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

Michael Neville

My impression of John Martin's work is that it is, of course, sensational, but also superficial and child like.

As someone with an orthodox Christian faith I did not think his understanding of Christianity showed much depth. For example, his depiction of the heavenly plains with no-one on them whereas the promise is of a new creation filled with a vast multitude from every tribe and nation and language.

I was disappointed with the interpretation of judgment in the sound and light presentation. The tone of voice was stern and harsh and threatening. There was no sense of the book of Revelation's relief that at last the evil which is so ruinous has been dealt with.

I think my favourite painting was 'Before the deluge'. I love the tiny Ark high above the plain bringing out the extraordinary trust in God shown by Noah, believing that the waters would indeed rise that hight.

Ken Baldry

Ludicrous & hilarious but didn't he work hard? A good thing I'm an atheist. Fundy Christians must be shaking in their shoes.

Dawn

I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition. I loved the grandeur and the spectacle of it all but I must confess that my enjoyment of the show was greatly aided by doing some pre-reading (the excellent article in the Tate member's magazine). I was alerted to the possibility that he may have been a millenarian but I am more of the persuasion that he was more Deist who perhaps wanted to appeal to what was in vogue at that time, to be accepted more. It did seem fractionally gimmicky but I loved all the gimmicky triptych stuff. It was kind of corny but it gave a good view of what was being said at that tim, and I appreciated that he was not classically trained with the use of colour, but, for me, none of this was to his detriment, and it did not hinder any of my pleasure of the exhibit. I love the fact that he has been such an influence on modern day directors -- that makes him a forerunner in his field, and anyone who has that vision certainly has my vote. I was also impressed with his humanitarian concerns (improving our sewage system). He was a man who cared about things passionately and he wanted to see change. It's disappointing he wasn't accepted by the establishment for his art and his civic pride as he seemed like a talented man with integrity. Sadly he was a man who was a tad misguided. But I have recommended that exhibition to friends because these bombastic, giant paintings need to be experienced.

Andrew

I thought that as one of the main parts of the exhibition was Martin's mastery of the Mezzotint it would have been really good to have had on display a mezzotint plate. Although there was an explanation of the process I found it incredible to imagine the process and wished I could have seen a plate to appreciate the skill.

The exhibition was excellent and the art works amazing.

Carl

I have long been looking forward to this show having been a Martin obsessive for a couple of years and it was amazing to see the entire body of work together. Surprisingly I found myself drawn to the calmer images - equally dramatic and epic - works like the Assuaging of the Waters, the Eve of the Deluge or The Last Man.

In a word - phenomenal.

Trevor

Yes, popular in his time and you can see why. The public views by candlight of subjects most people would have been aware of and frightened of . . . I think it is spectacular! Only one comment the lighting is not quite right on some paintings and shines on parts the paintings (I know they are large). Always a great day out a visit to Tate Britain and then the boat to Bankside for a pot of tea on the members terrace at Tate Modern. But then its simple pleasures that please most of us!

jim

Its only been in the past year that ive actually started to visit the tate galleries.I was an armchair critic,basically watching documentaries or the odd glossy book from the library. But now,to see paintings,particularly John Martins,close up and in there settings was a changing experience for me.To see the physical size and the intensity of colours compared to a reproduction in a book is so different.Im almost dissapointed to look at the pictures in my John Martins book now.Anyway, it was a pleasure to just stand and absorb his pictures.thoroughly enjoyed it.

Nicola Osborne

As many of the comments have stated, one to divide opinion! Whatever you may feel about the subject matter etc, there is no getting away form the technical abilities of Martin. I could not help but feel that there should be some thumping, thrashing prog rock playing as I strolled amongst the "album covers" but at the same time I was arrested by the scale and drama of the works. Generally a hit!

John Haigh

I thought it was a great exhibit, as usual beautifully arranged. I have been a fan of Martin for a long time and would regularly look at the big three that were on display in the permanent collection. Wonderful dramatic use of colour and scale. Highly recomended.

Anthony O'Hear

Open letter to Martin Myrone, in reply to his e-mail of October 8th.

