Week #2 of John Martin: Apocalypse at Tate Britain. I’ve been enjoying reading through the comments which have been sent through - much fuller and more detailed comments than we often receive using the response cards in the gallery, I guess that’s one of the advantages of this medium?
There are a couple of themes which crop up quite a lot in the comments - about John Martin’s legacy and influence, and about the ‘son et lumiere’ show in the exhibition. I’d like to offer some thoughts and questions, starting with the light show. (I’m new to this social media lark, and I may go on a bit, so bear with me…) Those of you who have been to the exhibition will have seen that room 5 features the three ‘Last Judgement’ paintings, created by Martin at the very end of his life and now in the Tate collection. The three pictures represent the end of time prophesied in the Book of Revelation, with the destruction of the material world, the sinful being sent to oblivion, and the goodly welcomed into a heavenly New Jerusalem. If you haven’t been to the exhibition and even if you don’t know much about John Martin it’s still quite possible you will know one or more of the images, as they are now probably the most famous of his paintings. The Great Day of His Wrath has been in the Tate collection since 1945, just when John Martin’s reputation was beginning to be revived (at least among some poets and painters).
What has become clear in researching this exhibition is quite how extraordinarily popular these three paintings were in the years after John Martin’s death (in 1854). We have always known that the paintings went out on an extensive exhibition tour in the late 19th century. But because so many nineteenth-century newspapers and magazines have now been digitised, and can be searched electronically, it’s possible to get much more detail about where the pictures travelled, how they were marketed and displayed, and how they were received. For more than twenty years they travelled up and down the country, from Exter to Dundee, and all points inbetween, travelling to Dublin and even New York, and then in 1878-9 to Melbourne and Sydney. They were seen not only in gallery spaces, but in commercial and civic venues, theatres and music halls. And the pictures were ‘hyped up’ relentlessly, with half-price ticket offers (for Sunday School children!), evening displays by gaslight, heavy-handed advertising and special ‘descriptive lectures’. Importantly, what we can also see from early reports and commentaries is that the paintings were received not only as remarkable works of art, but as insights into biblical truth, and that they were being viewed by lots of people who had little access to or interest in ‘high art’. The connections between these pictures and modern blockbuster entertainment, not only in terms of their imagery but in relation to methods of distribution and marketing, seemed obvious.
We wanted to present the pictures in a way which would capture the sense of excitement experienced by their original viewers and make connections with the present-day experience of the blockbuster. That was the brief we presented to the architects on the exhibition, Dow Jones and to the theatre company Univited Guests with Fuel, working in collaboration with Lewis Gibson. This isn’t an exercise in historical reconstruction, but rather about creating an experience which is both historically resonant and emphatically contemporary. The architectural setting was designed so that it had a theatre-like feeling, without being a ‘recreation’ of a Victorian space. Most of the time the paintings are presented there under normal gallery lighting, but for 10 minutes every half hour the lights go down, and visitors can experience the sound and light show . All the spoken material presented there is drawn from primary sources - the Bible, John Martin’s descriptive pamphlet relating the content of the three pictures, and newspaper and magazines of the time. Dramatic lighting and sound effects bring the pictures to life… hard to describe in words, of course. Sometimes its a bit hokey, even funny, sometimes a bit scary, sometimes gentle and soothing.
We hope that the effect is absorbing. I’ve watched the show repeatedly now with visitors in the gallery, and I’ve been struck that when the lights go back up after the show, lots of people immediately get up and walk over to spend more time with the paintings. That’s been fascinating to observe - the show seems to work as a piece of ‘interepretation’ in a conventional museological sense, focussing our attention on the paintings. But it also helps us appreciate them as what they were originally - spectacle, spiritual inspiration, entertainment … not (or not only) ‘Art’. And there are moments in the show that I still find, rather to my own surprise, oddly moving.
Well, that was the thinking, and those are my thoughts at the moment. But I can see from the blog comments that a few people find the show less interesting or useful - I hope you can still enjoy the pictures when they are being displayed in normal gallery lighting. But I would like to hear more…