Art and Architecture, Books for the News, History and Philosophy of Science

An apocalyptic ge(ne)ology: The Earth on Show

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John Martin (1789-1854), English Romantic painter, was born the same week that the Bastille was stormed—an event whose sturm und drang might be said to eerily echo the grandiose theatrical visions of Martin’s work in oils. Martin’s large-scale paintings bore the influence of contemporary diorama culture—indeed, Martin even claimed that D. W. Griffith was aware of his work and many see his panoramic, imaginative works as precursors to epic cinema. During the last four years of his life, in particular, Martin furthered his scenes of apocalyptic destruction and disaster by engaging with a triptych of biblical subjects: The Great Day of His Wrath, The Last Judgment, and The Plains of Heaven.
This week, the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle opened a major new exhibition of Martin’s work, which will run through the end of April before traveling to the Tate Museum later this year. This is the largest public exhibition of Martin’s work since his death and the first exhibition devoted to the painter in more than thirty years, and it will include both previously unseen and newly restored paintings. Paying particular attention to how Martin’s populism fits within the larger narrative of British art, the exhibition also connects to larger questions of showmanship, science, epic morality, and today’s charged social and political culture.
In The Earth on Show: Fossils and the Poetics of Popular Science, 1802-1856, Ralph O’Connor demonstrates how Martin’s art helped to give birth to the modern geological imagination. The story of the nineteenth-century geological writers—James Parkinson, John Playfair, William Buckland, James Rennie, and others—is a saga on par with the theatricality of Martin’s paintings. Backed by other men of science, clergymen, and hacks who borrowed freely from the Bible, poetry, and the panorama industry, these pioneering scientists piqued the public imagination by recasting the story of creation with uncouth mammoths, talking dinosaurs, and serpentine sea dragons in lieu of Adam and Eve. Just as Martin’s paintings circulated through a public sphere half charged by fear of a coming moral apocalypse and half enthralled by new theatrical opportunities, so too did Victorian geological writing enter into the discourse of the wider Bible-reading public.
The Earth on Show garnered several prizes, including the Michelle Kendrick Memorial Book Prize from the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts, and the Best Book Award from the British Society for Literature and Science—with Martin’s retrospective as impetus, it’s as good a time as any to revisit its enthusiasm for the days when paleontological wonders first went public.
The Great Day of His Wrath (1851-53), John Martin. Courtesy of the Tate, London, 2010.