Tate Britain

“Truly I say to you, it will be more endurable … on Judgement Day than for that city.”

The Bible (Matthew 10:15)

The exhibition contains a wealth of artwork by Martin; paintings, prints and even furniture; from his humble beginnings as a landscape watercolour painter to his eventual blockbuster status as a fully-fledged artist, whose unique obsession with biblical catastrophes and disasters have since left their inspiration on many practitioners today. Martin began his artistic training as a hobby, depicting the English countryside as heavenly and subtle; presenting a possible John Constable influence; displaying an interest in the natural order of the ecosystems from a botanist point-of-view, before arriving with his own interpretations of divine passages, prophesied by the King James Bible. A religious upbringing would later impact his perception of the world, as sinners and humanists currently inhabited it, and he projected its inhabitation by saints and beings of godlike faith.

This path to painting as preaching led to the meticulous and customary style that was Martin’s trademark, showing a meticulous attention to detail within his paintings’ figures, foliage, rock formations, sky and more and none more extravagance in subject matter and painting can be found in the exhibition than in Belshazzar’s Feast 1820. Along this path to visualising a potential apocalypse and its aftermath of a more perfect civilisation of peoples, Martin also dabbled in some rather unnecessary engineering, designing plans dealing with the metropolitan water supply, sewage, and railroad systems which would go unchecked. Prophecy and anticipation therefore become important words to understanding Martin’s thought processes as either a devout Evangelical or a scientific engineer. The originals are exhibited alongside his (thankful) temporary transition into printmaking (namely mezzotints and engravings), which contrast the foreseen imagery of battles between heaven and earth, and heaven and hell as chaotic and haunting. The same disturbing apocalyptic vision can be found in works such as Pandemonium 1841, which are decorated with Gothic frames Martin designed himself.

After surviving the verge of bankruptcy, Martin recovered his estate after walking through the valley of death and was later to explore territory unheard of at the time, consisting of expressive brushstrokes, a reduced attention to detail and portraits. But this last act of his career would not be achieved before creating his luscious masterpiece: the Last Judgement triptych, which is majestically enunciated by a light and sound performance by Uninvited Guests & Fuel in collaboration with Lewis Gibson and Stephen Gray. Artist Glenn Brown’s The Tragic Conversion of Salvador Dali (After John Martin) (1998) is a loving tribute to Martin’s legacy of art that was indistinguishable between public spectacle and high culture, presented elegantly in the exhibition’s final room.

With an eventful Summer of false doomsday predictions and the much hyped anticipation of an apocalypse in 2012 as foretold by the Mayans, the timing for a major retrospective of John Martin (1789-1854) could not be anymore phenomenal.