Heaven and Hell: John Martin, Laing Gallery, Newcastle

2.00

Had he not been born out of his time, Hollywood would have found some very good reasons to hire a special-effects man like the Victorian painter John Martin. He could certainly turn his hand to apocalyptic landscapes. You can easily imagine one of those tiny animated drones with their silly squeaky voices swooping up to the very pinnacles of one of his crags, and then rushing through a swag of boiling, ferruginous clouds.

If you have limited time, the best way of looking at this retrospective in Newcastle – it's the first time that this local man's work has been given much attention in 30 years – is to begin at the end, in a gallery which has across its entrance these half-chilling and half-exciting words: THE END OF THINGS. On the walls we then read a quote from the Book of Revelation, which helps to put us in the mood. It's all about the opening of the sixth seal, and the ensuing mighty earthquake. At which point the moon, ever on cue, turns the colour of blood. Gulp.

These are the last – and some of the largest – paintings that Martin ever made, and they date from the 1850s. They are a kind of summary of everything he wanted to achieve. The bigness. The brashness. The wowness. Martin was deeply engrossed by eschatology and apocalypse. Like Blake, he was a kind of feverish visionary who dreamt terrifying waking dreams, and then filled his canvases with them. They are great visual spectacles – and that's exactly what he wanted, we feel. He wanted to awe the crowds. He wanted to face them down. He wanted popular success. As with some of the paintings by members of the Hudson River School (who were almost his exact contemporaries), he was a fabricator of spectacle. He had the cast of mind of the tub-thumping, non-conformist local preacher.

But, in the end, wasn't he just a showman? Yes and no is the answer. There are some very good things about Martin – these apocalyptic landscapes, where the earth positively convulses, are like staring through the spy hole into a furnace full of liquid glass. His molten reds, his furious, roaring oranges make you inclined to narrow your eye in anticipation of damage. But when he combines all this topographical bravura with attempts to render the human and even the angelic form, his noisy talent falters badly. His figure drawing is terrible – at best, he creates something which looks like a weird combination of Beryl Cook and Hieronymus Bosch. He simply cannot manage small detail.

Look at all the faces in the very bad painting he made for Queen Victoria's coronation, which shows the ceremony at the Abbey. They are embarrassingly awful. And they sit side by side as comfortably as did Bob, Marilyn and Elvis on Peter Blake's Sgt Pepper's cover. No, Martin couldn't paint a face to save his own skin from the Last Judgment. His floaty angelic forms look sort of alright from a distance, but they don't bear much close scrutiny – they are too feebly generic to make any impact. Still, had he been available for hire, they would have snapped him up. And, oh my god, he would have gone running.

To 5 June (0191 232 7734)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future