Saturday, January 07, 2012

John Martin - Apocalypse exhibition

John Martin's Apocalypse is on at the Tate Britain for a few more days. Alice Parsons checked it out for

THE END IS NIGH, YOU WILL BE JUDGED, REPENT!!! These are phrases that spring to mind when looking at a John Martin painting. You feel as if you could walk right into one of his works (some of his biggest paintings must be a couple of metres across each way) and stumble endlessly across the craggy, barren landscapes. Cutting your bare feet on the sharp rocks, dodging lava, desperate for an icy drink and salvation’s touch.

When I heard about his recent exhibition at the Tate, the first major collection of his works in 30 years, I knew I would be going and that I would inevitably be paying the £12.70 entry fee to get in (If that scares you, remember this is also the going-rate to see a film these days – Puss in Boots 3D anyone? No, I didn’t think so). The Tate eases you in with Martin’s gentler works. Serene scenes of Paradise, Eden, castles... nothing too sinister. However, on closer investigation, even the seemingly harmless depictions of London parks and British Tourist attractions harbour foreboding, swirling skies. Silent storms building up in the distance, hinting at what’s to come.

Then it starts to get exciting, John Martin’s ‘blockbuster’ oil paintings take over one room. In their day, they were the equivalent of going to see a new Bond movie. Belshazzar’s Feast (below - possibly my favourite) is breathtaking. I confess now, I wouldn’t have had a clue what was happening if not for the Tate's handy guide, based on Martin’s original descriptive catalogues. So, here follows my rough assessment: The Hanging Gardens of Babylon are gently caressed by moonlight in the distance. To their left, the tower of Babel is caught in a raging, lightning-stabbed sky. In the foreground everybody else is running around like headless chickens (there is quite certainly more to it than that). The contrast of light is otherworldly and the Hall of Astarte (seen in the midground) appears to be never-ending. I love that; looking at a painting that doesn't have an ending, it has a story and a world of its own that has been playing out for untold years already and will continue to do so into the future.

In his lifetime Martin drew up engineering plans for the improvement of London’s sewers, the Thames Embankment and even a metropolitan railway, but his plans never got off the ground and were criticised by others. Shunned by the Royal Academy, who felt his ‘blockbuster’ paintings were not sophisticated enough for the elite of the art world, Martin was always something of an outsider. Looking at The Great Day of His Wrath, I really can’t imagine why. Martin’s final work, The Judgement series, is comprised of three large paintings. The Tate has set up The Last Judgement, The Great Day of His Wrath, and The Plains of Heaven on one wall facing tiered seating. Every 30 minutes the lights go out and an interesting experience takes place. Some kind of clever projection light-show illuminates different sections of the paintings and then slowly warps and distorts parts to mimic lava flow, earthquakes or ash falling. Little animated lightning forks poke about and the whole effect is rather hallucinogenic. Unfortunately the overexcited actors they’d recorded over the top narrating were indeed a bit over-the-top. But then I’d probably get carried away if you asked me to act out a bible-bashing Victorian pastor.

Martin’s figures are not great. They don’t have memorable faces, they’re a bit soft and squidgy and I sometimes felt that they spoilt what would otherwise have been a great painting for me. That’s not to say that I don’t think he should have painted people, full-stop. They are the best scale markers for his epic work imaginable. Without the tiny figures of Adam and Eve being cast out of Eden in The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise (top), we would have no sense of their plight, of the fear they must have been feeling on seeing the expanse of dead land they had been cast into.

I want to wear John Martin’s paintings as fabulous evening gowns, swim in the still lakes and frolic in the green fields. Because not all of Martin’s paintings feature the end. Some depict the calm after the storm. The misty morning that marks the start of a new world. In Fantasia, the bit after A Night on Bald Mountain, when the devil hears the church bells and goes back to bed and all the nuns come down from the nunneries chanting Ave Maria... PHEW, safe again.

I celebrated my survival of the apocalypse with a suitably mammoth scone piled high with clotted cream and strawberry jam in Tate Britain’s very reasonable cafe.

John Martin: Apocalypse is only on at London's Tate Britain until the 15th of January, so don't delay. Admission is £12.70, while concessions can get in for £10.70.

Review by Alice ParsonsAll images kindly provided by Tate Britain

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