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Apocalyptic Scenes Thunder Through Tate’s Martin Show: Review

"The Fall of Babylon" (1819) by John Martin. The work is on display in "John Martin" at Tate Britain in London until Jan. 15, 2012. Source: Tate via Bloomberg

Hell is a city much like London, as the poet Shelley famously claimed.

While looking at John Martin’s painting “Pandemonium” (1841), you may think he had the same idea in mind. It looks like an infernal vision of the Embankment, nightmarish buildings towering behind -- a little like the Houses of Parliament -- and the Thames transformed into a river of fire.

We’re still a little worried that last bit might come true. The end of the world, eco-doom, rising flood waters, vengeance from on high -- these fears have never gone out of fashion. For Martin (1789-1854) they were his stock-in-trade. The majority of his pictures deal with such themes as the fall of empires and the Last Judgment, with a certain amount of less compelling heavenly bliss thrown in. Hence the title of the new exhibition devoted to his work at Tate Britain in London, “John Martin: Apocalypse.”

Martin is an oddity of art history. No one, in his own time or since, has known how to classify him. His work was simultaneously popular and much criticized. Some of his paintings were shown as popular attractions, much like dioramas, panoramas and similar early 19th-century predecessors of cinema.

He lived in style, though threatened intermittently by financial ruin. Contemporaries regularly pointed out that his colors were gaudy, his technique slick, and his subject matter repetitive.

“The eternal sameness -- a sameness too of bad taste and absurdity -- in this artist’s style, is quite disgusting.”

Oddly Familiar

So wrote the Edinburgh Literary Review in 1829. It’s still true, and gives you new respect for Georgian art criticism. Yet there’s something about Martin that’s impressive -- the writer quoted above calls it “imposing” -- and also oddly familiar.

That shiny, almost photorealist treatment of cataclysmic scenes, the burning rocks like asteroids crashing down on the teeming multitudes in “The Great Day of His Wrath” (1851-3), the vast geometrically planned cities of ancient Babylon, Thebes and Rome. We’ve seen them somewhere else.

The answer is that Martin was a predecessor of 20th- and 21st-century mass culture. His painting style leads on to film and illustrations in science-fiction magazines, as is emphasized by a reworking of “The Great Day of His Wrath” by the contemporary painter, Glenn Brown. This picture from 1998, hung at the end of the show, includes a few futuristic domes on a rocky pinnacle looking like the products of some alien culture that the crew of the Starship Enterprise might encounter.

Hollywood Style

The vast pillared hall in which “Belshazzar’s Feast” (1820) takes place could be a set for a Hollywood epic by D.W. Griffith or Cecil B. DeMille. The seething crowds, epic landscapes and spectacular special effects sometimes bring the “Lord of the Rings” films to mind, and also computer games.

Daringly, Tate Britain has embraced this connection by actually turning three paintings on the theme of the Last Judgment into a movie. With digital assistance, the rocks actually quake, lightning flashes across the sky and the waters of heaven gently ripple while voices read out passages from the literature that accompanied these pictures on 19th-century tours.

It’s fun, though loud enough to rumble through the whole show, and it underlines what’s interesting about Martin. Still, this doesn’t get over the basic problem, as noted by those old critics. One apocalypse is gripping, dozens together are boring. That’s showbiz: You get tired even of the end of the world.

“John Martin: Apocalypse” is at Tate Britain, London, through Jan. 15, 2012.


(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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