Dear Myrone, This is my reply to your second request for my 'extremely important' view on the Martin exhibition. I am not 'Anthony' to you, but it is clear that in writing to me thus yesterday, asking once more for my reactions to the exhibition, you have not noticed that my extremely important view has already appeared on your blog on September 26th. My feelings about the exhibition were much the same yesterday as they were on Sept 26th, but I did on this occasion get the catalogue. I was fascinated to notice that my earlier comparison between Martin and the art celebrities of to-day is actually anticipated by the introduction from the Tate's director. She says that 'it is the contention of this exhibition' that the 'vulnerable' (!) reputation of Martin in recent times is 'the result of prejudice against the popular', and she goes on to refer to 'artistic showmanship' and the 'increasingly spectacular nature of the art of our time'. Given that the Tate has for the past few decades played a not insignificant part in promoting this 'increasingly spectacular' stuff, it looks as if Martin is being recruited as a player in the art politics not just of his time, but of ours too! Ruskin's comment that Martin is not a painter, but a workman, whose works are 'merely a common manufacture' (catalogue, p 13),'an assembly-line product' (p 210) seems pretty spot-on to me - and no amount of puffing about prejudice and the popular will transform the merely fashionable into something of enduring worth. Yours sincerely, Anthony O'Hear

Jon Britten

I enjoyed the exhibition.

On a technical level I didn't like the look of the paintings close up but appreciated the effects achieved when viewed at the right distance. For this and other reasons I didn't much like room 5. I don't think it did the paintings justice. For example the dark Chasm in the painting on the right wasn't dark enough. I'm sure that when I'd previously viewed it from afar the chasm was what impressed me most. It was effective. Could the lighting have been better?

The light show was unhelpful and unnecessary. Although not great Art in the sense of it not having anything profound to say, the works were compelling enough to not have to resort to Gimmickry, which is how I felt about it. The Artist himself was greatly criticized in his day for his works being something like on this level and some of those criticisms were fair enough, but the works themselves are still fairly awesome achievements in terms of the mans dedication, boldness and perseverance. he wanted to be taken seriously and I think we at least could do him that respect.

I think a dark room with the paintings well lit may have been better. That really did something for the Carravagios on show at the national some years ago.

It was interesting to me that of the recordings, only the new heavens and earth piece was fully quoted from the Bible. All that stuff about Hell and damnation isn't in the bible. The bible talks about Hell but doesn't go into specifics. Artists have loved to embellish these things since Dante and Durer. I think that In our day and age we are no different. This aspect of the show only serves to reinforce peoples ignorance of the Bible and is frankly disrespectful of those who believe. I think that the lines should be carefully drawn.

One last thing. There is loads any painter can learn from that exhibition who is interested in the craft.

If you think any of that is unfair, please let me know. Thanks. Jon

m parker

Loved the exhibition itself. I have waited several years for this. I think JM was a terific artist, very original. The paintings were well displayed and the audio guide was quite good. However, the audio visual show was ridiculous, laugh out loud silly. Might appeal to a 5 year old (which is good) but not a grown up. When the show finished, when I saw it, the was a mixture of I-can't-believe-they-did-looks of stunned silence, embarrassed titters and hoots of laughter from the audience. It is great to at last see some postcards and posters of JMs work on sale at the Tate but I can't believe you don't have any of his greatest work, Balshazzar's Feast.

Chas Perrett

What I have enjoyed about the recent run of Exhibitions at the Tate Galleries is the diversity and breadth of work shown. John Martin providing yet another window on the way individual artists follow their line of enquiry. I found it very impressive, the light show wasn't working when i went so I can't comment on that but overall it was a powerful demonstration of a man's talent and 'obsession'.

Rebecca

I really enjoyed the exhibition and I am glad that it gave me a chance to know a little about an artist I was previously unaware of. I found the work visually impressive and thought-provoking, the light show was engaging and it was great to see the way Martin's work is a precursor for later imaginative art.

John Credland

I thought the exhibition was well handled, well staged, the audio guide was well produced and relevant. Thank you all for the good work. Sometimes there was just too much drama in the one room. Previously when I have seen the apocalypse painting it has been the lone 'Martin' in a room. When it hangs with two others side by side it loses its impact. Nothing can be done about this of course and I enjoyed the period 'gaslight' feel of the triptych presentation. Other commentators (above) obviously missed the pint.

Professor Peter...

I was brought up in Northumberland in the Hellfire and Damnation Primitive Mehodist tradition and despite intellectually discarding that as soon as I left for University find that Martin encapsulates all of that, in a way I still find thrilling and a bit disturbing. Old Testament and Revelations rolled into one!

I am a Professor of Geoscience and while his rocks dont represent the way they really 'ARE' that doesn't bother me at all.

I can see why the 'aesthetes' commenting here find it a bit OTT but the guy certainly had imagination.

You need to see these at full scale and need to have space to stand well back to get the full panorama and ten get up close to see the minutiae.

Enjoyed it immensely

Dont be put off by the negative comments here. Go and see it, suspend your delicate sensibilities and just soak up the atmosphere.

