John Martin. Apocalypse.

London, Tate Britain, from 21 September 2011 to 15 January 2012.

"The public wants to be treated like a woman, to whom you can only say what she likes to hear", Goethe said ; John Martin applied the same aphorism to his painting, conceiving catastrophic scenarios, of which the most spectacular are taken from the Bible. His canvases were very popular and - thus ? - drew the ire of art critics who rebuked him for his grandiloquence and repetition, the rather systematic search for the sensational.
The Tate Britian is currently offering an exhibition on this successful artist, examining all of the aspects of his work - paintings, mezzotints, watercolors - in an essentially chronological visit. The reproductions in the catalogue, unfortunately, are too small or else flow over into the following page and are interrupted by the binding.

1. John Martin (1789-1854)
The Bard, 1817
Oil on Canvas - 215.5 x 157 cm
Newcastle upon Tyne, Laing Art Gallery
Photo : Laing Art Gallery

2. John Martin (1789-1854)
Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion, 1812
Oil on Canvas - 183.2 x 131.1 cm
Saint-Louis, Art Museum
Photo : Saint-Louis Art Museum

As the plate ornated with Figures in a Mountain Landscape with a Classic City reminds us, the artist began his career alongside Charles Muss, during his first stay in London, in a studio for painting on glass and ceramics. He exhibited his first canvases at the Royal Academy in London in 1812 where they were an immediate sensation, quickly turning him into the new painter of the sublime. As we can see, the formula was rather effective : a reduced palette, minuscule figures lost in steep landscapes. For instance, The Bard illustrates Thomas Gray’s poem of 1757 (ill. 1) and Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion sets the stage, in a blood red environment, for a James Ridley hero, from the Tales of the Genii in 1764 (ill. 2).

3. John Martin (1789-1854)
Clytie, 1814
Oil on Canvas - 62 x 92.7 cm
Newcastle upon Tyne, Laing Art Gallery
Photo : Laing Art Gallery

4. John Martin (1789-1854)
Cadmus and the Dragon, 1813
Oil on Canvas - 63.2 x 91.4 cm
Oberlin, Allen Memorial Art Museum

After the literary heros, come the mythological figures, mostly from the Metamorphoses - Clytie (ill. 3), Pan and Syrinx, Alpheus and Arethusa...- figurines lost in a clear and verdant environment, amid both mountains and lakes. The place where Cadmus and the Dragon meet head-on is even more savage (ill. 4) ; the artist seems to find inspiration in Salvator Rosa, a figure of the sublime and to whom we owe, for example, a Landscape with Hermits (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool).
The paintings that were to establish Martin’s reputation were conceived between 1816 and 1820 ; a master of the spectacular, his works were a good gauge of the public’s taste, according to the most biting sarcasm. Besides the obvious influence of Turner’s landscapes, his canvases rivaled popular sources of entertainment, magic lantern shows or panoramas. Notably, he was familiar with the famous panoramic and mechanical performance which Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg presented in 1781, entitled Eidophusikon (spectacle of nature). His paintings were so popular that Martin produced replicas of his works, in smaller formats, regularly exhibited next to the first version. Many of his canvases evoke far away ethereal regions where one glimpses a mountainous or architectural mass under a stormy sky.

5. John Martin (1789-1854)
Belshazzar’s Feast, 1820
Oil on Canvas - 80 x 120.7 cm
New Haven, Yale Center for British Art
Photo : Yale Center for British Art

He also illustrated biblical subjects, for example The Fall of Babylon (1819) and Belshazzar’s Feast (ill. 5), this time not in tortured landscapes but in vast architectural spaces which account for the originality of his painting. Balthazar or Belshazzar was the last king of the neo-Babylonian empire ; as recounted in the book of Daniel, he dared to drink wine from the gold vases taken from the temple in Jerusalem. A hand then appeared and wrote a message on the wall of the royal palace which no one could decipher. Finally, Daniel was called to help and explained that the inscription "counted, weighed and divided" meant that God had counted the king’s reign and ended it, the king had been weighed in a basket and found of little import, and his kingdom would be divided and given to the Medians and the Persians.
We also tremble before The Destruction of Pompei and Herculaneum, pyrotechnic prowess, a kind of lay punishment, which describes a natural disaster rather than divine vengeance (ill. 6). The painting was commissioned by the Marquise of Buckingham, which was unusual since John Martin preferred to work independently. In the foreground, we see Pliny the Elder in red falling into the arms of his friend Pomponianus. The power of the scene does not come from the detailed description of the gestures and the expressions on the faces of the horrified figures, but from the crackling sky and the contrasting shades of the lights. Despite the dramatization, the painter gives us a faithful picture of the two cities with some recognizable monuments in the distance. Unfortunately, the canvas was seriously damaged and some of the areas had to be treated.

