John Martin’s Apocalypse

John Martin, The Day of His Wrath, 1851-53

After taking in Tracey Emin’s show at the Hayward it might be advisable to catch the John Martin show at the Tate Britain to make a comparison.

This Martin painting is some serious work. Jonathan Jones’s article provides an image with a better res image when clicked.  Look at the cavernous infinity of space in this thing.

I have to make note of Jonathan’s reference to Nineteenth-century Britain as a “peaceful, prosperous society”. Try reading some Dickens, man! Get a clue. It’s the country you were born in, for f’s sake.

Does the name Jack the Ripper ring a bell, slashing prostitutes up in the London slums???:

The poorest people lived in slum houses many of them made of wood, in a furnished room that had a bed, a table and a chair if they were lucky… The slums were degrading and sanitation was inadequate to say the least. The filth and stench was at times unbearable. In 1888 there were 233 common lodging houses with over 8500 people, in Whitechapel alone. In those days not all the streets were cobbled, more than half the roads were dirt tracks, and a horse and cart was the best form of transport after walking. In a survey carried out in 1851, there were 253 people to the acre living in Whitechapel, and as a contrast one person to the acre in Hampstead….

It was estimated in the Whitechapel area there were 62 houses known by the police to be brothels and a great number more less intermittently used for such purposes. It’s estimated there were as many as 2400 prostitutes working. The Jewish Working Girls Club at 17 Leman St did much to limit prostitution and the enticement of girls into the “White Slave Traffic” to South America. Venereal Disease (Syphilis) in the 1880s was very high and accounted for more deaths in England and Wales–greater than Smallpox, Typhus and Cholera. The British report shows over a period of seven years in the 1840s on average 1 in 5 of the Cavalry, Foot-guards and Infantry men had contracted Syphilis, it was the Infantry men who suffered the worst, near to 1 in 3.
(Facts taken from Sassienie Worldwide Family Website)

What does it take to qualify as an art critic at the Guardian, I once again have to wonder. Living on cloud nine with Agnes Martin grids or Helen Frankenthaler soaked colors lulling one’s brain into a coma? Is it something the Guardian critics drink? Some wonderful anti-depressant? Where can I get my hands on some of it?.. Then perhaps I too could find a paying art job writing penetrating and insightful prose.

Adrian Searle, an avid fan of Tracey Emin’s at the  Guardian can apparently revel with profound delight at a Tracey piece with this immortal observation scrawled across it: “CHRIST I SMELL EVERY TIME I OPEN MY LEGS AN INCREADBLE (sic) STENCH OF SEX FILLS THE ROOM”.

(Is Tracey “‘avin a larf”?)

Well, I guess different strokes for different folks. And if one gets his rocks off on Tracey’s strokes, who am I to judge?

But this Jones fellow is just getting his facts a little too wack, as we say in Brooklyn. This must not stand!

According to Jones, presumably, Turner and Dickens were delusional Victorians who were in fact living in a “peaceful, prosperous society”, Turner’s battlefield of corpses depicting the aftermath of the battle of Waterloo no doubt another of his hallucinations.

Anyway, it’s good to be reassured by Jonathan that Marx was delusional and the Industrial Revolution was a peaceful happy time for all. And that we worry warts looking over the  peace and prosperity of the last century with two atom bombs dropped on Japan and countless millions of dead in wars beyond counting, not to mention the 21st Century picnics of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia,  all just the little bumps on the road one encounters when creating a Democratic Garden of Eden in the Middle East.

But perhaps there’s something in Jonathan’s vicinity similar the blast furnace of 9,000 wildfires scorching over 2 million acres this year in Texas that seems to have afflicted the perceptive abilities of  Rick Perry and his followers as they deny global warming and beseech God for rain.

And I should stop ‘avin a larf.

