Monday, 3 September 2012

John Martin, the Great Day of His Wrath (1853)





The sky is ablaze with burning flames and the earth splits asunder- the image of an impending apocalypse looms. Those paintings are impregnated with forebodings of the demise of all living things, and can be served as memento mori- mostly cautionary tales that remind people of their mortality. Landscape paintings that depict the biblical scenes of eternal damnation (most often the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah) are sometimes reinterpreted as prophetic visions of the end of the world. Painters as early as one in the Romantic period, John Martin, conjured up images that continued to awe and frighten the viewers of today.

In John Martin’s The Great Day of His Wrath (1853) a volcano erupts and its ashes and fire surge towards the air, rendering the sky an infernal red. One can easily establish himself into the painting and feel the quake rumble under his feet. The earth takes a topsy-turvydom, where the ground and sky suddenly become one. There are people in the painting who, dwarfed by the horrendous landscape to a horde of small ants, cling onto the shaky cliffs to struggle on their vain existence. This is the scene when the happening precedes its harbinger; all in the blink of an eye we might all vanish, engulfed by the fire and all in a whirl.



Our painting is immediately reminiscent of J.M.W. Turner’s, another English landscape painter whose posthumous fame outstrips that of Martin’s, Eruption of Vesuvius (1817). In Turner’s painting the juxtaposition of light and dark is more pronounced, as seen in the fire bursting from the crater is wrought almost blinkingly white. There is more of a feeling of marvel and beauty, an aesthetic that almost borders upon serenity that accompanies this outrageous disaster, when viewing the painting. Looking at the painting I harbour a hope, a hope for those that escape unscathed and witness the horrible event from afar. It is often the times when tomorrow still seems a long distance away, and we just seize on to the moment when we are still alive, and that makes us inexpressibly blissful.



It is hard not to reference Joachim Patinir when Martin and Turner are discussed in conjunction. In the Flemish master’s Landscape with the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1520) the disastrous scene is partially blocked by the rock formation installed arbitrarily in the middle of the painting. At the other side of the rock shows a rather peaceful scene with the angels gleefully rambling- an ironic contrast to the great disaster just one stone away. Patinir followed the convention of putting in one painting two images of contrasting moods and values. Viewers are then asked to choose the path of either eternal damnation or salvation (like the traditional format of a Prodigal Son painting). The purpose is often to face and root out the vices lodge in human hearts, and so as to inspire moral conscience.

With the advance of technology and scientific reasoning people however are still inclined to consult natural occurrences for signs and warnings. Preternatural landscape paintings like Martin’s inevitably become a vehicle for soothsaying. When our painting was exhibited some art critics saw it as a response to the emerging industrial scene of London. The scholars often apply a more negative reading to the painting, yet if they focused on the sunlight that seems to break out from the thronging clouds, the hope is nigh.

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