John Martin at Tate Britain

[first published 5 Jan]

It must be said that I’m not the world’s most astute art critic, and so I visited said exhibition with one of those art historian types. Always worth knowing someone who knows something about the subject to hand. It also helps if they’re cute, but that’s another story …
It was also the first time I’d dared venture onto … gasp! … public transport since [the operation]. All is progressing well, thank you … though I woke up in quite considerable pain at 2am … but that’s by the by.
Back to art. Martin was an odd painter, who produced big, fuck-off chocolate-box scenes which wouldn’t have looked out of place amongst the American sublime of the Hudson river school, into which he rolled great Biblical and Miltonic themes and stories. This is a really strange juxtaposition, being as the sublime is (very loosely) all about the feeling of awe in the face of the overwhelming power of nature (Caspar David Friedrich and Frederic Church, for example), and yet Martin’s choice of Biblical subject-matter turns the sublime into something else.
The usual criticisms obtain – the little cards next to the paintings were poor … one read (I paraphrase) ‘The location of the scene hasn’t been identified. It may have been just outside London’. Well, gee … thanks. Pointless mentions of stippling in such a way as to patronise those who understand it and leave those who don’t none the wiser. Just poorly thought out. Unimaginative. Badly researched, if researched they were. Barely anything from the artist, which is odd considering he wrote an autobiography. My favourite was ‘John Martin wasn’t destined to become an artist’. Oh, but he was, surely? Or does the writer know something about destiny the rest of us have ignored?
There was no narrative – the small section on his engineering works was too slight to give us insight, the description of his prints as being a bit tattily presented ‘which must surely have put off subscribers’ laughable. I know this isn’t an academic paper, but please …
The paintings themselves were badly lit. Now, this is only guesswork, but the garish colours he used surely looked rather different in Victorian gaslight? Why not show them in conditions approximating their original, apparently hugely popular, showcases?
The piece de resistance was a grand, portentious triptych on the last judgement. Displayed as if in a theatre, the voice-overs boomed, the lighting was … hang on, it looks like the painting’s alive … the volcano’s billowing … the damned and saved are illuminated … (oh, and whoever did the script has very, very poor theological chops … or maybe it was Martin … certainly I recognised Revelation … ‘that was intense’, said one victim (we were told we were all going to be judged … a bit harsh, surely?) …
This was practically a cinema show … why? Was this what his shows were like? Somebody tell me! You know what, I settled for a pint of Pale Ale at the Queen’s Arms, Pimlico instead. Yum. Chocolate-box fire and brimstone vs beer. Beer wins.

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