John Martin Apocalypse
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.