Tate has taken a leaf out of John Martin's oversize book and has pulled out all the stops to create the largest display of the artist's work to be seen in public since the early 19th century.
John Martin, The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, 1852
Courtesy Laing Gallery
It continues the recent move in the art community to rehabilitate the artist's legacy " to reassess these stunning apocalyptic canvases after a century and a half of water has passed under the bridges of his beloved Thames.In addition to the blockbuster oil paintings, the exhibition includes Martin's mezzotint illustrations for The Bible and Milton's Paradise Lost, alongside landscape watercolours and his illustrations of dinosaurs and various engineering projects.
Standing a massive 8 feet by 5 feet, Belshazzar's Feast is the work that brought the artist to fame when it was exhibited in 1821. The panoramic image moves from naturalistic figures in the foreground " gorgeously swathed in reds and golds " to a fantasy skyscape of almost Impressionist abstraction, the hazy light of heaven framing the bright, white lightning flash. Brighter even than this is the glowing supernatural light emanating from the writing on the wall, away from which the grandees of the Babylonian court hide their faces.After Martin's death, The Great Day of His Wrath (1851"3) was taken round the world, thrilling audiences from New York to Sydney with its painstaking detail and characteristically epic scale.In The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, once again, Martin's passion is all for the destruction. While his white-clad figures are treated rather cursorily, the painter's energy seems reserved for the fiery teeth of the blaze that destroys the city.
What the critics say
John Martin: Apocalypse, the most extensive exhibition of the painter's work since his death in 1854, is an opportunity to see what all the fuss was about. On this evidence, his genius is open to question but he was certainly a thunderously entertaining painter of death, destruction and doom.
This is a rich, informative and occasionally hair-raising show. The big canvases, and the special son et lumière presentation for the "Last Judgement" triptych, are powerful experiences, but there are quieter pleasures too. Some of the landscape watercolours are delightful and the prints are among the most brilliant engravings ever produced in England.
Martin's work runs a fine line between drama and melodrama, each painting delivering its fresh horror with spectacular force. The show opens with a raving old whitebeard about to fling himself from a crag miles above a seething torrent " don't do it! " and never lets up from one cliffhanger to the next. It is both awesome and riotously awful.