Elective Affinities III: Blockbusters, then and now

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou

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John Martin, The Great Day of His Wrath, 1851-1853, oil on canvas, Tate Gallery, London (photo: http://www.tate.org.uk/)

John Martin, The Great Day of His Wrath, 1851-1853, oil on canvas, Tate Gallery, London (photo: http://www.tate.org.uk/)

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Roland Emmerich, 2012 (photo: http://filmwonk.net/)

Roland Emmerich, 2012 (photo: http://filmwonk.net/)

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Is John Martin’s mid-nineteenth century painting, part of a triptych known as the Judgment Series, all that different from Emmerich’s destruction extravaganza of 2009? John Martin blends the grandiose, the sensational and the kitsch, in a vision that would have struck his viewers with awe. What he achieves with oil on canvas, Emmerich achieves with CGI, using the same combination of large-scale natural disaster and diminutive human presence. Martin’s documented commercial success in the nineteenth century testifies to his painting’s popular entertainment value. The fact that he was quickly forgotten after that, to the fickleness of this very entertainment. Emmerich’s films will probably sink to obscurity as well. But the urge to impress and terrify the masses will survive.

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Previous Elective Affinities:

La belle et la bête

The Duellists

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