nineveh_uk (nineveh_uk) wrote,

Apolcalypse: this time it's personal

When my mother was a child her mother often took her and her siblings to the Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery on school holidays, and she in her turn took me and my sisters when we visited relatives in Birmingham. The gallery - which is free - opened in 1885, and is housed in an impressive Victorian building that in any other European country would be called a palace, in the centre of town. As well as the usual mummies and a good cafe, it had a number of things that were particularly worth seeking out: the Pre-Raphaelite collection, Epstein's Lucifer*, and John Martin's Pandemonium. And then the latter was sold by the private owner who had been avoiding paying the insurance on it for years by storing it at the gallery, and disappeared from sight to the considerable irritation of my mother. But now it's back on display, albeit in the Louvre, which picked it up for a snip at £1.6 million.

Pandemonium is by John Martin, Regency and Victorian painter of landscapes and dramatic scenes, despised for much of the C20 as a populist whose works were too colourful both literally and figuratively, the large Tate Britain exhibition on whose work ends (there have been several others in the UK in the last twelve months, it being the anniversary of his breakthrough in 1812) today. Martin's most famous work concentrates on scenes from the Bible and Paradise Lost. Pandemonium illustrates the raising of the infernal city, the standing figure is not Satan, but Mammon (Satan sits looking classically angsty by his feet), and the resemblance to the House of Parliament is surely not co-incidental.

The Tate exhibition, which is well worth the stonking £12.70 entrance fee (no, I did not pay for the audio guide on top of this. I feel that at that price one shouldn't need to), contextualises Martin well in the critical culture of his day, one that wasn't quite able to grasp that Martin wasn't simply popular because of scale and flare and drama and sound-and-light shows accompanying travelling exhibitions, but because he is in fact really, really good. It is easy to pick on aspects of a painting and say "that figure's not very good", something one can do, if so minded, even to Leonardo and Michaelangelo. The paintings are hugely dramatic, but it isn't all surface. They tell stories on both a grand and miniature scale, the black and burning earth of The Great Day of His Wrath from the Last Judgement triptych reins down from above your head on individual people: Martin's unseen and angry God, like Kitchener, wants YOU! There's also rather more political commentary going on than Martin's contemporaries admitted, some of which comes through in his engineering schemes for such then-wacky ideas as not emptying the London sewers straight into the Thames, though it's easier to hide the satire in The Fall of Nineveh if your insane brother's reworking of it as the fall of London isn't on public display.**

If the paintings look familiar, that's because they are. Not, perhaps, in the originals today as when he sold thousands of prints, but in their legacy. One might make an argument for Martin as the original fantasy artist, his is the influence that gives us the misty domed cities rising out of red skies on the covers of science fiction and fantasy novels (apparently Martin took great care to get his constellations right). When my middle school art club went mad for row after row of fantasy mountains and cities with rivers flowing into the plain and tiny figures in front of immense landscapes we were following unknowingly in Martin's footsteps.

And then there's the cinema. DW Griffith, a man who knew a dramatic image when he saw it, based Belshazzar's Feast in his film Intolerance*** directly on Martin's painting. Or, to be precise, paintings and mezzotints, as Martin, not unusually for him, created several variants of the scene. Other acknowledged depts include Olympus in Harryhausen's Clash of the Titans and Cecil B Demille's Samson and Delilah. Through this route come unacknowledged debts in pretty much every sword and sandals film made, not to mention SF and fantasy and Leni Riefenstahl. The court in heaven in A Matter of Life and Death, the Senate chamber on Coruscant in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace: that's Martin's Satan Presiding at the Infernal Council. Even the Mines of Moria get a look in. No disaster volcano film lit by the red fires of lava can avoid recalling The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. With the exception of the Titanic and the trenches, Martin got there first.

As for me, I am now reconciled to the fact that I am unable to hear Handel's But who may abide the day of his coming**** without thinking of the line in the The Lord of the Rings of the King of the Nazgul "Few will stand and abide even the rumor of his coming": after all, if Tolkien ever visited Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery after 1952, the city of his childhood and an hour from Oxford by train, he undoubtedly saw Pandemonium.

*The queue is to see the Staffordshire Hoard. Googling for an image, I found a poem on the subject.

**Best known for his partly successful attempt to burn down York Minster

***Now there's an ironic title.

****Starring Emma Kirkby and some truly terrifying early 80s clothes. Look out for the ruffled shirt.
Tags: art, real life
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