Patrick Painter Inc., Los Angeles (acquired from the artist)
Private Collection, England
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
"In the reworking of The Great Day of His Wrath c. 1851-3, a vision of the end of the world, The Tragic Conversion of Salvador Dalí (after John Martin) 1998 presents a weirdly adjusted version of the original image... Is this a vision of a world unaffected by the power of nature, godless and reliant on the false promise of science as our saviour?"
Julie Milne, 'The abyss that abides', Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate Britain, John Martin: Apocalypse, 2011, p. 56
Glenn Brown's monumental The Tragic Conversion of Salvador Dalí (after John Martin) is a true masterpiece of post-modern painting. Spanning a colossal three metres, this contemporary epic delivers a seamless reconfiguration of John Martin's iconic Biblical apocalypse, The Great Day of His Wrath c.1845-53. As though channelled through the surrealist prism of Salvador Dalí, Brown transforms Martin's endgame nightmare into a hallucinatory Science Fiction fantasy. Executed in 1998, this work heralds the inauguration of Brown's supreme technical mastery of paint. Exhibiting an intensity of unsurpassed technical and conceptual invention, the present work not only stands at the very apotheosis of the artist's extraordinary corpus of monumental sci-fi panoramas, but also ranks as perhaps the most iconic and magnificent work of Glenn Brown's entire creation.
Appearing as a fundamentally key inclusion in every major exhibition of Brown's career to date, the quintessential status of The Tragic Conversion of Salvador Dalí (after John Martin) is utterly infallible. Prestigiously featured in Brown's Turner Prize exhibition in 2000 and conspicuously present as part of his 2009 retrospective at Tate Liverpool, this work was also prominently celebrated during the recent critically acclaimed exhibition at Tate Britain, John Martin: Apocalypse. As a reworking of the most renowned painting from John Martin's Last Judgement triptych - his final ambitious venture and famous resident of the Tate collection - Brown meticulously unpicks and recapitulates the sublime conceit of Martin's heroic project. Articulated with a flawless and painstaking virtuosity that matches and even usurps his 19th Century counterpart, Brown's painting arrests spatial and temporal logic: simultaneously past, present and future collide in a familiar yet alien apocalyptic landscape ethereally suspended on the catastrophic brink of collapse. Herein, Brown's outwardly retrogressive project masterfully scrutinises the conditions of the 19th Century sublime landscape from a distinctly 21st Century standpoint. While the terms of authorship are critically invoked in Brown's purposeful appropriation, this complex painting outstrips mere issues of plagiarism and artistic ownership: with unrivalled dramatic monumentality and pictorial majesty The Tragic Conversion of Salvador Dalí (after John Martin) forcefully crystallises the complex and multivalent painterly deviance at the core of Glenn Brown's incredible artistic project.
Predating the execution of the present work, the influence of John Martin has played a centrally integral role in shaping the epic grandeur of Brown's galactic 'spacescapes' ever since they were first initiated in the early 1990s. In 1994 writer and friend of the artist, Phil King recalled the installation of Ornamental Despair (Painting for Ian Curtis) - a colossal work derived from the science fiction master illustrator Chris Foss' 1976 'Asteroid Hunters': "I see what he means about the influence of John Martin's Triptych in the Tate Gallery - the apocalyptic Victorian paintings haunt its surface." Executed four years later, The Tragic Conversion of Salvador Dalí (after John Martin) celebrates the 19th Century painter of the apocalyptic sublime in full force.
