Everyone loves a good Apocalypse and everyone seems to love John Martin’s work. I certainly did.
John Martin was hugely popular in the 19th Century and toured the world with his spectacular paintings of the end of the world and scenes from the bible of God smiting the shit out of everything. Obviously most of the paintings come from the Old Testament when God was going through his ‘angry phase’ and regularly destroyed cities and drowned the whole planet. Fortunately he chilled out a bit after that and started banging on about being meek and merciful as if all the mass destruction had never even happened.
Martin’s work focuses on these more exciting bits of the bible along with other scenes such as debauched feasts and epic battles. Man, the bible went downhill in the second half (apart from the epic destructive end scenes, but it was too little too late to save the book in my opinion).
At the time, plebeian Victorians flocked in their thousands to see the huge and exciting pieces of work. They were the blockbuster cinema equivalent of the time (it was boring back then, hence all the warfare and Empire building). Of course the intelligensia of the day slagged off Martin’s work as being distasteful and dubbed him the ‘people’s painter’. Intellectuals hate stuff that gets too popular and John Martin was the Michael Bay of his time. The main difference is that Martin is now seen as being ahead of his time, whereas I suspect Bay won’t be.
John Martin: Apocalypse
is well worth seeing. I loved it. There’s an added bonus near the end where a load of arty actors have done a voice over for a sort of mock up of the sensationalism that surrounded his tours. This consists of a triptych of pictures (three paintings in case you’re an oik) with lights and cool effects. The left picture is of heaven and has cherubs lolling around fatly and pointlessly. The centre has Jesus being judgemental and condemning half the population to eternal torture. The painting on the right is of hell and collapse and general coolness. This is accompanied by the actors recreating the sort of cinematic voice-over sensationalism that was used to publicise his work. ‘SEE THE DAMNED CONDEMNED TO THE FIERY PITS OF HELL’ sort of thing. It was brilliant.
As I said, I loved it and so did everyone I was with. It’s on at Tate Britain until mid-January, so you have plenty of time.
Bizarrely, here’s a trailer: