The John Martin exhibition is now open at Tate Britain, and it’s been a busy few days. As part of the Great British Art Debate, we’re hoping his work prompts a bit of debate!

While he was a hugely popular artist during his lifetime, he remained something of an outsider, scorned by art critics like John Ruskin and the Royal Academy of Arts at the time.

The drama and spectacle of his paintings did, though, earn him fans like Charles Dickens and the Brontë sisters, while showing works at popular venues meant his works were seen by the mass market rather than an academic elite.

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

Did the show provoke you think about ‘good taste’ and ‘bad taste’? Or how the way we see art can change over time?

I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on John Martin and his art, and about the exhibition itself, so please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Comments

Kathy White

Fascinating to revisit this extraordinary but overlooked painter. (I confess to having run away from JM in the past.) It almost felt like being in the shoes of his Victorian contemporaries, contemplating in-the-face fire and brimstone. As an outsider to British art, I maybe would have wanted a bit more social and historical context. Always a bit of a mystery how and why 19th century Britain produced such lone giants with very distinctive styles - Blake, Turner, Constable, John Martin. True, the more narrow focus makes us experience JM more directly, quite apart from the "sound & light” triptych presentation. Excellent tribute to a showman of a painter. So, do we really need those blurbs from the press on the exhibition banner or are they all in the same popular spirit?! (just a niggle)

John Welch

The light and sound show at the end was an interesting idea, but the sound volume was excessively loud. And of course the sound spilled out into the rest of the show. There can't possibly be any need to have it as high as this. I daresay it would be unjust to suggest that the over the top sound level complemented the over the top nature of the art?

HeBFeB

I really enjoyed this exhibition. I imagine his viewers got a thrill from being half-scared to death in a vicarious way. He was painting in very turbulent times - reflecting all kinds of anxieties, no doubt. Gothic Horror made visual.

Diana Ferguson

Beautifully presented exhibition but John Martin is not for me. His work reminds me of contemporary fantasy illustration, and I'm afraid I didn't it. I wouldn't have gone had I not been a Tate member.

Harry Baker

I was not terribly familiar with Martin. I had seen some of his pictures in reproductions but they did not convey the huge scale of the works. Had he been born in this century he might have been a CGI creator for the cinema! I will try to see it all again.

S Simpson

Awesome! Well someone had to say it.
I came across across Martin some time ago whilst studying the 'the Sublime' and was enthralled by his imagination and bravado. And as a non-painter I'm always impressed by this level of artistic skill and craftmanship. So what if some of the figures in the paintings are a bit dodgy? I think the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts in Martin's case.
Many thanks Tate for a wonderful exhibition, and very apposite for the troubling times we live in.

Norma

I really enjoyed the exhibition. The paintings were extraordinary and unexpected!

However the multi-media effects on the final tryptich were ok, nothing more. And the intrusive effect that they had on the rest of the exhibition wasn't definitely not worth it.

I'm not sure that the volume needed to be quite so high, and if the experience only works when pumped up that high, then perhaps it isn't really working.

Clever but no banana!

Nigel East

I enjoyed the show hugely - enough to come again (though I do live fairly close so no great response cost). I knew nothing about the man, but the resonance with cinema and recent advertising made me feel quite at home. 'Grandiose and vulgar' someone said - but isn't that what the the apocalypse is all about? The magic lantern show was a joy - beautifully over the top (chubby cherubs indeed). And the great and good saved from the chasm were just like their counterparts on the Sgt Pepper cover. I looked for Dylan but couldn't find him. I'd have liked to know more about the rail link around London, and how his sewer compares with the new one planned by Thames Water. But the Tate's not the place for that. The 'keys' to some of the pictures were useful, and the detail given overall was sufficient in my opinion. I enjoyed the reference to 'they noticed he was wearing a kilt' or whatever. And Martin's words for the King of France on his killing of the first born must surely have been ironic? Overall it was a revelation (and much from the book of the same name). The pictures towards the end of the exhibition of Richmond and Twickenham were delightful, but there are plenty like that around. You don't see many like the major works here. Strange though that, despite his astronomical and architectural accuracy, he didn't get lightning.

