I spotted a couple of weeks back that in putting 'the month's pop culture images through a high-art blender,' Syke Sherwin in The Guardian's weekly Guide evoked the spirit of John Martin in relation to a new book, Halo: The Art of Building Worlds (Titan Books). The visuals for the computer game Halo were described as 'a cyber age dystopian nightmare with Old Testament overtones'...

  • Halo Still image
    Still image

Sherwin writes: ‘Though the viewpoint is presumably the prow of a spaceship, this vista of a landscape engulfed by laser beams and brimstone is pure John Martin, the hit painter who wowed the Victorians with grandiose visions of biblical apocalypse. As with Martin’s vast canvasses, Halo’s blood-dimmed skies and glowering black mountains frame destruction on an epic scale.’

I never got much further than Galaxians, so I’m not the best judge, but from what I’ve seen it’s hard to avoid the Martin-ian resonances of the most ambitious kinds of contemporary computer game design.  To illustrate that point, here is John Martin’s vision of Hell, in a painting called Pandemonium 1841 from the Louvre but on show in the Tate Britain exhibition (the frame was executed to John Martin’s own design, with appropriately hellish ornamentation!).

John Martin Pandemonium 1841
John Martin
Pandemonium 1841
Oil on canvas

If you have seen the exhibition, John Martin: Apocalypse, you’ll have spotted that the show ends with contemporary artwork, by Glenn Brown, which grafts together John Martin, Salvador Dalí; and the kind of hi-resolution sci-fi illustration from the 1970s and 1980s which forms the immediate predecessor for the panoramic pyrotechnics of games like Halo. We also touch on John Martin’s legacies in the exhibition booklet, which illustrates, among other things, Star Wars, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century 1910, Ray Harryhausen’s Clash of the Titans, and contemporary artist Gordon Cheung. And of course the exhibition title, and the great online video trailing the show, knowingly evoke present-day end-of-the-world entertainments. But we’re not including such materials in the main body of the exhibition. Nor are we including apocalyptic works by John Martin’s contemporaries or immediate followers – Francis Danby, Thomas Cole, Samuel Colman and so forth. We’ve had some feedback asking ‘why not?’

John Martin: Apocalypse is, in most respects, a ‘classic’, even rather old-fashioned presentation, showcasing a single historic artist’s works in tastefully decorated rooms. The pictures are given a lot of space, there are few showcases, and the exhibition as a  whole proceeds in a largely chronological fashion to take the visitor through the highs and lows of a career, from youth to death. It eschews the display strategies associated with ‘thematic’ or ‘contextual’ exhibitions (the big exception being the room given over to the ‘sound and light show’, which earlier blogs have covered). Given the way John Martin has been denigrated and marginalised in the past, we thought it was important to showcase his art with as much care and attention as we would any other, more conventionally admired, artist. More importantly, this isn’t a straightforwardly celebratory, hagiographic show, but rather an exhibition which ‘inhabits’ a perfectly conventional, monographic format in order to ask questions about taste, value, and popularity. We did not want simply to use John Martin as a point of reference, an illustrational device, or a ‘straw man’ to prove (yet again) how ‘great’ Turner is: but neither did we want to make grandiose claims about John Martin being a ‘great’ artist himself. Rather, the show has been designed to ask the questions – how do we decide whether an artist is great? Who decides? And why? I think (hope) that it is all the more effective in raising these potentially difficult issues by virtue of that conventional presentation - both the published reviews and individual feedback suggests this is the case.

Meanwhile, the question of John Martin’s ‘legacy’ is being kept alive outside the exhibition itself. On 29 November, Will Self will be at Tate Britain introducing an apocalyptic film season, including The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), The Towering Inferno (1974) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004). And if you’ve seen the online trailer, the story continues via an interactive story experiment – John Martin’s Underworld