“John Martin: Apocalypse” at Tate Britain.
To say that the art of John Martin divided nineteenth-century critical opinion would be something of an understatement. The eminent Victorian, Edward Bulwer Lytton – the man who coined the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword” – declared Martin to be “the greatest, the most lofty, the most original genius of the age”. But Samuel Taylor Coleridge thought he was “a poor creature” who “looked at Nature through bits of stained glass, and was never satisfied with any appearance that was not prodigious”; and John Ruskin proclaimed that “Martin’s works are merely a common manufacture, as much makeable to order as a tea-tray or a coal scuttle.”
“John Martin: Apocalypse”, at Tate Britain, the most extensive exhibition of the painter’s work since his death in 1854, is an opportunity to see what all the fuss was about. On this evidence, his genius is open to question but he was certainly a thunderously entertaining painter of death, destruction and doom. Martin was born in 1789, the bloodstained year of the French Revolution, and he burst on to the British art scene in the second decade of the nineteenth century with a series of nightmarishly apocalyptic, attention-grabbing melodramas inspired by the stories of the Old Testament. Panoramic in scale, lurid in palette and subject matter, Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon was the picture that made his reputation. Beneath a tempestuous sky, swirling with storm and hurricane, the army of the heathen Amorites seethes like a swarm of ants about to be exterminated. The Israelite leader Joshua stands on a jaggedly upthrust rock – the first of many such violently shaped peaks and crags to be found in the agitated geology of Martin’s imagination – surveying the scene with triumphant complacency. With a single raised hand, spotlit against glooms of immense depth, he urges the conquering hordes of his own army to go for the kill. Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1816, just a year after the Battle of Waterloo, this depiction of God’s chosen people defeating the forces of evil may have been patriotically intended to evoke parallels with the present, and Britain’s defeat of France. Perhaps for that reason, it proved extremely popular with public and press alike: the reviewer for the Morning Chronicle declared that “a more astonishing picture for magnitude of design and for detail we never saw.”
Martin followed up with more of the same. The Fall of Babylon, of 1819, was another apocalyptic crowd scene, painted with a theatrical scene-painter’s relish in archaeological fantasy. Vast crowds of Londoners flocked to see it, drawn by Martin’s spectacular vision of a great city’s sudden destruction much as cinema audiences are drawn to the latest disaster movie. Belshazzar’s Feast, exhibited at the British Institution in February 1821, was an even bigger hit. The astonished tyrant is shown at the moment of his demise, together with his fellow-decadents and the cautionary figure of Daniel, in a pink palace of inordinate size painted in rushingly vertiginous linear perspective. The figures variously point, swoon, glare, cower and scream, in what amounts to a lexicon of nineteenth-century melodramatic gesture preserved, forever, in the artist’s characteristically heavy paint. John Constable’s biographer, C.R. Leslie, noted rather sniffily that Belshazzar’s Feast “made more noise among the mass of people than any picture that has been exhibited since I have been here. The artists, however, and connoisseurs did not like it much.”
The ambivalent response to Martin’s work – loved by the public, but mostly hated by the critics – was also an index of his extreme and disconcerting originality. His closest contemporary was Turner and Martin himself could be seen as a coarser version, an artist who took Turner’s philosophical melancholy, his fatalistic belief that all civilisations inevitably end badly, and made it big box office – predicting the world of Cecil B.de Mille’s biblical epics and later science fiction fantasies. It was Martin’s singular achievement to take the highest genre of visual art, namely the large scale, grand narrative history painting, and adapt it unashamedly to the taste of people at large. His version of high art was iconoclastically low, vulgar in the original etymological sense of that word, shot through with effects taken from the world of nineteenth-century popular entertainment, such as melodramas, panoramas and fairground spectacles. Even his zingingly vibrant colour schemes and explosive treatment of meteorology – flaring sunsets, moons that seem to detonate in the sky – owe more to popular pyrotechnic displays than to the Old Master traditions of oil painting. Turning from terror to beauty, as he occasionally did in the middle years of his career, he produced a number of paintings of such astonishingly perfected kitsch that they almost exactly predict the house style of the 1970s Athena posters so loved by the anti-heroine of Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party. Prince Albert bought one of the very ugliest examples: a picture the colour of bubblegum and creme-de-menthe entitled The Eve of the Deluge.
Martin was regarded with intense distrust by the self-styled intellectual elite of his day precisely because he was so adept at catering to the tastes of the new mass audience that had been brought into existence by the vast modern metropolises of the nineteenth century. Many of his pictures were toured around the country, shown as if they were indeed static films, one frame per second, frozen forever; and witnessed by buzzing (fee-paying) crowds from Land’s End to John o’ Groats. His last and most ambitious series of paintings – the so-called Last Judgement Triptych, showing an ethereal heaven, Christ judging the damned and the blessed, and the most discombobulatingly topsy-turvy of all his apocalypses – was taken across Europe and even travelled as far afield as Broadway, New York, attracting an estimated total audience of some eight million people.
The artist’s family background was almost as lurid as his painting. His father had been a publican, a soldier, a fencing master and a member of the long-term unemployed. His brother Jonathan, who was clinically insane, spent much of his life in the mental hospital at Bethlem after setting fire to York Minster. Hence Thomas Carlyle’s remark that “the Martins are all wildish in the head”. But on the evidence of Tate Britain’s show, John Martin himself was nothing if not shrewd. Over the course of a long and not entirely smooth career, he turned himself into one of the great painters of one of darkest Victorian fears: a deep foreboding that despite the might of the British Empire, and despite the strength of Britain’s industrial economy, a bleakly apocalyptic future was being forged in the furnaces and factories of the Industrial Revolution. At the same time, he was much more than a soap-box preacher working in the medium of paint on canvas, an artist merely trading opportunistically on millenarian fears that the end might be nigh. Martin was a prophet of a kind: an artist whose work looked forward, with uncanny prescience, to the popular arts and mass aesthetics of the twentieth and twenty-first century.
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