Sarah Davis

This exhibition was very 'entertaining', especially the 'of the time' commentary and light show at the end. Yes, it provoked the question, 'if it's popular, is it still art'? I visited with my son, and we both agreed both can co-exist, but we weren't sure Martin's technical and compositional skills were all good enough for him to be equal with other classic artists. Good points, his use of the compositional space, the sense of drama through use of light and perspective, the technical skills rendering trees, and rocks and mountains especially, and the way the structure took your eyes around the canvas, (perhaps as a result of the discipline of ceramic (round) plate decoration! Bad points, his landscapes were formulaic (he re-used the same shaped trees and waterfalls, and rocks over and over), and his people were so small, and unreal, that despite being overwhelmed by catastrophe,they failed to excite empathy. But the legacy for the theatre and film industry is amazing, and I would have liked to see more of this played out in the exhibition, as 'drama' and 'theatricality' were the hottest elements by far!

Adrian Baker

I just loved the John Martin exhibition I do not think I have been to an exhibition where I have lingered so long over each picture and print. John Martins use of contrasting colours was fantastic give great drama the pictures with that signature flash of lightening he used in many pictures. It was also great to see John Martins own copies of his work alongside the finished article . The light show was a real surprise and put the three pictures into context with real drama.

Gareth Buchanan

I loved it! I went on a Late Opening Friday, which I think is great late opening isn't restricted to the first Friday of the month. It was like having a private viewing, which was nice cos you could get up close to the details in the foreground but it did lack a little atmosphere.
I hadn't heard of John Martin before the show, and was really impressed from the first room onwards. These tiny people dwarfed by the massive landscapes, brilliant. I couldn't bring myself to buy my customary souvenir postcard as the scale and drama was all lost in the 6x4 size. I thought the triptych show was a really innovative way of showing of the paintings. It's very over-the-top, and I spied someone else liked the 'cheeky cherubs' comment. The use of surround sound was fun, as the sound tried to compete with the scale of the paintings. I also liked the technical drawings, and like an earlier postee I would have liked more on the context of that part of his life - links to Bazalgette's sewer plans? - but agree the Tate isnt the place for that. Liked the cheeky surprise of Glenn Browns painting at the end... Overall loved the show that shows off Martin's work in a very informed way.

Alan Spiller

Whilst I cannot comment on behalf of all 41 of the members of the Contemporary Art Society for Wales www.casw.org.uk, who visited the exhibition, I do know that a large majority thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
It was of course in stark contrast to some of our other visits e.g Leonardo, the Deutsche Bank Art Collection and of course our own (Welsh born)sculptor Barry Flanagan also at the Tate. Personally I found it highly stimulating and the tense atmosphere at the Son et Lumiere of the 'Apocalypse' showed that the exhibition had made a great impact as people clearly wondered in which direction their destiny lay! Thanks for a brilliant show.

mick gold

I wish I had more time but basically my wife & I both thought it was very good. Martin's works came across very well. So did his engineering plans. So did the reasons that, although he pleased the public, he failed to obtain the respectability he craved and the approval of the RA. (A present day equivalent might be Steven Spielberg.) Excellent show.

Dawn Clarke

I was ignorant of this painter, thinking a brief visit would be enough. But it wasn't long before I realised what an amazing painter Martins was. I don't care why he painted his work, but how. The intensity of drama was evident in his very clever oils. The techniques he used created canvases of drama. I have been back and intend on at least one more visit. So thank you Tate Britain for this real eye opener of an exhibition.

John

Neither my wife or I knew anything much about John Martin before this exhibition, althouth my wife, the artist amongst us, had at least heard of him!

Very impressed with what we saw having half expected to just walk quickly through and go and get a coffee!

Very much liked the detailed foregrounds along with backgrounds that could easily be taken as simple washes but then you notice everything in them.

thank you

Nicky

The opportunity to see these works first hand was fabulous. Really blown away by the colours and textures in a number of the paintings. No reproductions of John Martin's paintings that I have seen do them justice-will be paying another visit soon!

Antonia Dewhurst

Forgive me if I'm repeating something that's already been said but I haven't read all the posts above.
I had never heard of John Martin or seen his work prior to visiting the exhibition but the work was immediately familiar because it must have been a direct influence on sci-fi book jacket illustrators. I wouldn't be at all surprised if Peter Jackson and George Lucas were also fans.
I agree that the audio visual presentation in the triptych room was way over the top and while that might be deliberate and perfectly in keeping with the melodramatics of the work, I could still have lived without it.

Michael Lincoln

I've always liked the paintings of John Martin, so it was good to be able see an exhibition of his work. My partner and I were both very impressed. Interesting that art critics tended to dismiss his pictures. Personally, I rarely subscribe to the opinions of critics (of any kind!). Brilliant exhibition.

