Jul 05 2011
Exhibition Programmer Alison Morton on working on the exhibition John Martin: Painting the Apocalypse.
'The John Martin exhibition has been great fun to curate. Lots of the paintings are big and brash, which means it has been very easy to display them in an eye-catching, engaging way.
'The exhibition was co-curated by the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle and Tate Britain but they kindly gave us leeway to change the emphasis of the story for its showing in Sheffield, allowing us to highlight the connections between John Martin’s pictures and contemporary culture. Martin’s influence on modern film is well documented but you don’t have to read the books, you can see it for yourself in the exhibition; we have a cinema in the gallery showing Clash of the Titans (1981), One Million Years BC (1966) and 2012 (2009) in rotation, each of which find their inspiration in Martin’s work. We are also showing paintings by contemporary artist Gordon Cheung, who has made work which directly responds to some of Martin’s pictures in the show. Cheung replaces Martin’s apocalyptic visions with his own modern day equivalent, such as the iconic image of the man facing an oncoming the tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
'It’s hard to appreciate now just how unconventional Martin was for his time. When other artists were painting large, prominent figures in their compositions, Martin’s figures were tiny, each overpowered and overwhelmed by the elements and the landscape. He added in figures like in a collage, only including them after a painting was finished. This nonconformist style could well have been due to his lack of formal art training – it certainly gave him a shaky reputation with the art establishment – but the public loved his daring theatrical pictures. He even toured his paintings to non-gallery venues throughout the UK, America and Australia, which in the 1800s was no mean feat! The largest three pictures in the exhibition, titled ‘The Last Judgement’ actually came to Sheffield in 1856 and their impact was described by the local paper at the time as ‘…beyond anything ever known before in connexion with fine art…’
'In many ways John Martin was the Damian Hirst of his day. He was controversial and never failed to turn the heads of the media, the public and the art establishment. I love this exhibition because it really shows a clear visual connection between historic art and contemporary life and culture, and it does it in a way that I think many visitors will appreciate.'
John Martin, The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852). Courtesy Laing Art Gallery (Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums)
John Martin, The Last Judgement (1853) © Tate, London, 2011