For those of you who are unable to attend this show (though, if you knew what you were missing, you would never forgive yourselves), the Tate has published an excellent catalogue
of the exhibition, which constitutes the finest book ever assembled about John Martin, featurign a wealth of information about the artist and a more generous supply of high-quality reproductions of his works than in any prior volume.
It includes a discussion of the painter's subsequent influence on Romantic thought. For example, in an account of his impressions of Martin's works, H.P. Lovecraft, the greatest horror writer of the 20th century, describes how he
was enthralled by the darkly thunderous, apocalyptically majestic, and cataclysmically unearthly power of one who, to me, seemed to hold the essence of cosmic mystery. He was, in a sense, a Milton among painters. Night; great desolate pillared halls; unholy abysses & blasphemous torrents; terraced titan cities in far, half-celestial backgrounds whereon shines the light of no familiar sky of men's knowing; shrieking mortal hordes borne downward over vast wastes and down cyclopean gulfs . . . (Letter, 1928)
Before the year comes to a close, we wish to share an image of one more apocalyptic masterpiece by Martin which is part of the Tate Gallery exhibition, The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah
(1852), from the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
The painting vividly illustrates the source passage in Genesis, a vision of earthly ruin which prefigures Armageddon itself:
Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven; And he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground.
The offending cities are engulfed in a swirling vortex of destruction, a tornado of fire, its eye blazing with such searingly intense, yellow heat that one would think that the cities had been blasted into the sun. Above the conflagration, the sky is a pitch black, out of which strikes one jagged lightning bolt, as if it were a tear in the very fabric of existence.
A close-up of a section of the painting reveals the myriad details that one discovers when one views Martin's canvasses in real life, their colossal size allowing for intricate particulars as well as crushing the viewer via the overall impact of their unimaginable scale. The entire city of once-noble architecture is collapsing into a mountain of rubble, while in the background, the ground seems to have opened up into a lake of fire, a vast cauldron of boiling lava which will melt the architectural fragments, leaving no trace of the cities' existence. The most mysterious element is the white figure in the foreground. It could represent Lot's wife, turned to a pillar of salt for disobeying God's commandment and looking back upon the devastation. Yet it also suggests a mysterious, hooded magus, who, by raising his arm, is calling forth the destruction, orchestrating the ruin. Observe that the lightning seems to be striking directly towards this figure's position, as if obeying the spellcaster's summons.
A different section reveals Lot and his family fleeing the devastation. The figures are somewhat larger than is usually the case in Martin's apocalyptic masterpieces, with one woman in particular appearing uncommonly curvaceous and buxom--a lone example of plus-size beauty in a painter known for depicting the Sublime.
There will never again be an art exhibition like John Martin: Apocalypse. We earnestly urge every reader to take whatever measures are necessary to partake of this once-in-a-lifetime event and to experience the thrilling works of the greatest Romantic artist the world has ever known.
- Click here to obtain exhibition catalogue