When I was a child, we visited my grandparents in outer London for a fortnight every Summer, and I would be taken round the Science Museum and the Tate Gallery. I got from my father the lesson that Culture needs effort to understand it, and is worth that effort, and often I would think that is true. Bach violin partitas, initially unlistenable for me, on repeated exposure became captivating and wonderful.
In my early teens, bored in the Tate, I came across John Martin for the first time, and I was captivated immediately.
There is an exhibition of his works at Tate Britain until 15 January. I was captivated, particularly, by those suspended huge boulders, just starting to fall, in “The Great Day of His Wrath”. Of course a huge amount of painting invites the imagination to show what happens next, but this was my introduction to that. I had an instant, visceral response to the armies of Gog and Magog and the Whore of Babylon in “The Last Judgment”. I found “The Plains of Heaven” comparatively uninteresting, though I began to notice beauty in it: it was something worth looking at, not just something I looked at because I was told to.
The paintings are about two metres by three, though in my memory they are much bigger than that, overwhelming panels the size of a wall, to match their emotional impact. I read that in the current exhibition they are illuminated a part at a time, with a commentary and music, in a fifteen minute show. The original viewers, before Cinema, would have seen them in even lighting on gallery walls and been invited, as I was, into an immediate mental drama, as the eye takes in the armies in steam trains, the Great Gulf Fixed, the zigzag lightning and oceans of lava.
I am not aware of the context, but now as my eye moves round The Last Judgment taking in Jesus’ return in glory, the angel with the Trumpet, the blessed, I think of Kandinsky and early Joan Miro with separate subjects in one painting, in relationship but no longer in one perspective.