Alexander Moffat and John Bellany
It is appropriate to begin our story in the summer of 1962 as this was an incredibly difficult period for John and me, marking a crucial turning-point in our artistic aims and beliefs. By the early 1960s, abstraction had become accepted as the chief twentieth century tradition, while figurative models of painting came to be regarded as out-dated and retrograde. How could we as young artists abandon this new tradition for an old one, without selling-out our cherished belief in progress? In those days there was a limited range of figurative painters on view, but we managed to install Picasso, Matisse and above all, Léger as our modern heroes. By now, our intentions had undergone a radical change and we had a new programme to build - that of renewing and re-vitalising the central tradition of European Figurative Painting.
By making regular visits to the Scottish National Gallery we began to find out about great painting for the very first time. Velasquez's 'Old Woman Cooking Eggs', painted when he was nineteen years old, our own age, suddenly made us realise just how much we had to learn before we could call ourselves artists. John now worked with a growing technical virtuosity and developing sense of vision, laying down solid foundations while at the same time establishing a recognisable style of his own.
In August 1962, we met the great poet, Hugh MacDiarmid. There can be no doubt that MacDiarmid became a towering influence at this stage. His unique blend of communism and nationalism appealed to our youthful idealism as did his aggressive stance against timidity and parochialism in Scottish art. John and I were intent on forging a figurative style which would not only be a synthesis of the old and the new, but would contain subject matter particular to modern Scotland.
John had been impressed by MacDiarmid’s plea for "giantism in the arts" and it was during our 1963 visit to the Louvre in Paris that this concept of an art of epic grandeur became tangible in his mind. It would be impossible to exaggerate the impact these great ‘machines’ made on John. From now on his painting turned in the direction of the grand statement, which would celebrate life in vibrant and resplendent colours. Gustave Courbet, in particular, was to exert a very special influence. His 'Burial at Ornans' dealt intentionally with provocative rural themes and he painted contemporary life, elevating the common man to the rank of history painting. Courbet's example in opposing the Salon was to lead directly to our open-air exhibitions at the Edinburgh Festivals of 1963, 1964 and 1965. They were platforms for our views on the Scottish art world - it seemed wrong that painting should be so cut off from large sections of the public, we were determined to take our work out of these ivory towers.
1965 marked a watershed in our careers as John was to leave Edinburgh to study at the Royal College of Art in London. In his first year one of his paintings was selected for a large exhibition of work from the three main post-graduate Schools. Of the hundred or so paintings in the exhibition, his was the "only realist painting there and it stands out like a sore thumb. I'm surrounded by aesthetic scribbles". There were some, however, who recognised John's great talent from the outset - Professor Carel Weight and Peter de Francia lent their whole-hearted support.
John visited the Tate Gallery every Sunday and it was there in late 1965 that he discovered Max Beckmann. Beckmann’s paintings, full of literary and mythological references, his "transcendental objectivity", his concern for "the great orchestra of humanity", and his desire to paint for mankind "a picture of their fate" became a model for much of John’s own imagery and content.
In June 1967, came a momentous event. Along with the poet Alan Bold, John and I made our first visit to Germany. Not only did we visit all of the great museums, we discovered Otto Dix and also met many artists who had survived the fascist inferno and we came to understand the enormity of this unbelievable tragedy. There in East Germany, we stood in the remains of the notorious Buchenwald concentration camp outside Weimar. We had come face to face with the history of the holocaust, and worse. John’s work now became more preoccupied with human suffering as he sought to accuse the destructive elements in life. The utopian, liberating side of his art now sat alongside darker, more mysterious forces.
Looking back over those passionate and turbulent years it seems to me that this was when John set down the moral, spiritual, and artistic standards which would fundamentally serve all of his subsequent developments. I know he feels this way too.
Adapted from an essay in the John Bellany exhibition catalogue by Alexander Moffat.