Thursday, November 10

give in to the simple pleasures of john martin.

The Bard c. 1817

John Martin is quite simply a genius.

A delightful afternoon at his current show Apocalypse, on view at the Tate Britain, confirmed this fact. Oh yes, it did.

Wildly popular during his heyday (circa 1815-1854), Mr. Martin was a celebrated figure in the art world,  delighting the public with his extraordinary cinematic vision drawn from religious mythology. In his lifetime he completed several notable series, including oil paintings depicting scenes from The Book of Revelations and mezzotint prints for an illustrated version of Milton's Paradise Lost.

Book Three
Book Four
Book Ten
Book Twelve

Not being much of a Bible thumper myself, its rare that paintings of a strictly religious nature will move me on the grounds of their subject alone. Yet Milton's wall-sized panoramas are nothing if not transfixing; envisioning well known Christian narratives in all their earth-shattering, ground-splitting, run-if-you-want-but-you"ll-never-escape-THE-WRATH windswept and fire-saturated glory. Yet its exactly this turn of hyperbolic flourish that gives these works a post-religious appeal; Martin transcends the pure Biblicality of his subjects and indulges the viewers desire for fantasy. He treats his stories as fable rather then fact, forsaking key characters in favor of imaginative landscapes which stretch out endlessly in ever-unfolding shades of violent and saturated and unnatural colour. In Adam and Eve Entertaining the Angel Gabriel we see our our main characters rendered as tiny luminous nudes; pale in comparison to the vast meadows, lagoons, and snow-capped mountains against which they are posited. In other works we find the King of Babylon barely visible amidst the colossus of his crumbling urban paradise, and the Pharaoh of Egypt a tiny figurine against a brooding sky clogged with lightening and cloud. Even when our boy Jesus makes an appearance in The Final Judgement, its the yawning chasm of hell-fire and careening debris which draws our eye in first.

Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion. 1812 
The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. 1852
The Fall of Babylon. c 1835
The Final Judgment. 1851
The Great Day of His Wrath. 1852/53
The Plains of Heaven. 1852/53

But what's most interesting to note about Martin's work is the so called "controversy" that surrounds it - mainly the fact that his work has alternately fallen in and out of favor with critics who have called it distasteful, sensationalist, redundant and low-brow. His popularity as a traveling exhibitor often seemed to work against him, giving grounds to his reputation as a painter who pandered to the crowd and was generally guilty of making things that were just too much fun to go and see.

Such commentary is not entirely misplaced; Martin's paintings certainly tend towards obscene theatricality, and given the choice between restrain and excess I would say he'd usually go for the latter (Why use a hundred foot-soldiers when a hundred thousand would do?). But its this indulgence of his obviously overactive imagination which invites us to indulge our own. Getting lost in Martin's images feels good. It would be foolish to overlook the dramatic vision (not to mention exquisite execution) which made Martin both a very talented and very likable painter, simply because his paintings are too readily pleasurable to look at.

It's a strange tendency of ours isn't it, this masochistic urge to question ourselves for enjoying anything that seems just a little too easy? Martin immortalized a world of Christian moralism where licentious kings, libidinous whores and sin-soaked cities met their demise at the hand of a greater, more rational authority. And while these tales certainly reek of flagrant sermonizing, it is our inclination to critique our own "devious" enjoyment of Martin's works which feel truly heavy-handed.

There is a reason eating is fun, sex is exciting and the sun feels wonderful on our faces... simple, uncomplicated pleasures that directly stimulate our senses and make us happy. No need to feel guilty, just accept it. Enjoy it. John Martin is still, 150 years on, one of the greatest pleasures in the art world. So go and see him. It doesn't mean you're weak.

King Arthur and Aegle in the Happy Valley. 1849

John Martin is at the Tate Britain until 15th January, 2012.

1 comment:

  1. And ... I missed it. Dang! But thanks for the great Martin images, and the intelligent commentary. He's a lot of fun.

    You say "cinematic". It's pretty remarkable, the way Martin's paintings now look like a particularly good exercise in CGI. Wikipedia notes that Harry Harryhausen cites Martin as a major influence. Perhaps this resemblance to CGI is not a coincidence!