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.
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 …