LONDON (Reuters) - The public adored John Martin’s apocalyptic images of destruction and chaos yet the art establishment shunned him, helping to consign the British artist’s works to the storage vaults.
Now a new show at London’s Tate Britain gallery seeks to remind modern viewers what all the fuss was about nearly 200 years ago, when thousands of people queued to see Martin’s work.
Charting the artist’s rise to stardom, fall from grace and brief posthumous rehabilitation, “John Martin: Apocalypse” represents the largest display of Martin’s works seen in public since 1822.
The exhibition, which runs from September 21-January 15, 2012 also features Martin’s “lost” masterpiece, “The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum,” painted in 1821 but badly damaged in a flood in 1928.
Experts have carried out a painstaking restoration of the large, dramatic canvas, and the work will be seen in public for the first time in almost a century.
“His images touched the lives of thousands of ordinary people in Britain and around the world, but his reputation has suffered from art world snobbery and misunderstanding,” said Martin Myrone, curator of the show.
Martin is best known for his large canvases depicting spectacular scenes from the Bible, legend and history in which the romanticized backdrop — architectural or natural — dwarfs the human element.
Among the earliest examples on display in the exhibition is “Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion,” dated 1812, based on James Ridley’s popular Orientalist fantasy “Tales of the Genii.”
Myrone said the picture was deliberately designed and executed to have maximum impact at the Royal Academy exhibition where it was first displayed.
He said Martin chose the upright format rather than the more familiar landscape, and painted in bright red to draw viewers’ attention to the dramatic work.
“John Martin was trying to make a name for himself and grab public attention,” Myrone told reporters at a preview of the show.
The tactic worked, and Martin built on his early success with a series of blockbuster paintings, notably “Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon” (1816), “The Fall of Babylon” (1819) and “Belshazzar’s Feast” (1820).
Two were purchased by Martin’s former employer in 1821 and went on display in a touring exhibition around the country that was highly profitable for the organizers but made little or no money for Martin himself.
The artist, never slow to eye a commercial opportunity, aimed to match the success of that tour with his own solo exhibition in London, where “The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum” was the centerpiece.
Soon after, he turned his attention to producing a series of mezzotint engravings to illustrate John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” after receiving a hefty commission.
His work with prints helped spread his fame around the world, although they did little to enamor the critics who became increasingly hostile to his work.
John Ruskin, the arbiter of artistic taste in the 19th century, once wrote: “Martin’s works are merely a common manufacture, as much makeable to order as a tea-tray or a coal-scuttle.”
Myrone said he suspected “some form of class prejudice” in such judgments, while Tate Britain director Penelope Curtis saw parallels between Martin’s self-promotion and that of contemporary artist Damien Hirst.
The exhibition, organized roughly chronologically, dedicates a separate room to Martin’s “Last Judgment” triptych painted toward the end of his life.
According to the Tate, the pictures were on show from 1854, the year of Martin’s death, until the 1870s, travelled across Britain as well as to New York and Australia and were seen by up to eight million members of the public.
By the turn of the 20th century, they were out of sight and out of mind, dismissed as examples of Victorian “bad taste.”
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato