Apocalypse Now?

Is the apocalypse painter John Martin making a comeback via Tate Britain’s new Exhibition? investigates

Volcanos erupting, angels wailing, lighting striking and some very moody skies… Put that way, these paintings sound like material more appropriate for Goya in a really bad mood or a fourteen-year-old asocial boy’s favourite video game.

John Martin (1789 – 1854) had a hard time making a living at first, dabbling in teaching, inventing, engraving and engineering on the side of these dramatic paintings. He enjoyed rising popularity later on (as did his brother, the ‘mad preacher’ Jonathan Martin who set fire to York Minster, incidentally), but critics at the time found him tawdry and sensationalist – the likes of Coleridge and Ruskin among them, Martin’s work was seen as catering to “common”, or plain bad, taste.

This reputation clung about him throughout most of the twentieth century – perhaps unsurprisingly then, Tate Britain’s John Martin: Apocalypse exhibition is the first in 30 years and the largest collection of his works since his death. Yet nowadays, where Old-Testament-style-doomsday believers are probably thinner on the ground and few have tackled Milton rather than Twilight, is there anything about these works that can still resonate with the modern viewer?

For the crowds of the early 1800s, Martin’s disregard for conventional composition and choice of dramatic imagery made his art shows more of a dramatic performance. For us, perhaps a painting of a chasm in the earth doesn’t carry as much shock value: at least not post Hirst’s cross-sectioned menagerie. Yet by no means is this merely another quaint, Victorian exhibition to pass up. We may have no idea who Belshazzar is or where Gomorrah was, but Martin’s grandiose, detailed pieces appeal to the imagination deeply, with a visual splendor that can still leave the viewer in awe (without having to fear you shall be ousted as “common” by Victorian critics).

Curator of the exhibition, Martin Myrone, assures the viewer that “with animation, special effects, and a dramatic narration drawn from the Bible and original texts from the 1850s, the show pushes at the boundaries of the conventional gallery experience”. It seems Tate Britain tried to tackle this question – whether the original impact of the paintings translate for the modern viewer – with as many bells and whistles as they could finance. Is it that hopeless though; are the paintings on their own truly not enough for us anymore, now that their biblical context is less forceful for his twenty-first century, multi-ethnic audience in London?

In many ways, this aspect endows them with more force; these scenes are so epic, turbulent and otherwordly that the heavy permanence they depict does wonders to our need for a moment of reflection in busy lifestyles. We are now no strangers to watching the end of the world in a cool 124 cinematic minutes. So Martin’s subject matter may not be far off from The Day After Tomorrow, but these unmoving canvases display a startling sense of movement, mood and scale above and beyond what we think can be achieved via a 2-D medium.

The piece Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion (1812), for instance, absolutely stretches the imagination the more one looks at it. As we try to reconcile the vastness and timelessness of the distant waterfall surging down jagged rock with the struggling human figure clinging on in the foreground, the majesty, futility, and struggle strike a chord.

An exhibition wide in scope and informative in its approach to the artist, its extra effort to dress up the pieces for fear that its subject matter is not universally appealing will hopefully not hold it back. Nature, man, structure, chaos, destruction and most intruigingly, the human power to fully realise what began as a figment of the imagination – what could be more relevant subject matter to this, or any, age?

John Martin: Apocalypse is at Tate Britain, London from 15 September 2011 until 15 January

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