M J

I'm still not sure whether he is a great painter, but there is no doubt that some of the paintings packed a punch. I knew nothing about John Martin, and was fascinated to discover him, and learn that he was such a popular painter - although the exhibition made clear that popularity didn't always equate with riches...
I found myself admiring his technique, and impressed by his landscapes - the more lurid the better. It would have been a more interesting exhibition if there could have been some more emphasis put on the painters he had influenced - because he must undeniably have done that: some of his brushwork remains startlingly modern - the little 19th-century figures painted in the corners sometimes seem completely out of place.
Unlike some of the commentators, my friend and I loved the light display at the end - it really makes you see the paintings differently!

Chris Weallans

It was very noisy and the sound from room 5 permeated the whole exhibition and I found this distinctly annoying and distracting.

This is a great shame because the paintings were a real joy as in sitting in the inglenook as a child to perceive the gates of hell in the fiery coals.

I found myself wonder what bizarre plan I should have to hatch in order to see the painting with out the light show and soundtrack (this really is getting very BBC). The best plan I have come up with is to ask the question.

Are there any plans to have noise free days so that the paintings themselves can be enjoyed? I know this is a lot to ask of an art gallery but would it help if I said "Please." (I suppose I should put one of those awful smiley faces here) :-)) Good grief!

Chris

Marion Woolnough

Loved this exhibition. Reminded me of D.W.Griffiths film sets like "Intolerance" even Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings". Could also detect, in backgrounds particularly, the brooding William Blake.

Mark Simpson

I would like to offer my thanks for a wonderful exhibition. I loved the sound and light show. A brave move since the traditionalists are bound to feel peeved (as we can see from some of the comments so far) but what a great way to introduce the young to works of art and to stimulate their imaginations. Well done.

Alex Newton

Great exhibition but the catalogue is a disgrace. Of all painters, Martin needs big glossy reproductions but all this gives you is mediocre quality half-page jobs or, even more annoying, two-page ones. In a paperback,this means that it is impossible to see the middle, usually the key part, of a painting without breaking the spine.

Carl Blakey

A bit of a one trick pony who can't seem to paint people very well so condemned them to the hell he certainly could paint. Loved the lightshow!

Kit Williams

I saw a thumbnail of "Manfred on The Jungfrau,' in 1981 and have awaited an exhibition of Martin ever since. This exhibition is not about taste or how appropriate the superimposed projections are. It allows John Martin to speak to us in 2011.

He responded so utterly to the mass of the population in his own time, that it's important to appreciate his larger work in that context. There wasn't much understanding of popular science but plenty of deep knowledge of scripture for people to respond to then. He tells us so much about the zeitgeist then.

1815 saw Waterloo and in 1816 "the year without a summer" when crops failed after Krakatoa exploded. Martin gives expression to uncertainty for his own time. Now we look to popularist artists across the arts to do the same. He is a strange mix of exhilarating ability and weak technique with figures, but so shattering for pre-Victorians and true Victorians, that we can only imagine the impact he had on them.

The directors, artists and musicians who have been inspired by him since are aiming for the same impact he did.

I did enjoy the exhibition and found the light show compelling because I think he would have. I also see "Lord of The Rings." and apocalyptic graphic novels in almost every epic painting.

I am pleased to know more about him. There is always room for his showy approach in art. I can retreat back to my local Tate and be calm in the Hepworth Garden any time, but this exhibition suits the freneticism that is London very well.

Anthony Hunt

Over fifty years ago, my paternal grandfather (a needle-maker from Redditch) gave me a large book called The Bible in Modern Art. The date of publication must have been early 1900. Included in this magnificent volume were eight print of John Martin paintings. Compared with the other images in the book, these just flew off the page and assaulted the mind of a 12 year old boy more interested in football than Art. Ever since, I have sought out his original paintings and I suppose have managed to see half a dozen altogether. So to have the opportunity to see this exhibition has repaid my Tate membership in 90 minutes. Above all, it was enjoyable and in parts unexpected and, as always, watching the attitudes of my fellow viewers proved fascinating. I rate Turner and admire Constable: I love Martin because he was the Elton John of his time and did what he wanted. The designs for the water system and the original Circle Line were bonuses: could any other artist of his time have done that? Also, I have never ascribed to the view that artists should not make money out of their talents so applaud his various schemes for earning a pound or thousand. He was, and remains, unique. Let's be thankful for that, and to the Tate for creating this excellent exhibition.

Edward Smithson

Marvellous exhibition. Those extraodinary architectural scapes - especially in the painting of the destruction of Babylon.

