Art: John Martin, Apocalypse

While the art elite scoffed and sneered, John Martin’s paintings were spectacles that drew huge crowds to gawp at their dramatic expanses — presented here with light shows and sound effects

-George E Harris

Our species has consistently displayed a surreptitious yearning for an eschatological conclusion to the world’s ills. Religions never gained much traction without a good prophecy of humanity’s doom at their heart, while in the past century Fascism, Communism and Neo-Conservatism each sought their own end to history. HP Lovecraft ushered in a tradition of imagining a world where humanity is supplanted, diminished or annihilated by catastrophic events. Science fiction and horror writers have followed his example in their hundreds. Nuclear and biological war lingers in the imaginations of the post war generations, while millennial Christian influence increases its pervasion of American politics. These nihilistic desires to witness our own end have one thing in common; we need to be able to watch the apocalypse unfold from a safe distance.

John Martin’s paintings fit into the ‘I may not know much about art, but I know what I like’ category. The exhibition makes this clear from the beginning, focusing on Martin’s biography and his popular appeal. John Martin lived from 1759 to 1853, and in this time became immensely popular. His paintings were spectacles that drew huge crowds to gawp at their dramatic expanses, while the art elite scoffed and sneered. The exhibition is spread across six rooms, in broadly chronological order. There is a fairly traditional feel, with the lighting and sound only being altered for the climax in room 5.

Each chamber contains at least two enormous paintings depicting a fantastic landscape dominated by war, natural disaster or holy wrath. Having just viewed the Turner paintings elsewhere in the Tate, it’s easy to see some influence on Martin’s style. Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion shows a lone figure struggling hopelessly against an impossibly rugged landscape, while The Bard also shows Martin’s ability to conjure up unreal vistas that dwarf his subjects. One is reminded of renaissance painters who, constrained by their patrons on what to paint, let their imaginations loose on the background. Here we have the opposite; the events are defined by the settings, which convulse and buckle remorselessly.

Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still and Balshazzar’s Feast both portray biblical scenes with a wealth of detail that requires serious effort to drink in. In The Destruction of Pompeii, the diminutive figures in the foreground are almost insignificant as they cower from the fiery explosion that lights and envelops the entire scene. These rooms also contain harmonious landscapes, such as The River of Bliss, although without such dramatic events these paintings do not provide as much inspiration as their eye catching neighbours.

In his many depictions of Ancient Babylon, Martin shows the contemporary lack of any historical evidence of this ancient culture, instead imagining an architecture featuring ziggurats juxtaposed with Classical buildings. There is a consistent serpent motif in these paintings, which also finds its way in to Pandemonium, where Satan’s residence closely resembles a Greek temple.

Following a spate of ill advised engineering projects, John Martin created a triptych which proved his most popular hit yet. The Three Great Paintings in room 5 is introduced every half hour by a light show which attempts to recreate the sense of showmanship with which the paintings were originally paraded about. This doesn’t really manage to improve the experience though, and only stimulates a yearning to view the paintings without fanfare. They depict scenes from Revelations, with the excellent Great Day of His Wrath showing the world twisted and turned inside out as pitiful figures cower and fall into chasms. Whole cities are thrown into the abyss, as a setting sun penetrates the chaos. To the left of this is a laughable painting of the last judgement, featuring a classic God, with a collection of well turned out gentlemen enjoying salvation to his right, while an assortment of Catholics and a badly painted whore of Babylon cower on his left.

The third painting is a depiction of the promised paradise awaiting the faithful, and is one of John Martin’s best landscapes, a gloriously varied vista with swan like figures floating away into its midst.

The final room contains Martin’s watercolour paintings, as well as a final awe inspiring treat in the form of The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, in which the fabled city is swallowed on all sides by unimaginable destruction while Lot and his daughters escape, almost unnoticed in the foreground.

The worth of this exhibition is shown by the reactions of all who experience it. If John Martin’s paintings are considered bad taste, the fact still remains that he is the only painter who achieved this sense of scale and drama in his or any period. These bombastic and compelling works are brought together in a deeply satisfying exhibition. Anyone who is left feeling exhausted and empty by the vacuous nonsense on the opposite bank will no doubt find a great deal of pleasure here.

Until 15th January at Tate Britain

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