Apocalypse: John Martin and the Pensions March

John Martin: ‘The Great Day of his Wrath’ 1853, oil on canvas

After the Public Sector Pensions march across London today, what could be more appropriate than John Martin’s apocalyptic visions at Tate Britain? Early Victorian images showing the end of biblical worlds: Babylon; Sodom; the Christian world at the Second Coming of Christ. Sadly, no painting of George ‘Bloody’ Osbourne struck down by an avenging angel on the occasion of giving his autumn statement.

Towards the end of the exhibition there is a form of ‘son et lumiere’ that imagines the way in which Martin’s final large paintings were toured to the public. Flickering lights, powerful declaiming, cheering crowds; that sort of thing. The results are as successful as the paintings in conjuring up the sublime. But, it is interesting that this sort of vigorous and over-dramatized theatricality was once a central part of showing imagery, often large paintings, even in the 1850’s. We tend to think of this as the period of incipient Modernism, the beginning of aesthetic distance, the cool appraisal with one hand stroking the chin, deep in static thought.

I keep coming back to the role of looking at art. What is the experience of sitting and looking at an art object in a room full of other experiencers in a particular context? I was trained I suppose in the formalist school, the formalist viewer is, in essence, a single point (‘a disembodied punctum’ (Vision and Painting: The Logic of the Gaze Bryson, p. 107). His (and it was usually a male viewer) main function was to divorce form from content; content merely confuses the essential form of an art work. Our job was to enter the pictorial space, aesthetic sword in hand to conquer the beast content; to be at one with the ‘Other’ (Adrian Stokes).

Peter Paul Rubens: ‘A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning’, 1636. Oil on Oak. Oil on oak.131 x 229.cm. National Gallery, London

When I sit on the leather bench in front of Het Steen for hour after hour (see earlier posts) it becomes increasingly apparent that it is impossible to separate the viewing experience from the object. The actual/ real/ pragmatic process of viewing an art object is an integral part of our experience of that object; and is therefore an integral part of the object itself; both content and form. Not in some complex, abstracted, semiotic distanced manner. But in a simpler spatial relationship. In front of the art work we stand/ sit/ run about/ speak on the phone/ listen to our audio guide as we drift past; we are in one form of space and we perceive/ imagine another (the artwork). The act of looking unites the two spaces; they are interdependent and deliberately so.

Watch viewers in galleries, they behave differently in front of different paintings. Why? Because space is arranged differently in different paintings. To understand that space, you the viewer need to move/ think/ approach the image in different ways. What happens in our space, where we stand, the eyeline, how we move eyes/ hand/ body is in direct relation to what is represented or described, it is part of a predictable process that the artist designed in from the start.

And, I mean the start. We might not know what happened at Stonehenge, or Avebury (Avebury is more complete and more inspiring of course) but you can have a fair idea of how what our physical/ spatial relationship to these spaces, and these carefully arranged objects is supposed to be. Where you are supposed to process, which is the bit where you go ‘ooh’, where the early equivalent of the overpriced National Trust gift shop was.

The ‘Venus of Willendorf’ 24,000-22,000 BC. 11 cm high (approx) limestone

Similarly, although I have not held the ‘Venus of Willendorf (that small Neolithic representation of a female figure) in my hand, just looking at it I know that is what I am supposed to do. From those physical/ spatial relationships, meaning and understandings flow.

John Martin: ‘The Last Judgement’, 1846, oil on canvas

I sit on the bench in front of three poorly structured John Martin paintings whose tonal values have been turned up to ten, which contain the same anatomically incorrect figures seen throughout his work: far too large, or small for their surroundings with legs twice as long as their bodies. Their content is risible, their forms are unconvincing. Bearing in mind my thoughts about the role of looking, and with the protesting chants from the day dying away in my ears (“when I say Clegg You say ‘Tory’, when I say Cameron you say: ‘C***” etc), how else can I know that these are not good paintings? The infinite crowds of blessed or the doomed are endlessly repeated by Martin, yet they have no resonance for a man who has just walked and chanted from Lincolns Inn Fields to Victoria Embankment; all together now: “No If’s No But,  No Education Cuts”

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