Continuing the history of past paintings and why I consider them “Keyworks” in my own development as an artist.
I remember having an big sumptuously illustrated book about the formation of the Earth. One double page spread artist’s impression featured seas of molten lava, meteorites plummeting into towering cliffs and a steamy, swirling, angry sky. The other pages featured more text, pictures of ferns and fossils, plains of placidly grazing dinosaurs and a particularly hirsute chap with a club. It was the rivers of fire and doom laden sky that grabbed my attention, not the dinosaurs or even the bloke with the club; Jurassic Park wasn’t a thing back then.
Later when I got taken to the cinema, it was the epics – on cinemascope screens that stretched for ever, a thirty foot high Charlton Heston stoically clamping his jaw and battling the odds, Ben Hur and the fleets of galleys raining fireballs from one side of the cinema to the other with the drums beating out ramming speed. I re-enacted that and all of the chariot race with my LEGO whist the soundtrack (which my mum had on record) looped around my head.
Nothing grabs our attention more viscerally than a disaster movie. whether it be brought on by act of God, aliens, weather or just our own stupidity, and I must have gone to see most of them over the subsequent years. I sat patiently through the love interest, sympathised with the expert whose warnings went unheeded (but still hoped no-one would do anything in time), and looked forward to the hopefully spectacular panorama of destruction which was the main climax of the film, and had been featured so prominently in the trailer. I gripped my seat when it rumbled (in the absence of any credible CGI, shaking the seat about was a thing), donned cardboard 3D glasses as polystyrene rubble was hurled towards me and watched in awe as yet again Charlton Heston saved the day.
Before disaster movies, alien invasions, atomic bombs, and even back before Charlton Heston, there was; the Bible.
Now, I am not religious, but I would say when it comes to apocalyptic scenarios the Bible has got all the Hollywood screen writers well beat. Coupled with faith, churches, priests and unrivalled organisational back up, this was for hundreds of years the only show in town. Pretty much every artist had to refer to the Bible. The only exception was paintings of rich people (mainly men), and stuff they owned. Paintings that pandered to popular culture had to be veiled (or in the case of nudes, unveiled) in a veneer of classical allegory or religious instruction.
But the schadenfreude and desire for spectacle that was to ultimately lead to The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, Deep impact, Armageddon, Earthquake etc was was being catered for even before the advent of cinemascope and Charlton Heston.
Martin, Danby and Turner
“Martin has often been claimed as a forerunner of the epic cinema, and there is no doubt that the pioneer director D. W. Griffith was aware of his work”Wikipedia entry on John Martin
I first came across these and similar works whilst studying History of Art at Working Men’s College in 1982, and I was stunned at first by the sheer scale – these are big; the biggest, the Francis Danby Deluge is 15 feet by 9 feet, and I can only imagine the effect they would have had on an audience that was both religious and unfamiliar with such vast images. All these artists were aware of each other and to a certain extent rivals. John Martin had strong mercenary streak and his large paintings were closely connected with contemporary dioramas or panoramas, popular entertainments in which large painted cloths were displayed, and animated by the skilful use of artificial light. Martin has often been claimed as a forerunner of the epic cinema, and there is no doubt that the pioneer director D. W. Griffith was aware of his work.
“It shall make more noise than any picture ever did before… only don’t tell anyone I said so.” John Martin
As a painter and printmaker I found myself gravitating towards the paintings and mezzotints of John Martin, and as my work moved toward abstraction I found my paintings strongly influenced by the mood and tone of these paintings and the feeling I had, and still have, watching apocalyptic films on a big screen. “The Deluge” has been a reoccurring title amongst my paintings since the early 1980s.
These days I am not painting cavasses as large as I did in the 1980s (although 1000mm x 1500mm comes nowhere the near the size of those earlier delugists), but I do now have a 55 inch TV set which I’m sure would make John Martin’s eyes water!