Behind the obsessive immaculacy of his meticulous brushwork Brown subtly veils a paradoxical and anachronistic collision. Cogently expressed by Jennifer Higgie: "In the Tragic Conversion of Savlador Dalí (after John Martin)... an image of the future wrestles with a futuristic vision from the past, filtered through the complex relationship the artist has with the memory of memorable paintings" (Jennifer Higgie, 'Glenn Brown', Frieze, June 1999, n.p.). Our own recollection and memory of John Martin's iconic trope of sublime destruction is imaginatively played with and distorted. Twisted, turned upside down and reconfigured into a new compositional cogency, Brown's chimerical work, though invoking a pronounced sense of verisimilitude to Martin's original, totally supersedes and unravels a reading of mere imitation. Although focally anchored by the same waning orange sun, the extant compositional elements of Martin's biblical storm appear contorted and pulled around this central pivot. The sweeping thrust of Martin's tumbling tidal wave of landmass no longer threatens to annihilate the fleeing hoards below, rather, human presence is evacuated and the collapsing townscape has been flipped and resituated as an untouched luminous citadel securely positioned in the midst of a tumultuous vaporous stratosphere. What's more, distanced from Martin's volcanic terror, colossal gravity-defying rock formations hover suspended in a weightless atmosphere reminiscent of some gaseous planetary surface, while Brown's radioactive palette, luminous sfumato and flowing brushwork confers an otherworldly and ethereal Technicolor intensity. The sublime destruction of Martin's biblical apocalypse is here tempered by a cinemascopic hallucination poised on the verge of planetary collapse. Brown transports a devastating vision of the world's end firmly tied to the 19th Century collective-imagination into the realm of 1970s science fiction. Herein, the quasi-apocalyptic sci-fi concerto of The Tragic Conversion of Salvador Dali (after John Martin) offers a spectacular commentary on Martin's aesthetic sublime.
John Martin became famous and tremendously popular towards the mid-1800s for his sensationalist landscapes of biblical disaster and catastrophe. Alongside the extant panels in Martin's final great triptych of c.1851-3, The Great Day of His Wrath was inspired by a passage in St John the Divine's fantastical account of the Last Judgement. To be found in Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, St John describes the cataclysmic and terrifying devastation following the moment when the sixth seal securing the Book of Judgement is broken. In this sublime moment, Man is utterly helpless against the full apocalyptic force of nature; God's divine will is proven absolute and insurmountable. In Martin's theatrically embellished depiction, fleeing hoards tumble inexorably into the great abyss while the volcanic glow of a blood red sun casts an eerie light over the spectacular annihilation of an entire city. Masterfully broadcasted by the Tragic Conversion of Salvador Dalí (after John Martin), Brown subtly invokes the ambiguous polar opposition of science versus religion, whilst bridging the historical and temporal gap between these two ostensibly disparate yet distinctly related visual worlds, to deliver a subversive clash of the Romantic Sublime with populist science fiction.
As influentially defined by Edmund Burke's Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, during the 18th and 19th Century panoramic vistas of nature were the principle awe-inducing exponents of the pictorial Sublime as connected to an elucidation of God's all powerfulness. Herein, the immaculate lamina and trompe l'oeil detail of Brown's warped translation of Martin's The Great Day of His Wrath is dislocated from its 19th Century sublime conceit. "In the reworking of The Great Day of His Wrath c. 1851-3", Julie Milne describes, "a vision of the end of the world, The Tragic Conversion of Salvador Dalí (after John Martin) 1998 presents a weirdly adjusted version of the original image... Is this a vision of a world unaffected by the power of nature, godless and reliant on the false promise of science as our saviour?" (Julie Milne, 'The abyss that abides', Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate Britain, John Martin: Apocalypse, 2011, p. 56). Where the Martin's sublime panorama is inextricably related to the awesome force of God's omnipotence, Brown's somewhat retrogressive 1970s vision of the future depicts a time and place beyond humanity and earthly religion.
