Thursday, 27 October 2011
' . . . and the hotel was even worse'
John Martin’s painting ‘Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion’ (1812) lends itself to cheap shots like the title I’ve given this post. The first impression given by Martin’s works, currently on show at Tate Britain, is one of slickness and a limited vocabulary. Martin was never very good with the human figure (mostly the figures are satisfactory only as distant marching armies or fleeing crowds). And yet I don’t feel that the curatorial link to recent ‘effects’ movies (or to the Saatchi world of ‘sensation’) does him any favours. There is an element of belief in these works that for the most part is entirely absent from the world of the cinema blockbuster or that of the Chapman brothers. The paintings only connect with these recent practises through a lowest common denominator. The compensations are unexpected ones, such as the wildflowers visible in Martin’s images of Paradise, or some of the atmospheric effects once you’ve gotten past the volcanoes and collapsing rocks. The funnels at the centre of many of these works appear, as some viewers have noted, like medical images from an intestinal tract. It is easy to see why these paintings were popular and why they became unpopular (one particular work had to be substantially restored after flood damage - ironically enough – in the Tate basement where it had long been stored). They are crude, placed beside Turner or Constable, though not without their own merits.