John Martin: Apocalypse

Review of the Tate Britain exhibition, September 2011 - January 2012


John Martin: The great day of his wrath (1851-3; 196.5 x 303.2 cm; Tate Britain, London)

The curators of this exhibition are keen to underline the connection between John Martin’s images of cataclysmic destruction and the grand-scale disaster movies of our later age. Indeed various film directors consciously modelled scenes on Martin’s paintings.

And as with the makers of disaster movies, one inevitably wonders about the motives of the artist who paints so many huge and terrible scenes with such apparent loving care. Martin, like a number of his contemporaries in the age before cinema and TV, gained great commercial success by charging an entrance fee to view his works outside the normal circuit of fine art venues. After his death, his last and most famous works, a triptych showing the destruction of the world, the final judgement, and the blissful existence in the Plains of Heaven, went on a twenty-year tour, including to the USA and Australia, and were seen by an estimated eight million people. Martin’s reputation consequently see-sawed between those (including himself) who viewed his work as high art, and others who condemned it as tawdry showmanship.

The Tate, incidentally, normally hangs the triptych so high on a wall that they sadly go unnoticed by many visitors. If for no other reason, this exhibition is worth the trip just to see these mighty productions at eye-level. Here we can stand before them and feel the force of the tumult as part of the world turns literally upside down, and see the terrible inky blackness of the abyss into which it is about to fall. They are certainly entertaining, and their delight in detail and romantic landscape offers a refreshing alternative to the reductivism of abstraction and conceptualism that supplanted them.

John Martin: The last judgement (c.1849-53; 196.8 x 325.8 cm; Tate Britain, London)

It remains unclear to what extent Martin himself believed in the reality of the judgement he was painting. He came from a staunchly Protestant home, and ostentatiously positioned some Roman Catholic clerics along with the whore of Babylon on the wrong side of Last Judgement. He was possibly linked to millenarian groups whose views overlapped with William Blake’s vision of the heavenly Jerusalem descending on rural England. But if Martin himself was personally convinced of the reality of destruction to be visited upon the world, his responses were commendably free from either nihilism or complacency. For when he was not painting, he was expending great and unrewarded time, energy and expense trying to improve the lot of his fellow man by devising schemes to improve London’s sewerage and provide employment for many.

Martin strikes a chord with our age because he, like us, lived in an age of lively conviction about the real possibility of global catastrophe. Martin was a friend of the French palaeontologist Cuvier, one of the first to deduce from the newly unearthed bones of dinosaurs that the earth had in the past been struck at least one devastating catastrophe, leading to extinction of many species. This early catastrophism was later replaced among scientists by a dogmatic insistence on uniformitarianism, but mainstream opinion is now firmly back with a belief in large-scale catastrophes such as the meteor strike that supposedly took out the dinosaurs.

There is a difference, however, between Martin’s paintings and disaster movies, and that lies in the moral background to the catastrophe. In films where catastrophe cannot be directly attributed to the evil work of aliens, it is usually the result of force majeure – meterological events, tragic accidents, or generalised human causes such as pollution, global warming or nuclear war. Many of Martin’s images, however, manage to focus on the individual as well as the masses, and give a sense of purposeful and deserved judgement amidst the cataclysm.

Of course, what we see in a painting often reflects what we bring to it. So it is perfectly possible to view Martin’s works as simply glorying in purposeless destruction, and wilfully playing on our fears for commercial gain. And certainly some of his paintings, such as the eruption of Vesuvius, focus on destruction alone. However, for those with the eyes of faith, others of his images, such as The Fall of Babylon and the late triptych, remind us that the universe is still governed by its Creator, whose acts of judgement are neither random nor purposeless.

John Martin, for all that he may have been a showman seeking to profit from his dramatic depiction of disaster, seems at least to give us a better form of the apocalypse: divine punishment for human sin, with at least some of the horror that the Bible warns us to expect in the real thing; and a new-made world, complete with heavenly Jerusalem set within a ‘green and pleasant land’, which really does look very desirable.


John Martin: The great plains of heaven (1851-3; 198.8 x 306.7 cm; Tate Britain, London)

This review was first published in Third Way (November 2011)

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