With typical ambiguity however, Brown stipulates how religion is far from absent in his science fiction landscapes: "The science fiction paintings do have a sentimental religious subject: Jesus the Living Dead (After Adolf Schaller), 1997-1998, was always perceived as the view of Jesus from the cross thinking: 'My Lord why hast Thou forsaken me; Bocklin's Tomb (After Chris Foss), 1998, was a religious place of rest for an atheist; The Tragic Conversion of Salvador Dalí (After John Martin), 1998, is Dalí's destruction after his conversion to Catholicism, which marked the end of his great works, and the transition to his more kitsch hyper-realist stage. Religion is inevitably entwined with the history of painting in that most of the great painting of the past 600 years has been commissioned by or dedicated to Catholicism" (the artist in: Exhibition Catalogue, Bignan, Domaine de Kerguéhennec centre d'arte contemporain centre culturel de recontre, Glenn Brown, 2000, pp. 69-70). In the aftermath of Nietzsche's declaration of God's death and as a self-confessed atheist himself, Brown paradoxically incites, or quotes, the religious beginnings of art history as the validatory platform for his retrogressive contribution to contemporary high-art painting: "I am not trying to fill the void, which is left by a lack of faith. I am trying to decorate a work that is genuinely without faith. Without the doctrines of religion you have to play out moralist games in order to come up with a construction of morality, which are derived from historical events" (Ibid., p. 70).
Neither a painting of sublime apocalypse nor fully belonging to the world of science fiction, The Tragic Conversion of Salvador Dalí (after John Martin) confers a glorious hybrid of high art and low culture; science and religion; past and future. Brown breaks down conventions and interrupts the preconditions of science fiction as much as he alludes to and contravenes the iconic spectacle of Hieronymus Bosch's underworld imaginings, the romantic landscapes of Turner or even the kitsch hyper-realism of Salvador Dalí. As clarified by the artist: "I like the paintings to be sitting nervously on a fence. Neither one thing nor another" (the artist in: Exhibition Catalogue, Liverpool, Tate Liverpool, Glenn Brown, 2009. p. 143). Embodying a spectacularly archival host of citations and seamless melding of disparities, Brown's painting after John Martin delivers an enigmatic and ingeniously deviant painterly crossbreed.
Fundamentally Glenn Brown is a painter of paintings: his works intervene and distort the canon of art history by directly employing the terms of our contemporary experience of it - a visual encounter that today is utterly mediated by an image saturated culture of mass reproduction. Crucially, it is the inconsistency of the mass-produced facsimile ubiquitous to art books, exhibition catalogues and infinitely replicated within the fathomless hyperspace of the computer screen, that provides Brown with his primary avenue for investigation. Instead of drawing directly from the original, Brown's imagination is fired by "the somewhat sad reproduction" for its aberrant pictorial deviation (the artist in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Serpentine, Glenn Brown, 2004, p. 95). Dodgy colour levels, blurred or manipulated photography and distortive scaling form the point of departure for Brown's retroactive painterly intervention. By expertly wielding an anachronistic Old-Master technique, Brown painstakingly mimics the immaculate two-dimensional sheen of the photographic reproduction that in turn elides any inference of human intervention. The mechanically reproduced and mass proliferated image becomes the host through which Brown dissects, splices, mutates and clones the already genetically flawed replications of historically iconic works of art.
Accompanying the compression of John Martin into an altered and eerily faultless painted lamina, Brown's repertoire of art historical 'borrowings' trace a lineage beginning with Rembrandt and Fragonard, the surrealist imaginings of Salvador Dalí, through to the Abstract Expressionism of Willem de Kooning, Karel Appel and the thickly impastoed portraiture of Frank Auerbach. Of the latter, Brown's mastery of trompe l-oeil illusionism is most apparent in the 'flattened' body of work after Auerbach's iconic portraits of Juliet Yardley Mills. It is prescient to note however that Brown's practice is not simply embroiled in a critique on artistic ownership and originality. Though inheritor to the legacy of Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince (Brown even courted Prince styled law-suits during his Turner Prize exhibition in 2000 for closely replicating Tony Roberts science fiction illustration 'Double Star'), Brown's work represents an evolution in the next generation of appropriation art. Brown's extensive yet largely identifiable supply of sources are fundamentally decontextualised, resituated and sampled, not for political aims or to critique their appropriated subject matter, but