The apocalyptic spectacles of Romantic painter John Martin are routinely treated by art critics as kitsch, a dismissal which ignores the considerable power and perennial attraction that many of his best pictures possess. Kitsch is a bad thing, it seems, unless you’re Jeff Koons or Jake and Dinos Chapman.
Martin’s most famous work, The Great Day of His Wrath, has raised its tumultuous head again on the cover of Bombs, a recent single by Faithless. The painting depicts a scene from the Book of Revelations with city-capped mountains being upturned onto terrified sinners while lightning cuts through the sky. The video for the song is an anti-war affair by Howard Greenhalgh, juxtaposing innocuous images of everday life with weapons being fired and soldiers being attacked, often in the same shot. So a happy family skips along a beach while a mushroom cloud grows on the horizon. The moral guardians at MTV have duly banned this in order to spare the delicate sensibilities of America’s teenagers. And they wonder why people like YouTube so much? Or Google Video?
Faithless are a bit late to John Martin’s table, Lustmord featured the painting in full on the cover of Heresy in 1990, an album whose doomy rumbles I much prefer to the duo’s lightweight soul. Better late than never, I suppose.