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Doom, hell and destruction visit museum

The Tate Museum in London currently spotlights hell, destruction, anguish and Armageddon. These events are portrayed through the works of John Martin, as famous for his vast paintings as his religious fervor and prophetically inclined musings. The Victorian-era painter enjoyed public recognition and notoriety on a scale our shock-seeking artists can only dream of, coupled with fierce criticism and eventual obscurity.

Milling crowds thronged Martin’s works, which were so popular during his lifetime (1789-1854) that normal galleries couldn’t contain them. His final paintings, “The Last Judgment,” were viewed by more than 2 million paying guests in England before being sent abroad. Martin exhibited in commercial spots and large public spaces throughout Britain with so much enthusiasm that guards were called in for the crowds. The draw for upper-class thrill seekers and hordes of working class admirers was shared religious interests and entertainment.

“The Great Day of His Wrath,” 1851-53, John Martin

The effects on Martin’s audience in the 19th century were remarkable. In an era predating film and photography, Martin’s work is similar in overall sensation to a wide, action-packed film – think “War and Peace” or “Cleopatra.” Start with the sheer size alone; some of his works measure up to 10×13 feet. The epic biblical scenes he composed convey varied movements and turbulent events. This requires a continuous gaze across the painting, while translating the action and plausible outcome for its subjects, much like future films to come.

And filmmakers, such as Cecil de Mille and George Lucas, were inspired to inversely recreate in film the grandeur and sheer spectacle of his historic and biblical staging. Sci-fi writers, futurists and even video-game designers have acknowledged debts to Martin’s dizzying effects, lurid contrasts and strangely complex architectural arrangements. He is even more interesting while looking backward through the lens of technology, just as future fans would marvel over Leonardo and his helicopter.

“Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah,” John Martin (The Guardian)

Considered an eccentric in his time, Martin now seems ironically up to date because of his interests in public health, architecture, safety and the environment. Amongst his “mad’ schemes, Martin came up with a complete plan for clean water and sewage treatment in 1849 after a cholera epidemic killed 33,000. Eventually his plans were implemented, but by someone else at a later time.

Martin precedes modern artists in another area also, making mass prints (mezzotints) of his own work, which provided for most of his living. A few of his hundreds of prints, including book illustrations, show up at the Tate. Particularly noteworthy are his series for Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”

Conveying the horrors of hell required roiling oceans, flaming skies, menacing land forms and shrieking onlookers – melodrama refined to a high art form. Or at least millions in Britain, America and Australia felt so while Martin’s art traveled through their countries on exhibit in the 19th century. This gut-felt populism is exactly what the academics of the time disdained.

“Paradise Lost,” John Martin

Art critics, writers and the art establishment (Royal Academy of Art) were not exactly impressed with Martin’s work. Their comments were mean spirited and nasty, with poets particularly incensed for some reason. They fussed about all kinds of things. Tennyson characterized Martin’s paintings as “huge, queer and tawdry.” Samuel Coleridge called him “a poor creature” who couldn’t conceive of the “idea of the beautiful.” Sir Walter Scott fussed about his colors – an “absolute tyranny of scarlet” – while the Romantic rebel poets labeled his most renowned work, “Belshazzar’s Feast,” as “anti-monarchial.” Even then, political correctness was used as a weapon in the arts.

“Belshazzar’s Feast,” John Martin

Perhaps it was professional jealousy when Martin received the patronage of Prince Albert and other nobility around the globe, with one of his works, “The Eve of the Deluge,” in Kensington Palace. Or as some complained, Martin’s literalness and details left nothing to the imagination, generally considered a sign of poor art, but useful for illustration. But was that really the case in Martin’s paintings?

Martin made a concentrated effort to move people emotionally with his spectacular paintings, and it worked. His narrative canvases are so intense and multi-layered that Martin offered guides to explain them. Sounding spiritual and social alarms was intentional and something for which the painter never apologized or attempted to change. Martin even offered discounts to church groups and Sunday school classes. An art “rock star” and evangelist, he exposed a wider audience to art than had ever shown interest before. Clearly he was a public painter in every sense of the word.

Why the critics attacked Martin and whether they had good reason is openly discussed at the Tate, which does a great job of putting the artist’s life and work into perspective. Historical information such as biblical characters and verses are offered and put into context. The Tate attempts to recreate (with modern technology) the Victorian “light and sound show” with thunder and lightning, eerie glows and the like.

“Apocalypse” is part of a larger project, “The Great British Art Debate,” which promotes British art tradition and history as it leads up to the 2012 London Olympics. They explore larger questions surrounding the arts: Is art for the people or do artists define it? What is the place of critics? Who decides what is “good” or “bad” art? Is sensational, emotionally driven art better or worse because of it? The Tate retrospective of John Martin is the perfect artist to use for examining these questions.

This show has inspired some great writing and renewed debate about art in general. Along with that, two new books are published on Martin’s work and life. One of the Tate’s curators, Martin Myrone, just published a companion book, “John Martin: Apocalypse,” and academic Barbara Morden offered “John Martin: Apocalypse Now!” earlier this year.

After years of abuse and marginalization, John Martin is finally getting some respect from the critics. His Tate curators are giving him another chance to be judged in the public eye as “a figure who was fascinating and complex and produced some of the most spectacular pictures in the history of art, full stop.”

“John Martin: Apocalypse” is at the Tate museum in London from Sept. 21 to Jan. 15, 2012.