In hindsight it seemed ironic travelling to Pimlico and visiting Tate Britain to catch a glimpse of John Martin’s exhibition on Friday the 13th. Nevertheless, I did, and thoroughly enjoyed the vibrancy of the infernal palette Martin used to depict his spectacular representations of religious apocalypses and natural disasters. The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (1821) was one of my favourite paintings. The history of the canvas is quite interesting, too, as I read on the explanatory panel:
In the early hours of 7 January 1928, the Tate Gallery experienced a disastrous flood. The Thames embankment ruptured, and waters surged into the basement and lower galleries, submerging significant portions of the library, archive and art collections. John Martin’s The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum was one of the pictures badly damaged. The artist’s reputation was at its lowest ebb, and the work was dismissed as ‘completely ruined’.
Ironic that a painting seeking to capture the frightful force of the volcanic eruption that swallowed up the two Roman cities in AD 79 would, in turn, be destroyed by the elemental fury of water. As in a strange ‘rock-paper-scissors’ game, in 1928, when Martin’s fame had already suffered a considerable decline, the Thames got one over Vesuvius! The restorers of the painting, which was one of the highlights of this exhibition, however, had a slightly easier task than one would have expected: a smaller replica of the canvas, painted by Martin himself, survived, providing the perfect model for the latest reconstruction. The paintings hang side by side, with the replica coming first, allowing the viewer to appreciate the sheer scale of the original work.
As in much of Martin’s work, the landscape follows the conventions of the sublime, the kind of aesthetic approach seeking to combine beauty and horror. Sharp alpine peaks, icy glaciers and deep, barren valleys would typically be associated with this appreciation of nature as the simultaneous source of wonder and destruction. Far from static, whatever the setting, the sublime landscape is designed to enhance dramatic tension. Even in an age where our eyes are over-exposed to the graphic imagery of catastrophic disasters on a daily basis, the sublime still grabs us with a stronger hold than the ‘real’ images of news reports. In Martin’s work, the force of the natural elements seems to exceed the boundaries of the frame and, simultaneously, draw us into the heat of the volcano’s incendiary embrace. The thick cloud of pink smoke, the bright shoots of lava jutting out of the crater and the darkness of the wave -surge all display the kind of elemental wrath against which human spectators can do nothing but acknowledge their insignificance.
What’s most effective is the imminent sense of the incumbent catastrophe. We are witnessing the end as it is happening. Sailing boats are about to capsize, wrecked by the tsunami caused by the eruption. Awaiting their fate, the diminutive human figures at the forefront of Martin’s painting are mementos of our vulnerability. Yet, in spite of their powerless condition, we recognise the powerful traces of human narratives in the fragments of life about to be wiped out by the eruption. On the right hand side, we spot a pregnant woman, bare breasted and supported by two Roman centurions. In the middle is a couple, exchanging one last kiss, bidding farewell to their life together. Even in the face of nature’s uncontrollable wrath, Martin’s attention for the minute details of the human actors (victims?) of his vision brings us a strange sense of relief dictated by the inevitable acceptance of our fragile condition.
The intensity of Martin’s red hues worked well, for me, to counterbalance the greyness of the month after Christmas. The exhibition is on until tomorrow, 15 January. Catch it if you can… the end is nigh!
(and if you did see the exhibition, do share your views…)