon and it’s interesting to see that the focus is on the city itself and the famous Tower of Babel is marginalised as an outline in the distance.   
In his middle career, Martin switched to black and white prints as they earned him more money. This is a shame as although the medium can be emotive it lacks the grandiosity and subtle detail of his larger works – though ‘Destroying Angel’ is still very impressive.

Later in his career, Martin did return to the sweeping landscapes and definitely upped his game to show that he could use vivid colour to bring about a positive emotive response – the heavenly landscape of ‘The Eve of the Deluge’ being a prime example, and appearing to be a clear inspiration for the skies of Tatooine in Star Wars. 

The ‘Celestial City and the River of Bliss’ along with its sisterpiece ‘Pandemonium’ show how colour can be used to bring about opposite emotions and the stark contrast of hanging them side by side only heightens this effect.

The exhibit also features a 10 minute presentation on three of his pieces.  Kudos to the Tate for embracing the grandiosity of Martin’s work and having over the top narration mixed with clever visual effects that bring his paintings to life, including shimmering water and distortions mimicking earthquakes.  I imagine this is how audiences at the time would have viewed the paintings (obviously sans visual effects) - critics may not like the sensationalism but forget them, Martin’s work appealed to the people and the exhibit reflects that.

John Martin may have been a one trick pony but many artists are, and this is a great trick. Apocalypse is definitely worth seeing and this artwork is unique enough to merit devoting at least 2 hours of your life to.

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