Visited the John Martin show at the Tate Britain yesterday with Ramon Lobato. Some thoughts posted to the exhibition blog:
No question but that as a painter Martin is a one-trick pony, but what a trick! He is wise to reduce his human characters to cyphers, and to cast them into the formal vocabulary of poses that had developed as a language of theatrical emotion by the 1820s. They are there, like explorers standing next to glaciers, to give scale, and perhaps to gesture towards an affective response. But it wasn’t the paintings that drew me. I had never seen the mezzotints in the flesh, and even decent reproductions don’t do justice to his technique. Even more exciting were the three (?)lithographs: a technique still new at the time,m which he treats almost like ink and watercolour sketching. These print works sit between the blockbuster paintings as public spectacle and the mass reproduction of artworks that Rubens for one had turned into a business. Ruskin was perhaps too precious, in his preference for art distinct from popular culture: it’s as illuminating to see Martin as precursor to the travelogue genre of prints in the Illustrated London Evening News as to Frith or Egg. The prints make that articulation apparent: even if they risk that aspoect of kitsch which made Greenberg so furious, not its spurious aesthetic but the fact that it allowed dictators the opportunity to masquerade as ordinary people. Victoria and Albert were the founders of this, imperial monarchs masquerading middle-class domesticity. Martin’s position is interesting because he both caters to the yearning for sublimity and passion in the banality of the emerging industrial century, and reveals the cataclysmic results, should that yearning ever become reality. Something of the ‘Romantic agony’ of the Victorian unconscious – which the little brochure rightly associates 80-odd years later with CB de Mille. If he is to be called a great artist, it would have to be because he demonstrates the inhumanity of the sublime as such, and was an early observer of the truth of capital that Benjamin formulated: we witness the extermination of the species as the highest form of entertainment.