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John Martin

Nigel Halliday

Tate Britain
Until 15 January


The curators of this exhibition are keen to underline the connection between John Martin's images of cataclysmic destruction and the grand-scale disaster movies of our later age. Indeed various film directors consciously modelled scenes on Martin's paintings.

And as with the makers of disaster movies, one inevitably wonders about the motives of the artist who paints so many huge and terrible scenes with such apparent loving care. Martin, like a number of his contemporaries in the age before cinema and TV, made a lot of money charging an entrance fee to view his works outside the normal circuit of fine art venues. After his death, his last and most famous works, a triptych showing the destruction of the world, the final judgment, and the blissful existence in the Plains of Heaven, went on a 20-year tour, including to the USA and Australia, and were seen by an estimated eight million people.  Martin's reputation see-sawed between those (including himself) who viewed his work as high art, and others who condemned it as tawdry showmanship.

The Tate normally hangs the triptych so high that it sadly often goes unnoticed. It is worth the trip just to see these mighty productions at eye-level, feeling the force of the tumult as part of the world turns literally upside down, and seeing the terrible inky blackness of the abyss into which it is about to fall. They are certainly entertaining. Their delight in detail and romantic landscape offers a refreshing alternative to the reductivism of abstraction and conceptualism that supplanted them.

It is unclear how far Martin believed in the reality of the judgment he painted. He came from a staunchly Protestant home, and ostentatiously positioned some Catholic clerics with the whore of Babylon on the wrong side of the Last Judgment. He was perhaps linked to millenarian groups whose views overlapped with Blake's vision of the heavenly Jerusalem descending on rural England. But if Martin was convinced of the reality of coming destruction, his response was commendably free from both nihilism and complacency.  For when he was not painting, he expended time, energy and expense trying to improve the lot of others by devising schemes to improve London's sewerage and provide employment.

Martin strikes a chord with our age because his own believed in the real possibility of global catastrophe. His friend the French palaeontologist Cuvier was one of the first to deduce from dinosaur bones that the earth had in the past been struck at least one devastating catastrophe, leading to extinction of many species.

There is a difference between Martin's paintings and disaster movies, and that lies in the moral background to the catastrophe. In films where catastrophe is not the work of evil aliens, it is usually the result of force majeure - meterological events, tragic accidents, or generalised human causes such as pollution or nuclear war. Many of Martin's images, however, manage to focus on the individual as well as the masses, and give a sense of purposeful and deserved judgment amidst the cataclysm.  

Of course, what we see in a painting often reflects what we bring to it. So it is perfectly possible to view Martin's works as simply glorying in purposeless destruction, and wilfully playing on our fears for commercial gain. Certainly some of his paintings, such as The Eruption of Vesuvius, focus on destruction alone.  However, for those with the eyes of faith, others of his images, such as The Fall of Babylon and the late triptych, remind us that the universe is still governed by its Creator, whose acts of judgment are neither random nor purposeless.

Martin, while he may have been a showman seeking to profit from his dramatic depiction of disaster, seems  to give us a better form of the apocalypse: divine punishment for human sin, with some of the horror that the Bible warns us to expect; and a new-made world, with heavenly Jerusalem set within a 'green and pleasant land', which really does look very desirable.

Nigel Halliday