Geoff Riding

Obviously impressive, though I can't say I'm a fan and his work didn't seem to progress, just more of the same, no wonder he got the criticism later in his career! The film commentary had a dynamicism, and I liked the last repro-piece about Dali! Got a lot more from "Black Lines" room, but that's another story!

Stephen Griffith

I seem to remember that at some point Martin was a theatrical scenery painted, which explains a great deal. His spectacular canvases are exactly that: the equivalent of the old biblical epics in terms of exaggeration. At church on the previous Sunday we had had a reading of the Book of Revelation, and Martin's apocalyptic visions are deeply imbued with Jewish-Christian apocalyptic which must have been very popular in Victorian Britain, but probably hard for modern sensitivities. I loved the mitred bishops and other papists, as well as some protestants, being thrown into hell: who would go there now? Hedge fund managers?

Graham Humphreys

Extraordinary! despite the nasty little figures. The scale of vision was truly inspiring. Aside from his very apparent influence on the the world of Science Fiction, I was often reminded of the work of David Roberts. Will be recommending this to everybody!

tai

Extraordinary! indeed. We're had a great time. Thank you very much.

Rebecca

I'm astonished that something can be at once kitsch and subtle, over the top and yet tenderly moving. The sensitive mark making in the prints and the tonal-chromatic power of the paintings make a show that is hugely powerful and enjoyable on many levels - I found myself almost laughing in places, awestruck elsewhere. It's not a good idea to leave the last word to another artist though. However I think that Martin would have been thrilled with the dramatic presentation; I thought it worked really well and caught the mood of the work in it's own period. Thank you.

David Green

Most of my art reviews are on contemporary artists, but getting a chance to view earlier works helps in framing the present. I knew nothing of John Martin before I visited; in fact I was at Tate Britain viewing Barry Flanagan's work when I decided to supplement my day. Martin's work was impressive in a Hollywood sort of sense: big, bold, graphic...very un-British (if you leave out the last 20 years). I can see why film makers are drawn to his style. His work is very impressive, and the curating with video project fit right in.

Nik

I arrived at the Tate to view the Martin exhibition after visiting 'Degas' at the Academy. I can honestly say that the Martin exhibition was more inspiring than any of the dancers. I really enjoyed the way the light show bought the triptych to life and it is an exhibition that will remain in my thoughts for some time. I thought the inclusion of the Glenn Brown piece in the last room was a stroke of genius. All the way around I was trying to remember the contemporary artist's name who produced similar paintings and their he was! The juxtaposition of the two artists worked extremely well. The exhibition was a triumph, congratulations to the Tate team.

bob

I must have seen some of Martin's paintings in the past, but they obviously made no lasting impression on me. With the exhibition titled "Apocalypse" I was expecting the work of either a demented or tormented soul, particularly after reading some the reviews. However, after seeing the exhibition I think Martin was more a smooth, if pedantic, operator who knew what the masses wanted: an entertainer and sensationalist.

The exhibition itself revealed that he had a bit more breadth than just his apocalyptic pictures. However, probably because of todays technology, and the imagery we are exposed to, the apocalyptic paintings do not have the impact they likely did in Martin's day and in fact look a little quaint.

A well displayed and uncluttered exhibition and I am sure JM would approve of the light show as these paintings were about entertainment and "amazement".

Dennis Bean

I first came across Martin's work whilst at Uni in Newcastle many years ago and have been a convert ever since. I have never accepted that popular art [of it's time] has to, by inference, mean in any sense it is of lower value. Surely the merit is in the artist's interpretation and communication of the subject itself rather than how the art "Establishment" of the time reacts? A few years ago I came to an equally wonderful exhibition at the Tate called "American Sublime". Put the two together and you can see I'm sold on the huge apocalyptic, gothic, visionary landscapes,and still marvel at the immense detail and insight that went into creating these works. The Tate have done a brilliant job at bringing these works together. Thank you so much.

Malcolm

Reflecting on this amazing John Martin exhibition I feel that there is much more to him than we currently understand. In a sense these are works reflecting an inner landscape and as such allude to a gnosis far older than Chritianity. The vortexes and caverns revealed in the paintings perhaps represent the Tunnels of Set and the Firesnake which haunts them in the noumenal world of the cerebellum. From this point of view maybe they are precurssors of a new Aeon

Mary Hempshall

It was a wonderful exhibition - especially the animated tryptich, which made me think about higher things. Very well done.

Marcus

This, and the Vorticist exhibition have been the highlights of my cultural year.

Thanks Tate and keep up the excellent work.

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