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Thursday, April 30, 2015

John Martin

The Ruins of Moscow, 2014, Jonas De Ro

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, 1852, John Martin
The Bard, 1817, John Martin
There was a time when artists were merchants of beauty. Whether it was painting beautiful landscapes and seascapes, beautiful women, beautiful children, even beautiful men. I suppose that's still the case, but it seems to me that today's painters, especially digital painters, are a lot more pessimistic than in the past; and with pessimism comes ugliness. There are several reasons for this, I think. Not the least of them is the horrifically violent nature of computer gaming--warfare, destruction, fantasy beasts, etc., virtually all of which demand ugliness. Another possible cause is simply reactionary. Beauty can be boring. Deliberately painting that which is naturally ugly to start with, then painting it as ugly as possible, such artists find exciting. And finally, one doesn't have to spend much time reading political forum comments to come to the realization that society...people in general...are becoming more and more frightened, and thus more and more pessimistic. As a result, they have become more and more ugly, if not in countenance, than at least in attitude. The work of Jonas De Ro is emblematic of this trend as seen in his The Ruins of Moscow (top) from 2014. Comparing it to The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (above) from 1852, I'd have to conclude that its English painter John Martin, who lived some two-hundred years ago, would feel right at home in the 21st-century.

The Seventh Plague of Egypt, 1823, Martin, John
John Martin, 1838, Henry Warren
John Martin was the creator of a particularly nasty strain of Victorian art. He and his paintings are totally out of character with the vast majority of such works. You don't have to know much about 19th-century England, or its art, to know that Queen Victoria and her subjects liked pretty stuff. They pretty well stuffed their homes with pretty stuff. And, as anyone who has ever eaten (or even seen) too much pretty stuff knows, after a while it becomes sickeningly sweet. Personally, I have a very low tolerance for such stuff. Perhaps the British fascination with the apocalyptic painting of John Martin is a similar reaction. (I should point out there's a present-day British Impressionist by the name of John Martin too.) I should also note that John Martin could, when the mood struck him, paint some "pretty stuff" too, as his The Plains of Heaven (below), from 1851, would seem to prove.

Belshazzar's Feast, 1820, John Martin
Sadak, In Search of the Waters
of Oblivion, 1817, John Martin
John Martin was born in 1789 near Hexham in Northumberland. His father was a fencing master. John was the youngest of four sons. During that era, just because you exhibited a degree of painting talent as a child didn't automatically mean you were on your way to becoming an artist. Young John Martin was first apprenticed to a carriage maker as a heraldic painter. That fell through due to monetary squabbles so instead, John was sent off to learn the trade of an enamel painter (on ceramics). In 1806, Martin and his instructor moved to London. There Martin fell in love and married at the age of nineteen. He supported himself and his new bride by giving art lessons and painting plates. Only one of his plates survive and none of his art lessons. Although Martin began entering paintings in the Royal Academy competition in 1810, his first breakthrough as an artist didn't come until 1817 when he entered Sadak In Search of the Waters of Oblivion (right). It didn't win any gold medals, but when Martin brought it home and unwrapped it afterwards, he found a calling card from a member of Parliament who wanted to buy it. That sale led to a stream of patronage lasting the rest of his life. His Belshazzar's Feast (below) came next in 1820 followed by almost a dozen more such exercises in apocalyptic ugliness, each more biblically terrifying than the one before.

The Plains of Heaven, 1851, John Martin
The Coronation of Queen Victoria,
1839, John Martin
From that point on, Martin seems to have unleashed his wild imagination in conjuring up some of the wildest, worst-case scenarios ever seen in British art. In fact, he ended up painting a trilogy of godly power starting in 1851 with The Plains of Heaven (above), The Great Day of his Wrath (below) and The Last Judgment (bottom) the following year. Martin was also an exemplary printmaker, one of the first to explore and perfect the art of the mezzotint (half-tones used in an etching). These and the trilogy mentioned above were among Martin's last works. In general, critics never much like Martin's out-of-this-world and/or end-of-the-world paintings. But the public, meaning England's new middle-class springing forth from the Industrial Revolution, liked his giant showpieces based upon scenes from the book of Revelations. They couldn't afford to buy them (even copied into print format), but claims were made that as many as eight-million people paid to see his works wherever the paintings traveled around England (later to Australia).

The Great Day of His Wrath, 1851,John Martin
John Martin died in 1854. His work was exhibited publically for several years after his death, though his style and content faded in popularity around the end of the century. The three trilogy painting were sold separately. Two remained in the hands of a single collector. It was another hundred years before London's Tate Gallery managed to pull them back together for a commemorative exhibition in 1974. One can only imagine their popularity today, given the current infatuation we see on the Internet with the ugliness of death, destruction, destitution, devastation, and deterioration.

The Last Judgment, 1852, John Martin


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