Monday, 28 March 2011

John Martin: Heaven and Hell

The Laing Art Gallery, New Bridge Street, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, NE1 8A

Until 5 June 2011.  Monday - Saturday 10 am – 5pm; Sunday 2pm – 5pm.  Closed 29 April 2011.  Entry is free.

Review by Chris Went:
In 1829, describing the founding of Glass Town, Charlotte Brontë wrote: ‘How long has it taken to rear the Grand Hall where we now are?  Have not those marble pillars and that solemn dome been built by supernatural power?  If you view the city from this Gothic window and see the beams of the morn gilding the battlements of the mighty towers, and the pillars of the splendid palaces which have been reared in a few months, can you doubt that magic has been used in their construction?’  If the 13-year-old Charlotte could have seen the original painting of ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’, a mezzotint of which surely influenced her first vision of Glass Town, she might have imagined that the artist too had worked under the influence of magic.

There is something distinctly strange, surreal, about Martin’s work, something – one is tempted to believe -  precognitive and uncannily knowing.  The scale of his representations of Belshazzar’s palace, of Nineveh and Pandemonium reminds one of the vastness of the computer generated cities of “Star Wars”, or the similarly devised landscapes of “The Lord of the Rings”.  To look at the depiction of the destruction of the earth in his ‘Last Judgement’ is to be reminded painfully of the recent disaster which struck Japan.  Not for nothing was that event described over and over as being of biblical proportions, and biblical proportions are what John Martin produced so successfully.

 The exhibition occupies the five galleries which make up the whole of the first floor of the gallery and as such, is the largest the Laing has ever mounted.  Each room’s display is themed to tell a part of  Martin’s story from his birth in 1789 at East Landends near Haydon Bridge in Northumberland, to his death on the Isle of Man in 1854 using clear wall-mounted text boards which, cleverly sited, are accessible without being intrusive.  Indeed, both the staging and the lighting of the exhibition are superb: nothing is allowed to detract from the works.  The atmosphere is comfortable, the staff friendly and helpful, and there are plenty of places to sit down.

It is obvious that Martin always intended his art to be commercial. Whilst working as a painter on ceramics he produced small landscapes, watercolours of classical subjects and illustrations for prints, all of which were designed to sell.  Some of his earliest oils seem somewhat flat and almost amateurish: two small paintings of Kensington Gardens, both done in 1815, do not prepare one for the awesome scale and drama of the Welsh mountain landscape of ‘The Bard’ (1817).  Again and again he painted cities which appear almost organic: growing out of crags and peaks apparently intended not merely to impress but to overawe, and when Martin illustrates destruction, be it Sodom and Gomorrah, Nineveh or the earth itself, he does so with all the visual tropes of a modern disaster movie.

Although Martin was never beloved of the art Establishment, he enjoyed a long period of commercial success largely through the production of mezzotint prints of his most popular works.  As well as ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ the Brontës owned ‘Joshua Commands the Sun to Stand Still’ and ‘The Deluge’.  They may also have had a copy of ‘St Paul Preaching at Athens’ all of which feature in the exhibition, as does ‘The Last Man’ which Charlotte saw on her visit to London in 1850, describing it in a letter to her father as “a grand, wonderful picture”.  She might have added that it provokes a strong sense of desolate misery.  Many of Martin’s prints were used in popular annuals of the time, some of which the Brontës owned, and it was common for publications such as Blackwood’s Magazine to analyse popular works in great detail.  In July, 1828 Blackwood’s published a detailed description and critique of Martin’s ‘The Fall of Nineveh’ which is believed to have influenced Charlotte’s poem ‘The Trumpet Hath Sounded’  (December, 1831).

It is easy to imagine, whilst viewing the main part of the exhibition, that the young Brontës must have wished for coloured reproductions of Martin’s works.  However, the display of mezzotints in the Barbour Gallery allows a completely different view of Martin’s best-known pictures.  While the prints lack the drama of colour, this is more than compensated for in sharpness of line and detail.  The monumental scale of the buildings, the ominous quality, the turbulence of celestial phenomena are depicted with a startling clarity. There is a sinister eeriness about the prints which is not present in the paintings.  In short, the mezzotints are far more frightening than the coloured works.

The final section of the exhibition, The End of All Things, shows Martin’s last great work: the three enormous paintings entitled ‘The Great Day of His Wrath’; ‘The Last Judgement’ and ‘The Plains of Heaven’, all painted between 1851 and 1853. Each one is disturbing, either obviously or subtly.  One expects to be disturbed by scenes of cataclysmic annihilation; one does not expect to find a representation of heavenly bliss unsettling.  It may have been entirely unintended, but in the waterside rocks of paradise one seemed to see the ghosts of those monumental, monstrous palaces and colonnades which one had just seen swept away at the last judgement.
The Laing Art Gallery is staging John Martin: Heaven and Hell as part of ‘The Great British Art Debate’, a partnership project between Tate Britain, Tyne and Wear Archives & Museums, Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service and Museums Sheffield.  The Great British Art Debate is a series of events and exhibitions bringing art from national collections to the regions.  It aims to encourage the public to join in a debate about what British art has to say about identity and Britishness today. The exhibition will also be staged at the Millennium Galleries, Sheffield from 22 June to 4 September, and at Tate Britain, London from 21 September to 15 January, 2012.

The Laing has a pleasant cafe offering a good range of snacks and meals at reasonable prices.  There is also a shop selling postcards, prints, gifts and books.  In stock is “John Martin Apocalypse Now” by Barbara C. Morden which tells Martin’s story, exploring the nature of his art with lavish illustrations.  It is published by Northumbria Press at £30.00.

Below, The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah:


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