6. John Martin (1789-1854)
The Destruction of Pompei and Herculaneum, 1822
Oil on Canvas - 161.6 x 253 cm
Londres, Tate Britain
Photo : Tate Britain

7. John Martin (1789-1854)
Creation of Light, 1824
Mezzotint - 25.4 x 35.3 cm
Michael J. Campbell

A third room features the black manner, or mezzotint, which John Martin developed assidously between 1824 and 1837, due to a lucrative commission to illustrate John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost (ill. 7). Acclaimed for their technical inventivity and their poetic force, these engravings earned him so much money and success that he set up his own production business of mezzotints which were sold around the world and helped make his painting known on the continent.

8. John Martin (1789-1854)
Triptych, The Last Judgement, c.1849-1853
Oil on Canvas - 196.8 x 325.8 cm
Londres, Tate Britain
Photo : Tate Britain

The period between 1835 and 1845 was a difficult one, sales of engravings fell and Martin did not produce many new paintings for the market. He spent his time and energy on a project for renewing the water supply system for London. This scheme was never carried out but some of the plans are displayed in the exhibition here, showing that the artist was also an engineer.

The Eve of the Deluge (commissioned by Prince Albert) and The Assuaging of the Waters (commissioned by the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland) mark the return of John Martin to painting ; they were exhibited in 1840 at the Royal Academy and, according to William Makepeace Thackeray, were considered strange and flashy by the critics, but very popular with the general public. The high point of his work - as well as in the Bible - the triptych of the Last Judgement is the artist’s masterpiece (ill. 8 to 10). After he died, the three paintings traveled around the United Kingdom before going on display in New York and then as far away as Australia in 1878-1879 ; it is said they were seen by over eight million people around the world.

9. John Martin (1789-1854)
Triptych, The Great Day of His Wrath, 1851-1853
Oil on Canvas - 196.5 x 303.2 cm
Londres, Tate Britain
Photo : Tate Britain

10. John Martin (1789-1854)
Triptych, The Plains of Heaven, 1851-1853
Oil on Canvas - 198.8 x 306.7 cm
Londres, Tate Britain
Photo : Tate Britain

The exhibition accompanies John Martin’s works with readings and light effects which do not seem really indispensable but which nevertheless evoke the way in which they were exhibited during the national and international tour. Afterwards, they were placed in storage, a reminder of bad Victorian taste and a religious sincerity which went against the grain of today’s cultural elite. They were brought back and reassembled at the Tate Gallery in 1974.

11. John Martin (1789-1854)
Richmond Park, 1850
Watercolour on Paper - 29.6 x 59.4 cm
Londres, Victoria and Albert Museum
Photo : Victoria and Albert Museum

The visit ends with the last canvases, particularly, the artist’s watercolors, revealed after his death during an auction ; an unknown facet of his work. The banks of the Thames or Richmond Park (ill. 11) depict tourist spots ; others repeat the compositions in paintings or offer versions of literary or biblical themes. John Martin wanted his art to be acknowledged by as many people as possible but also by the most demanding. Alas, there is often a price to pay for success, and popularity is not always synonymous of critical acclaim by one’s peers.

Curator : Martin Myrone

Under the guidance of Martin Myrone, John Martin. Apocalypse, 2011, Tate Britain, 240 p., 19.99£. ISBN : 9781854378897.

Visitor information : Tate Britain, Millbank, London. Tel : +44 (0)20 7887 8888. Open every day from 10 am to 6 pm, until 10 pm on Fridays. Rates : 12.70£ (reduced : 10.90£).

Version française

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges, mardi 13 décembre 2011

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