What is it about destruction that fascinates us?
– Just a thought that struck me whilst walking through John Martin’s ‘Apocalypse’ exhibition at the Tate Britain. Martin’s paintings present death and catastrophe on an epic scale; thunderous skies loom menacingly over vast landscapes, and crowds of helpless people flee from volcanoes disgorging angry red lava.
Hugely popular during the nineteenth century, Martin’s artwork was shown in exhibitions in London and around the country and reached cosmic acclaim with his illustrations of the Bible and Milton’s Paradise Lost.
As powerful now as then, his work continues to influence popular culture to this day. Walking from one painting to another in the exhibition, it is plain to see his influence on epic films, from Lord of the Rings to Independence Day, as well as sci fi illustrations and video games.
The heart of the exhibition was the Last Judgment triptych, brought to life by a son et lumière. A series of lights is projected onto each painting in turn, adding depth and movement to the artworks, and a voiceover warns you of your own imminent death.
The third painting in the sequence saves the viewer from their doom, however, revealing a heavenly idyll and new awakening after the storm of God’s wrath. Angels inhabit an otherwise empty landscape in a vision of pure, unsullied nature.
The heavenly depictions which permeate the exhibition are undeniably beautiful and reveal a magnificent craftsmanship; however, I couldn’t help but associate these paintings with the type of maudlin imagery printed on Church pamphlets. The easy symbolism within Martin’s divine paintings felt contrived and, for me, fell short.
The unrestrained and raw intensity of his destructive visions appealed to me far more. Thunderous, violent and immediate, Martin’s apocalyptic paintings are brutal yet undeniably beautiful.
So, in answer to my question: perhaps our fascination comes down to our surprise in finding beauty in devastation; for it is more challenging and remarkable to portray beauty in destruction than it is to portray beauty in perfection.
What’s more, the non-reality of Martin’s paintings allows us to stand back and critique the dystopian scenes as artworks. If we did find ourselves in a real Apocalypse, I’m not sure we’d be so discerning! It’s not destruction itself but the portrait of destruction – a memento mori – which is so compelling.
John Martin’s ‘Apocalypse’ runs until the 15 January 2012 at the Tate Britain.
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