Helen Bowes

awe-inspiring,With the fantasy biblical landscapes, mixed with the detail of the content this was one exhibition I shall not forget. The only problem I have is the room, it is so stuffy, and thank goodness there weren't as many people there unlike the watercolour exhibition, where I had to leave. But a fantastic exhibition

johnhargreaves

I was really looking forward to this exhibition, came down to see it and the current saatchi show. Really came to experience one of the triptych... so was very disappointed when it was turned into a second rate multimedia experience... so boring that I had to leave before I began shouting for the lights to be turned up. This happening could have been achieved with computerised projections, leaving the works to hang in another gallery to speak for themselves. The greasy shine of the varnish really intruded, breaking the illusion of space far too frequently. Being able to get really close to many of these works was a privilege, examining the progressive loosening of technique, but too often the distorted figures intruded into the exciting landscapes. I appreciate why he had to include figures and devise antique titles to justify the works. However, it was a pleasure to see imagery that had immediate resonance with contemporary art works, with Rothko and Dali among them. The best image in the show for me has to be the Glenn Brown, losing the dodgy figure work and abandoning the story for the imagery, in a rich technique, at a fabulous scale. I will be back to see the exhibition again and maybe sit through the son et lumiere... £17??? glad i'm a member.

Les Brown

Good fun - enjoyable if a bit overpowering, not for my front room. I agree with Mark Williams that it would have been interesting to see more on John Martin's influence on North American landscape art.

Dr. Wolfram Sch...

Having seen the exibition 2 days ago there is more left in my mind than I would like to confess, given to the pictures. So:Due to the brilliant presentation I think more about John Martyn and his oevre. And that`s what a good exibition is for, isn`t it?

Julie Bowdler

A really enjoyable exhibition that made everyone smile - and some even talk to each other! (Prog rock and gate-fold sleeves, we noted.) The sound and light show was super. You have to see the paintings to appreciate the scale. Well worth seeing. And a great catalogue, too.

Tammy T

Amazing it was. what an extraordinary imagination and vision. I am very interested in what might have stimulated John Martin's creative vision and what existing images in his early life would have fed and fuelled his imaginative world. As a work psychologist redearching remote work and virtual communication I am intrigued by how our relationships and creativity can be both fed and starved- I would be delighted to hear from Martin Myrone and others about this.

Guy Harvey

On any reckoning this is a stunning show. Whether or not this is "great art" (who should really care), it is a tribute to John Martin's immense sweep that the effect of all these vast canvases is cumulative and not wearing. It is a treat to see so many images side by side and to realise again how much more potent and visceral his pictures are in reality rather than in reproduction in a book.

Touching too to see his gentle watercolours and to realise that the creator of Pandemonium also had a relaxed and happy side.

So much of the cinematic imagery of modern disaster films owes an obvious debt to him that it is hard to remember how strikingly original and magnificent these works must have seemed to so many observers in the 19th century. The emptiness of modern CGI is shown up against the raw splendour of his panoramic hordes of exotic biblical peoples.

What from the cynicism of the 21st century seems trite or laboured screams originality from his art when one is confronted by it on such scale (individually and collectively) as here.

The AV presentation was fine - and I bet Martin would have loved it! Great to play to the gallery in this way and still plenty of time available to study the masterly form and construction of these works between shows; and not to revel in these paintings in the silent twenty minutes as well would be a terrible waste.

It is clear from the comments on this blog that even 157 years after his death, his paintings still divide opinion. How refreshing! So much art, and so many exhibitions, are uncontroversial in that the genius of such and such an artist is universally acknowledged. The sense of danger in Martin's works make for a rougher, but ultimately very satisfying, journey.

Bravo Tate too for allowing so much space to view the pictures - both close up and from the different perspective that distance brings.

A display with real (or is it artificial?) "wow" factor and, as our financial world seems to be going to Hell in a handcart, an ideal accompaniment to Modern Times!

Ros Ormiston

I loved it. I spent a brilliant Saturday morning absorbing eveything in the John Martin 'Apocalypse' exhibition. The sound and light show by 'Uninvited Guests' was a fascinating insight into how an artist might promote his work in the 19th century. Apart from the rude woman sitting next to me who decided to send text messages on her phone throughout the ten-minutes show - I felt I could have been in a theatre in the Strand, watching one of Martin's sound and light shows. Excellent stuff!
My favourite work by Martin was a mezzotint with etching, 'Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion', 1841, more spellbinding than the painting of the same name and, his book illustrations.
kind regards
Ros Ormiston

Fraser Borwick

This exhibition is brilliant! I have always admired john Martin since I came across his work in 1976 in John Laing. His imagination puts modern artists to shame. The work is technically brilliant. U can't cope with snobs who think he is kitch or "over the top". Its brilliant art.

