Today is the third day that the exhibition’s been open (I’d tried to put this blog up yesterday, hence the title, but the technology beat me) -  fantastic to see people in the galleries.

John Martin, 'The Plains of Heaven' 1851-3

John Martin
The Plains of Heaven 1851-3
Oil on canvas
support: 1988 x 3067 mm frame: 2415 x 3485 x 175 mm
Bequeathed by Charlotte Frank in memory of her husband Robert Frank 1974

View the main page for this artwork

So why John Martin now?

Though he was hugely popular in his own day, he was scorned by the art establishment and was subject to really hostile criticism from the newspapers and magazines of his day (much more inflammatory and vicious than anything you read today).  And for a long time his art was neglected or even dismissed - for lots of critics in the twentieth century he seemed to represent the worst of Victorian bad taste – garish, bombastic, obvious and shallow (all the things I like in art, but maybe that’s just me…).  It seemed like there were more sophisticated, difficult complex artists from the time – Turner pre-eminently – who simply deserved more attention.

John Martin’s reputation only began to revive in the mid-twentieth century. There have been big John Martin shows before, in Newcastle in 1951 and the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1953, in Newcastle again in 1970 and in a commercial gallery in London in 1974.  There have been exhibitions of his prints, in America, Spain, and in York, over the last twenty years.  But there hasn’t been a comprehensive exhibition of paintings, prints and watercolours for over thirty years. There have been loads of new discoveries, really major paintings like The Fall of Babylon and Sadak which only came to light in the 1980s. A lovely late watercolour of Ilfracombe came to light only in the last days of planning the show (too late to include in the catalogue), just because the owner had read about the exhibition in the paper in wrote in to us.

But it’s interesting to think about what else has changed, which makes this a good time to be looking at John Martin’s art with fresh eyes. How art historians and historians think about the nineteenth century has changed a lot: there is much more emphasis now on how art was consumed, about the influence of exhibition spaces and popular spectacles, the marketplace and the role of critics, and that helps us understand Martin’s art much better perhaps. The old art histories which argued for the rise of a rarefied ‘Romantic’ art in the early nineteenth century have been displaced a bit, and maybe we are less fixed about our ideas of aesthetic quality? So maybe we’re not so set that Turner is so much better that Martin, or that Martin’s style is too bombastic, loud, cheap, or that the fact that his art was so popular means it just can’t be any good.

So does all this mean that we’re in a better position now to really appreciate his art? I guess we’ll find out …

John Martin Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still 1816

John Martin
Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still 1816

National Gallery of Art, Washington

Comments

Mark Dawes

For many years I have admired the works of John Martin and am thrilled that the Tate has decided to exhibit a collection of his works in such a way.

He may not be everybody's cup of tea, but those who truly appreciate his work, those that strive for something darker and away from the norm, will love this.

I for one cannot wait to go!

Amelia Marriette

John Martin is the only artist I know of that actually manages to capture 'sound' in his paintings: his use of the vortex suggests the sound of a tornado. It also conveys spontaneous chaos. Overall my favourite aspect of his work is that he seems to be perhaps (?) the first artist to give the landscape more weight and importance than man. This is a profound movement towards the decentralising of man: a Copernican moment in art. Amelia Marriette, Exhibitions and Collections Curator, Torre Abbey, Torquay (lender).

Sally Mould

John Martin's paintings have always fascinated me, particularly their vast 3D scale, the volume of the sky that the clouds fill and make visible, landscapes expanded by the distant tiny figures therein, like a panorama squashed into a small canvas. When I've searched for John Martin paintings (in the Tate and NG) they've generally been hard to find recently, almost as if they were embarrasingly dated and in bad taste. So I look forward to seeing this show and wonder how it will be received.

Bob Eggleton

I just got the exhibition book here in the US. Martin's work is wonderful and fantastic. In fact I am so excited to see this, we are planning a quick trip over in Dec perhaps to see it. A retrospect like this is long overdue!!! It looks terrific and thanks for curating this!!!!

Irith Sassoon

I think that the figures in Martin's work are still central to his chaos and/or powerful landscape. Therefore the details in the figures and the appearance in almost all pieces. This is what is challenging in absorbing his work, the relationship between the figures and the landscape's impact. Furthermore, there is a difference between the early work and the later one where the colours were of less depth and somehow the impact of the landscape is weakened. The chaos seems to disappear as well and with it the challenge in watching that which unfold on the canvas.

rimind

I found this exhibition quite in lighting in the sense, futuristic, the merging of visual effects fused in with the past, clever and smart way of drawing the viewer into the piece, a cinematic approach the paintings them self's, just beautiful. I hope to see more like this! Well done Tate