Here’s a quote from the Tate publicity… note that JM was an “outsider”… naturally… but look who loved him:

While his art was hugely popular, Martin remained something of an outsider, scorned by figures like John Ruskin and William Wordsworth and shunned by the Royal Academy. Instead, the theatrical drama and spectacle of his paintings earned him such fans as Charles Dickens, Edward Bulwer-Lytton and the Bronte sisters, as well as Prince Albert and Leopold, King of the Belgians. His decision to show works at popular venues like Piccadilly’s Egyptian Hall meant that he engaged directly with a mass market rather than an academic elite. Featuring key loans from Musée du Louvre, Paris and National Gallery of Art, Washington, this exhibition will re-evaluate how Martin’s populism fits into the story of British art, and how his work connects with the culture of today.

Incidentally, Jonathan, in case you’re reading, King Leopold was a guy that perhaps knew something about apocalypses himself… as Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now was based on the figure of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness…. Colonel Kurtz venturing deep into the Belgian Congo… to get a good look at some of that 19th century peace and prosperity.

Since Jonathan is clearly fuzzy on his 19th Century history, perhaps some of our readers are as well. King Leopold of Belgium, as described   in Adam Hochshild’s  thoroughly  researched and remarkable King Leopold’s Ghost, is estimated to have massacred half the population of the Congo, putting the figure at around 10 million people. We can imagine Leopold in his waning years sitting back with a cool beverage and chuckling over Conrad’s inclusion of the scrawled message “Exterminate all the brutes!” while contemplating a John Martin’s Apocalypse as something he himself had knowingly perpetrated on the people of the Congo.

I’m curious if Jonathan might have a different sense of what apocalypse might have meant to perceptive people in the nineteenth century if half the people of England had been wiped out while having all its natural resources shipped overseas.

About trueoutsider

I'm an artist.
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2 Responses to John Martin’s Apocalypse

  1. Elen says:

    Hi trueoutsider,
    Firstly just want to say I’m v impresed by your blog! I know how hard it is to write interestingly and relevantly on art, and think you do it brilliantly.
    , I think you’re right to challenge Jonathon Jones on his view of the John Martin expo. While I usually really like his blog, I think his views on John Martin were just his way of putting an ‘original spin’ on the argument. But his spin was reductive – Industrial Britain was definitely a place of change and upheaval – and Martin’s own background as coachpainter and engineer points to the fact that the artist was very aware of that industrial and technological revolution. The paintings are full of stars and planets, after all
    (I’ve just seen the expo at the Tate & will be posting my views on John Martin soon – feel free to have a look!)

  2. trueoutsider says:

    Hi Elen,
    Good to hear from you and I’d be delighted to read your post on John Martin if you send a link to it here. I’m envious that you’re able to see the show as well as that you have access to the wonderful collections in London. I’m glad that you don’t find what I’m writing overly provocative. I’m not trying to stir up any hornet’s nests, just pondering the situation. I can’t imagine JJ would ever read this, nor would I imagine it would interest him. I’m just running my little flea circus here in cyberspace as a way to pass the time after a long day’s work.

    I’m not that familiar with JJ’s writing in general, reading little art criticism nowadays. But I’ve begun to feel it a duty to try from time to time to address what is au-courant, and give my take on it.

    I don’t think like art critics or people who don’t paint. I don’t see paintings the way they do–through concepts and theories and explanations. And it’s completely clear to me that so called avant-garde or advanced painting isn’t remotely close to where Chaim Soutine was in the early part of the 20th century…. how it went from that level of brilliance to it’s current “avant-garde” state is what concerns me here.

    I find it incredibly hard to put words to the experience I have of painting. Like Max Beckmann said about teaching art, all I seem to be able to do is point to it.

    One thing I’m certain of is that good, not to mention great, painting doesn’t result from the kind of dogmatic assertions that come from almost all critics or art historians. They’re not at the center of the action. And historically, they’ve invariably missed it completely. And subsequently misinterpreted it. Artists do the same thing as well. Picasso was never a Cubist. The painters who formalized and turned what he was doing into dogma were Cubists, if you take my meaning.

    Avigdor Arikha said an interesting thing. He was asked: “How do you manage not to paint themes and ideas, since you think so much?”

    His reply:
    “When I think I don’t paint. When I paint I can’t think. I’m stupid. Ideas are expressed by words. Painting starts where words stop…..”

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