I managed to catch the John Martin exhibition at Tate Britain JUST IN TIME. Not because the whole world is going to end in an apocalyptic inferno, swallowing us sinners once and for all, but because the exhibition finishes in a matter of days. And thank goodness I did make it. I bloody love his drama.
I was reading about how his paintings have inspired the atmospheres, set designs and landscapes of films such as Ben Hur, Blade Runner, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. (Interesting that Martin is one of my mother's favourite artists in all the world, and not my father's...) I would actually go so far as to say that gazing at The Last Judgement triptych is just as engrossing and awesome as watching the original Star Wars trilogy back-to-back. There, I said it.
It was very odd to see this blockbuster exhibition taking in the big bucks down here in London. Martin was born just along the road from me in a small town in Northumberland, and much of the vast, craggy, damned apocalyptic vistas of his paintings come from my homeland.
[As a side note, when a very young man in Newcastle, Martin was placed under an Italian artist who went by the brilliant name Boniface Musso. As another side note, he also had what the exhibition described as 'tragically insane' brother named Jonathan who set fire to York Minster when in a fit of madness. It was a bit of a scandal...]
I noticed as I hugged the walls that the majority of paintings and etchings were on loan from archives in Newcastle and the Laing Art Gallery. We used to go on outings to this little art gallery all the time as children; it was a frequent treat. I remember seeing The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in those kindly surroundings for the first time when very small, so the painting seemed even more monstrous. Not being a good Sunday school scholar, I first experienced tales like Lot's wife being turned into a pillar of salt as she dared to look back at the burning ruins through his compositions. I love that the paintings have such ambitious and ridiculous titles as Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon. But there is a sense of the ridiculous to all these enormous canvases. Biblical, Miltonic, epic in scale and colour and narrative. The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum is so, so red, brooding with ash clouds and glowing with hot lava, and Balthazar's Feast is probably the most lavishly over-the-top painting in existence.
The Last Judgement triptych hilariously went on a money-making tour from 1854 (Martin's death) until 1870. The paintings were sensationally put on show in galleries, music halls, and commercial and civic spaces, with accompanying lectures, evening viewings by gaslight, and breathless advertising campaigns. They even travelled to New York and Australia.
The Tate attempted to emulate the spirit of these tours by creating their own atmospheric light show of the triptych. In a dark showroom the audience stared as spotlights, blurrings, and lightning bolts hit the paintings, illuminating figures such as the whore of Babylon. A deluge of voices told the terrible tales and described the vivid scenes, all resonating from different directions and seemingly thickening the paint and stirring it up with their words...lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became as blood/And even the stars of heaven fell into the earth...For the great day of his wrath has come; and who shall be able to stand? (Revelation 6:12, 13, 17). Just a gentle accompaniment to a little picture we all know by the name of The Great Day of His Wrath. Not for the fainthearted. It will one day hang on my bedroom wall in the crimson-swathed castle I will own and reign over satanically. The castle will of course be a castle in Northumberland. And it will not fall to ruin like all of those palaces, cities and structures in Martin's works. It will be red-hot and strengthened with canvas and oil and the odd Biblical quote to keep it in check.