Heaven and Hell: John Martin, Laing Gallery, Newcastle
Thursday 10 March 2011
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.
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