Curator Martin Myrone explores the exhibition highlights.
Martin Myrone, Curator:
This is the opening exhibit of John Martin, Apocalypse. It’s a painting by John Martin, Sadak in search of the waters of oblivion, from 1812, and it’s an impressive and extremely red painting. And it was the first painting that received a notice in the press when John Martin exhibited it at the Royal Academy in 1812. He was from a very humble background; he didn’t have a conventional art training; he had very few connections in the London art world. The way he made a name for himself as an artist was through exhibiting works that were going to get critical attention. The annual exhibitions at the Academy in the early nineteenth century were densely hung. This painting stood out in that crowd because it’s very red, and landscape paintings are normally green, or brown, or grey; and it’s quite large, and it would have drawn attention to itself, and it is sublime in its pictorial effects. So in all these ways, John Martin is creating a picture that was calculated not just to fit with the standard rules of art, the conventions of art, but that was going to go beyond them in seeking spectacular effect.
This is the painting which gave Martin probably his greatest fame, not only nationally, but internationally. It’s Belshazzar’s Feast, a biblical subject, showing the writing on the wall that warns the corrupt king of Babylon, Belshazzar, of the downfall of his empire. The palace that Martin invented was of enormous proportions. He claimed at one point that it was meant to be a mile long, and he takes every opportunity to cram in incident and detail and fantastic drama. In the centre of the composition you have the prophet Daniel, who is correctly interpreting the writing on the wall; his warning to Belshazzar, on the right, who is cowering, surrounded by his courtiers.
It’s probably the most famous, the best known of John Martin’s paintings, The Great Day of His Wrath, produced towards the end of his life, and showing a scene of utter catastrophe and destruction at the end of the world as prophesied in the biblical Book of Revelation. Here you see the earth torn apart, the moon turning to blood, and whole cities being convulsed in upon themselves, with humanity mercilessly torn apart in the foreground. It is part of a triptych of paintings sent out on tour in 1854, when John dies. By 1861 it is claimed that The Great Day of His Wrath and the accompanying pictures had been seen by as many as 8 million people; so apparently more than 1 in 3 people had seen these pictures.
Here at Tate Britain, The Great Day of His Wrath and the accompanying pictures in the Last Judgement triptych have been stored in a specially designed theatre space. We wanted to recreate or evoke a sense of the drama that these pictures conjured when they were originally exhibited in the 1850s or 1860s; and this sound and light show connects these pictures with a much more contemporary experience of blockbuster entertainment…
…whirling bolts of lightning and fire from heaven. [Thunderclap]
We know these paintings were shown dramatically by dowsed light, and they were shown not only in gallery spaces, but also in music halls and in theatres, and in civic spaces; places which wouldn’t normally see art. We know also that there were occasionally descriptive lectures, so there would be a moustachioed gentleman who would point out the details of the paintings and dramatise their content.
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