Friday, 11 November 2011

Graphically Put

On Tuesday 8 November I had one of my regular a follow-up hospital appointments and my wife and I decided to make a day of it by going to an art exhibition beforehand: Apocalypse at Tate Britain.

This is a rehabilitation of John Martin (1789-1854), who worked in the Romantic tradition, in particular as an artist of “the Sublime”, which can be defined as “the quality of greatness, whether physical, moral, intellectual, metaphysical, aesthetic, spiritual or artistic…especially [referring to] a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation.” After initial failures and discouragements, he made a name for himself as the painter of vast, spectacular canvases mainly on Biblical or historical themes.

John Martin (1789-1854)
In the middle of his career he turned more to printmaking, again having success, notably with wonderful illustrations to Milton’s Paradise Lost.

The Creation of Light

Satan in Council
The Prince of Darkness addresses his minions from atop a mysterious sphere. In this illustration Martin makes ambitious use of the mezzotint technique,  most of the image being given over to inky blackness.

Martin has influenced filmmakers and their designers.
Here the evil Senator Palpatine addresses the Galactic Senate in Star Wars. The scene is reminiscent of Satan in Council.
His efforts to market and distribute a series of Biblical illustrations were however less successful and led to financial difficulty. He also devised a grand scheme for the construction of an integrated sewer system along the Thames Embankment and drew up a plan for a railway encircling London. These proposals were visionary and displayed considerable engineering competence, but they were not taken up, it being left to others to pursue these ideas later in the 19th century.

It was time for Martin to go back to big artworks and the centrepiece of the exhibition is the three enormous paintings painted in the closing years of his life, The Plains of Heaven, The Last Judgment and The Great Day of His Wrath. These caused a great stir when put on public display and have a spectacular impact even now.

To my eye, the first two images in this series suggest why Martin fell out of favour in subsequent years, his stock reaching an all-time low in the opening decades of the 20th century. The first one shows a grand vision of Paradise, with rolling green country in the foreground sweeping away to the dazzling domes of the Heavenly City and massive mountains in the far distance. It is beautiful in many ways, but too gaudy and literalistic, with the deep ultramarine of the sky proving sickly. The second painting shows Christ sitting in judgment. On the left side of the picture are those who are being admitted to Paradise, including, tellingly, Low Churchmen and a number of identifiable historical figures (I think I spotted Shakespeare). On the right a train hurtles over a cliff into the eternal darkness of a vast chasm, while in the foreground the damned cower and fall in terror, their number notably including Roman Catholic clerics and The Whore of Babylon. A bit naughty all this, particularly in view of Christ’s injunction that we should not judge lest the finger of judgment point right back at us.

The third painting is however in a different league both in the competence of its conception and execution and in its power to resonate with contemporary sensibilities.

The Great Day of His Wrath
This pixellated version cannot do the massive image justice. Again the debt cinema owes to Martin comes to mind: on the right of the picture whole cities are perched on the surface of the land that is being turned through 180 degrees, reminiscent of some of the scenes in Inception.
Martin’s command of scale and technique is awe-inspiring, even when his pictures do not entirely convince.The critics of his day could be very sniffy about his work and attention was often drawn to the fact that he began his career as a decorator of glass and ceramics rather than in the fine arts; they were particularly hostile to the shades of blue he employed, as their vividness seemed in particular to hark back to his origins as a decorative artist.

In the end it was the smaller works that often had a deeper impact on me, including one from his late years.

The Last Man
The last survivor of some apocalyptic event stands in a landscape of corpses unnaturally lit by a sickly sun.
This theme was treated by other artists of Martin's day and feeds directly into modern preoccupations with plague and disaster. The expression on the man's face is poignant in the extreme (you will have to take my word for it, I am afraid, or go and see the exhibition).

After a light lunch in the excellent café in the gallery’s basement, we had about half an hour to take in some more paintings and we decided to stay with the Romantics, being bowled over by some large-scale works by JMW Turner.

My abiding thought as I look back on the day is that contemplation of a painting is the most extraordinary experience. In most cases nothing (sometimes maybe a sheet of glass) stands physically between the spectator and the work of art. The decades—in some cases centuries—can fall away as you examine the object and try to tease out what it said to its original viewers and what it can mean to you. Great art or music can often take us by surprise, but it is the physicality of visual art that often overwhelms in all its perishable vulnerability.

On Wednesday 9 November it was time for moving images, which John Martin’s work surely anticipates. I am sure Tintin has his detractors but I have yet to meet one. It was with some excitement that I and five others, including my brother and son, met at the cinema in Richmond to see whether the talents of Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and their team of actors, artists and technicians had brought the Belgian boy reporter convincingly to the big screen. The Secret of the Unicorn cleverly conflates at least three of the original Tintin stories and turns an innocent bit-player from one of them into an arch-villain, but the whole is done with such obvious love for Hergé’s creation that Tintin fans all over the world must be for the most part delighted. There was one episode where I thought the CGI and motion capture (of which the entire film consists) had perhaps been allowed to get the upper hand, but the whole experience was most enjoyable and has been worth the wait.

The cover of Tintin in Tibet, the first image of Tintin I ever saw as I unwrapped my godmother's present one Christmas nearly 50 years ago.

Spielberg's offering is not the first cinematic treatment of Tintin. This is the cover of the book of a French film that came out in 1961, whose title translates as the "Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece", which as been described as "the best Tintin story Hergé never wrote".

A scene from the current Tintin movie, in which Captain Haddock aims the wrong end of a bazooka.

My favourite scenes were of a 17th century sea battle, which reminded me of one of the Turners we had seen the previous day at the Tate.

The Shipwreck (1805) by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851).
There is a story that Turner arranged to be lashed to the mast of a ship in as storm in order to be able to treat such a scene  authentically, although this is thought to be of doubtful veracity. The canvas is massive and the image very vivid, different in style from the misty compositions that we chiefly associate with this great innovator.

Good news at the hospital on the Tuesday, by the way: my haemoglobin is now up to 11.

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