H Simmons

As a teenager, growing up in Northumberland, I was lucky enough to have an inspirational art teacher, Don Green, who introduced his pupils to many art forms. I have him to thank for the introduction to the works of John Martin oh so many years ago. I'm looking forward to coming to the Tate to see the works once more plus ones I haven't already seen 'in the flesh' so to speak.

Andrew Hammond

Just to add to my previous comments;I agree absolutely with Kate Macdonald's suggestion that more work that was influenced by Martin's could have been shown - indeed I'd got the impression from the free booklet that there would be more of this in the exhibition. (I was looking at the paintings and seeing scenes from Peter Jackson's magnificent Lord of The Rings films in them!)
By the way,I meant "Hidden Paintings"rather than "Lost".

HA

Struggled to engage with it.

Susie Campbell

Thought the show demanded a real act of active imagination to understand the impact Martin's work must have had on his public. I had to imagine myself back to a time pre-cinema and the kind of visual spectacle we take for granted - and I like that kind of challenge as a visitor to a gallery. it refreshes the way you look at the contemporary!

I was fascinated by the impact Martin has clearly had on film-makers - I kept thinking of James Cameron (the interest in 3D and perspective to intensify emotional impact) and Peter Jackson (the "architecture" of the epic!) etc.

Great exhibition in that it took me out of my normal mindset!

Monroe Hodder

I thought John Martin's paintings were a dazzling spectacle a science fiction like sound and light show -and very appropriate for 21st century viewers in their cinematic cloud rolls of doom and majesty. I think these images reverberate with many contemporary abstract painters (Kirsten Dunst, Philip Ackerworth etc.)

Des Horan

A graphic insight into the naivety of a relatively recent age. I can't say I that it was an enjoyable experience but it was certainly worthwhile. Thanks.

Monroe Hodder

I meant to say Kirsten Baker, the contemporary abstract painter.

George

The exhibition was amazing! I love his paintings anyway, but the way they were displayed with the projections, lights and sound show really brought the paintings more to life than they already are, if that's possible!!

A MUST see show...I'm going again!!

Kiran Rahman

Went to see the exhibition this past weekend and thought it was incredible. Loved the drama and macabre visions of heaven and hell, and the sheer number of his paintings on display made it a truly worthwhile exhibition to attend. I'd highly recommend going, and may even go again myself!

Jo Rigby

I took the children, aged 3 and 5, who absolutely loved the exhibition, it really captured their imaginations in terms of the colours and mythical images. We visited the Art Trolley afterwards and my 5 year old created a sea monster picture using red tissue paper for the sea on fire, as she'd seen in the Martin paintings.

It was lovely to have an exhibition that suited the kids also and was something they wanted to spend time with, usually I have to dash through exhibitions in 5 minutes!

Carol

I was not familiar with Martin's work until this exhibition. I had a quick 'fly through' visit this weekend. I did not experience the sound and visual, finding it rather off putting, so avoided it.
I was surprised by the work and enjoyed the way it was exhibited.
I will visit again and look in more depth.

Geoff

I thought the Martin paintings were awful ! At one point I was giggling at one work and another viewer saw me and we got talking. We agreed they were dreadful and found ourselves comparing then to those comic books that were popular in the sixties. We also agreed that this was being a member of the Tate was about. Seeing things you would never normally see and learning about something new. Terrible art but a very good experience. Makes me glad to be a member.

Bill

It is not hard to see how the early moviemakers concerned with epic productions must have been inspired by John Martin's imaginative depiction of historical and biblical events.He is reminiscent of Altdorfer's panoramic paintings.
So much detail deserves return viewing.

Namik Ozturk

Mmmm, it took me 5 minutes to look round the show and less than a minute to be bored, sorry. Yes he had skill, great skill but just because a man has these qualities does mean for one minute others won't appreciate what he has created with these skills. It was the same subject matter over and over again. I'm glad he made loads of money as mentioned as we walked in to the start of the show.At the time his work must have seemed fascinating and ahead of his time. I walked out of the light show. Found the whole experience dull. What I can say, is well done to the marketing department for getting us through the door; the posters advertising the exhibition were much better than the paintings. Could not connect with John Martin...sorry

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