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Saturday, 21 January 2012

John Martin: Apocalypse, Tate Britain

The good news? I got there just in time, on the very last day of the John Martin exhibition, the bad news? So did the rest of London. I was hit, on entering, by a musty sweaty smell, which I guess is expected with a whole roomful of eccentric visitors, all grappling to see the final hours of the Apocalypse show. John Martin’s work is apparently very popular, though I have never come across it before. This is a giant exhibition of his spectacularly vast paintings depicting biblical catastrophes and grand landscapes.

John Martin certainly had a particular vision, and I could see how his work has inspired film especially science fiction. Many of the paintings in the show look similar to stills from blockbuster films, hugely dramatic scenes of natural disaster and terror. The mezzotint prints are more subtle and intriguing, delicate illustrations made by Martin illustrating his impression of Milton’s Paradise Lost. These works show technical prowess as well as an instinctive poetic power.

One thing is very obvious walking round this Tate show- John Martin’s work is characteristically Romantic, meeting all the criteria and acting as an example for what this period was all about. Seeing the subject matter, fiery palette and dramatic flourishes, I could easily relate these paintings to composers' work of the time: Wagner's and Berlioz's and, later, Mahler’s large scale symphonies and choral works… exaggerated, grand and an over-the-top expression of passion and feeling.

I personally found this exhibition rather repetitive. Although many of the exaggerated epic canvases are impressive, few offer anything more, it is a dark and moody show with a lack of subtlety.

The bad news for you is, you’ve missed the show, the good news? You haven’t missed much.

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