Some coincidences seem appropriate to a life. John Martin (1789-1854), the painter of Biblical apocalypses, is a case in point: not only was he was born five days after the Bastille was stormed, he also lost his father, mother, grandmother and son within a single year, and in 1829 one of his brothers set fire to York Minster. Turmoil and conflagration attended his life as well as his pictures.
Today Martin is seen as a curiosity, a strange hybrid — less of a landscape pioneer than Turner, less of a religious visionary than Blake, with something of the intensity of both but lacking their artistry. But in early to mid 19th-century Britain he was the most widely-known artist of the age. Before mass media his dizzying panoramas toured the country’s shopping emporia and theatres and, with his dramatic mezzotints, won him a huge audience. By 1861 it was claimed that his paintings had already been seen by eight million people, most of whom were not the normal gallery-going public. The novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton called him “the greatest, the most lofty, the most original genius of the age”.
His popularity and reach (prints of his Bible scenes and illustrations to Milton were collected around the world from America to New Zealand) also led to a certain critical sniffiness about him which has never gone away. He was regularly accused of cynicism and straining after effect, of bad taste and undermining the Sublime. Coleridge was withering: “Martin is a poor creature. It seems as if he looked at Nature through bits of stained glass, and was never satisfied with any appearance that was not prodigious.” Romanticism has found room for other idiosyncratic painters such as Fuseli, Palmer and Richard Dadd but not, it seems, for Martin.
Today Martin is most widely appreciated not as a painter but as a cinéaste avant la lettre. His thrilling, pyrotechnic canvases are alternative big-screen, Technicolor entertainments which influenced, among others, pioneering filmmakers such as D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. The new exhibition of his work at Tate Britain — his largest, almost unbelievably, since 1822 — is an attempt to reconsider his status and understand the reasons for his extraordinary celebrity.
Bizarrely for a painter who worked on a huge scale, Martin began his career as a painter of china and glass. But painting was not his only interest: he designed, and indeed was granted a patent, for a scheme to overhaul London’s drainage system (which was later to influence strongly Joseph Bazalgette’s improvements), as well as dreaming up new railway and lighthouse projects. In other ways too he was very much a man of his age: for example, his paintings show an interest in both dinosaurs and recent geological advances; he hosted salons for a variety of intellectuals; he was fiercely mercantile, his entrepreneurial tendencies leading him to take a stake in new exhibition venues and protect his image rights with tenacity.
His fame, however, rested on epic Biblical scenes such as Belshazzar’s Feast (1820 and not seen in public for 20 years), The Great Day of His Wrath (1851-3) and The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852) in which fire and brimstone fall from the sky and sinful humans die like ants. One historian characterised these images as representing the “bourgeois alter ego of fantasy, passion and violent primal forces” but Martin’s paintings were so expensive that only aristocrats could afford them. His admirers included not just a tranche of the nobility but also Prince Albert and King Leopold of the Belgians.
Although what attracted both high and low was his sense of spectacle and his “man proposes, god disposes” themes, Martin was an accomplished artist on a less grandiose scale too. Some of his landscape watercolours have real freshness and spontaneity (which they lost when he turned them into overcooked Claudean visions) and as a printmaker he was both prolific and innovative — the billowing atmospheric effects of his paintings being condensed into more tangible form.
While he may lack the depth and subtlety necessary to make a great artist, Martin is more than just a good-bad painter. He was a phenomenon, the artist who best struck the authentic chord of his time, obsessed as it was with religiosity, money, empire and the fate of nations. It is for this reason as much as the visceral thrill offered by his work that he deserves to be looked at without preconceptions.
Alongside the Martin, Tate Britain is also exhibiting another original with popular appeal — the sculptor Barry Flanagan, who died in 2009. This show, however, barely features the bronze hares with which he made his reputation and which, with their primal energy and joyousness, are among the best-loved of all modern sculptures, but concentrates instead on his early career from 1965 to 1982.
Pre-hares, Barry Flanagan was more interested in land art and Arte Povera. He didn’t take to the angular metal forms of one teacher, Anthony Caro, but was instead an inveterate experimenter with other materials. His works, all nonrepresentational, used wood, sand, hessian and other cloths in a variety of inventive manners: Bundle 2 is a pile of loosely filled sacks, Four Casb 2 ’67 some lapis-blue cones with a rope weaving between them, Ring n a pile of sand with scoops taken out. There is little unity of theme or style, only in his quest to unite materials, thought and process. However serious-minded they may be, they are not always easy to like.
Perhaps Flanagan realised it too. He cast his first hare in 1979 after a damascene moment in which he saw the animal “unveil” itself, sloughing off the academic avant-gardism that had marked his career to date. There would, of course, be no hares without his earlier sculptural life — they leapt to life from this fascinatingly ragtag assemblage.