Tate Britain is full of tattooed metal-heads, middle-aged sci-fi fans and people who look like they might enjoy pushing a barbarian around a dungeon-themed board game. Why? Because the work of John Martin is currently being exhibited and the epic vision of this Victorian painter still underpins the aesthetics of modern fantasy.

While his romantic contemporaries were painting windy days and shipwrecks, Martin was turning the world upside down, as with his astonishing The Great Day of His Wrath, in which a city is thrown off a cliff and smashed into a canyon full of wailing people.

…19th Century exhibition goers would have been overawed…

CGI disaster movies and the flying cameras in nature documentaries have numbed us to these widescreen views of nature and civilisation. Regardless, The Tate is keen to stress that 19th Century exhibition goers would have been overawed by the artist’s depiction of the “sublime”. Martin is displayed as a “blockbuster,” populist artist: a man who worked his way up from coach-painter to crowd-shocker. Sadly a sound and light show attempt to recreate the atmosphere of the original exhibitions only detracts from the raw power of Martin’s final triptych depicting the Biblical Apocalypse.

The canvases should be admired from a distance; get too close and the cinematic effect is lost. The figures in the landscapes are awkwardly posed and too cartoonish to inspire real horror, with the googly-eyes and caricatured Semitic faces you’d expect from an early Disney cartoon. Martin is no master of the human form, his talent lies in scale, composition and drama.

…like a scene from Jackson’s Lord of The Rings

The truly impressive aspect of Martin’s work is how it has influenced the mid-to-late 20th Century sci-fi and fantasy movement. Buried as “bad taste” by those lovers of chocolate-box pastoral, the Victorians, Martin’s terrifying visions have since re-merged in their own “chocolate-box” form: in the mauve skies and floating cities on the cover of an Ursula K. Le Guin novel; in the flaming tempests and epic armies on a box of Warhammer figurines. However, Martin should still be admired for the dramatic balance of space and shape in his images, especially in his mezzotints. The Bridge Over Chaos looks like a scene from Jackson’s Lord of The Rings and Satan in Council pre-dates the sinister spherical patterns of the Star Wars movies. 

The Tate is right to draw comparisons between Martin and film-makers such as Ray Harryhausen, Roland Emmerich and George Lucas; but they do so only in the tiny guide book and not the exhibition itself. Considering the demographic of the visitors; this is an opportunity missed.

The exhibition continues until 15 January 2012.

Admission: £12.70/£10.90

3 Stars 


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