out of an insalubrious fetish and love affair with painting itself. As propounded by Alison Gingeras, "his motivation to appropriation seems more born out of lovingly fetishising his sources, whether obscure or iconic art works. He carries the appropriationist torch to the next level" (Alison Gingeras, 'Glenn Brown: A Careful Concoction of Push and Pull", Tate Etc. Issue 15, Spring 2009, p. 42). According to Brown, his insular choice of subject matter is taken from life: "As far as I'm concerned I'm painting things from real life. Like a painter going out and painting the landscape and the buildings, these paintings that I use do already exist and they are part of my life, my education and my way of understanding the world through art" (the artist cited in: Jonathan Brown, 'A real scene stealer: Glenn Brown's 'second hand' art is the subject of a Tate retrospective', The Independent online, 16 February 2009). The claustrophobic remit of such a creative repository and the arduously isolated execution his paintings require, position Brown's practice as somewhat creatively anaemic. By constructing paintings out of the residue and dead parts of other artists' work, Brown, in an act of eerie resurrection and art historical revivification that invokes Dr. Frankenstein, forges a disconcerting and uncanny pictorial composite. To quote Christopher Grunenberg: "the original image remains but is a strangely cold and artificial reflection of the model's assumed expressive and existential impetus, leaving only an emptied and flattened shell" (Christopher Grunenberg, 'Capability Brown: Spectacles of Hyperrealism, The Panorama and Abject Horror in the Painting of Glenn Brown', Exhibition Catalogue, Liverpool, Tate Liverpool. Glenn Brown, 2009, p. 17).
Out of Brown's fetishistic obsession emerges the incestuous product of art-historical self-referentiality: values are upturned, hierarchies are unseated and painting turns upon itself in an act of artistic cannibalism. Via the second-hand information of the deficient facsimile Brown mutates canonical portraits from the past into toxic looking victims of radiation poisoning. Though his chosen 'art-hosts' appear seemingly disparate and unconnected, the entirety of Brown's oeuvre co-exists as part of some fantastically schizophrenic alternate reality: "I don't see science fiction as a separate realm. I genuinely see all these subjects as coming from the same world... they are unified in my imagination" (the artist in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Serpentine Gallery, Glenn Brown, 2004, p. 97). We can easily envisage the monstrous extra-terrestrial creatures after Auerbach's J.Y.M. as natural inhabitants of the epic planetary vistas and futuristic townscapes, while the radioactive bodies after Fragonard and Rembrandt appear as the nuclear fall-out victims of Brown's inter-planetary sci-fi apocalypse. Indeed, it is as though Glenn Brown has compressed Art History into the simulated virtual reality of a science fiction computer game.
The groundless disembodiment and impossible compression of Brown's paintings confers a computer screen-like reading that truly evokes the four-dimensional conditions of hyperspace. In a visual age mediated by computer manipulation, Martin's biblical devastation has been usurped for cinematic post-Star Wars special effects. Significantly, since the late 1990s Brown has employed the use of Photoshop as a preparatory aid to create his fantastical syntheses, which in turn contributes to the filtered and processed super-realist look of his remarkable painted surfaces. By venturing into the impossible space of the virtual, Brown's movement into the realm of the digital expands Walter Benjamin's postulation that mechanical reproduction alters the original. By entering and engineering his painterly concepts using computers, Brown circumvents traditional space and time coordinates. Michael Stubbs argues: "His works are markers for the future of painting because they are both surface effect and material methodology, not despite of the screen but because of it. His object/paintings are in a flux of permanent conundrum, they anticipate and reach back into history while simultaneously repositioning history as future; as hypersurface" (Michael Stubbs, 'Glenn Brown: No Visible Means of Support', Exhibition Catalogue, Liverpool, Tate Liverpool, Op. Cit., p. 108). Where the disembodiment of the screen's multi-dimensional hypersurface has utterly usurped the printed facsimile, Glenn Brown integrates the flawless aesthetic of the computer and its weightless suspension of time and space into the immaculate surface of his meticulously hand-painted panoramas. With an aesthetic that foreshadows the look of 21st Century interstellar video games, Glenn Brown compresses the entirety of art history into one image. With unparalleled theatricality The Tragic Conversion of Salvador Dalí (after John Martin) truly posits Glenn Brown as the undisputed Science Fiction chronicler of an apocalyptic Art History.
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