An Introduction to John Bellany
The human figure was always at the centre of John Bellany’s work with the main character the artist himself, whether on stage or not. It was his fears and hopes, his sadness and joys that we see enacted in his canvases.
Bellany’s earliest artistic efforts were of his immediate environment, the fishing boats at Port Seton harbour, and the members of his family. When he went to Edinburgh College of Art in 1960 this realist approach to art was not favoured by those that taught in the painting school. Bellany soon came to oppose the current trend in Scottish painting and began to develop an interest in Realism and Expressionism. He also began to look to the Old Masters to learn how to depict the human body and the world around him.
The act of turning back to the Old Masters was both a conscious decision not to join in the modernist pursuit of the latest avant-garde, but, more positively, it was a deeply held belief that there was still much to be learnt in the art of the past and that this was the way to produce art of lasting value and of real depth out of his own experiences. Additionally, one cannot overemphasise the importance of religious imagery in Bellany’s work. It is not used lightly, as an artificial underpinning to his subjects, but as the logical and organic consequence of his own upbringing. Port Seton was a deeply religious community of mainly Calvinist persuasion. Growing up in such an atmosphere, Bellany could not help but be saturated with Calvinist ideas of guilt, suffering and a strict moral code.
His visit in 1965 to the large Beckmann exhibition at the Tate Gallery was a revelation: that painting could handle enormously complicated symbolic subject matter, that symbolism did not have to be homogeneous and readily understood, and that its deeply personal nature did not detract from the impact of the painting; on the contrary, that its impenetrability and mystery merely served to heighten its effect.
In 1967 Bellany visited East Germany and the Buchenwald concentration camp where his view of human nature took a severe shock. The Calvinist view that human beings are basically sinful and guilty (and that it is only God’s grace that grants forgiveness) seemed vindicated. The immediate result of this visit was a series of paintings on the theme of persecution and torture. There was also a willingness to introduce fantastic, nightmarish elements: the fruit of a long look at Goya’s etchings. But perhaps more important than this new willingness to face up to the human evil there was in the world, was the light this visit cast into his own inner world, his own psyche.
From 1969-73 Bellany produced a series of paintings that dealt with the issues of original sin, sex, guilt, and death. He introduced no less than two-thirds of his stock of images and symbols and began to disguise his figures, whether himself, his wife or others. This allowed him to be both personal and impersonal, to suggest that his own feelings might have more general import. There was also a growing awareness of fate and doom. That is why from 1974 onwards Bellany made more and more use of the boat as a symbol of human life, of the voyage from life to death.
Hand in hand with this development went an ever-increasing dissolution of the image and gestural brushwork became increasingly expressionistic. For a period in the late 1970s this process was arrested as he entered upon a new relationship and painted several very tender pictures of his new wife, Juliet. However, Juliet was not well and as time ran out and she was spending more and more time in hospital, so Bellany’s paintings became wilder and more disjointed. The subjects were now about violence, confrontation and disasters. These paintings are the nearest Bellany has ever come to Abstract Expressionism.
In the late 1980s it became clear that, despite having given up alcohol Bellany was not going to get better unless he had a liver transplant. Following the successful operation in 1988 and spurred on by new hope for the future, Bellany drew himself, his doctors and nurses as he recovered. These remarkably honest and occasionally searing depictions make up a rare record of art overcoming physical disability. The longer term effect of the restored health was to give Bellany new ambition and he began to travel extensively.
Self-Portrait with Oxygen Mask (from 'The Addenbrookes Hospital Series'), John Bellany, 1988 − ¬© the Artist / Bridgeman Art Library. All rights reserved.
From the 1990s Bellany painted more and more landscapes, townscapes and harbour scenes. In a way this was Bellany coming home, both in terms of subject matter and in terms of voluptuous use of paint and a new joy in colour. He has travelled far from his early heroic figure compositions, representing a growth in experience, a realisation of the complexities of human interaction and an understanding of the limitations of personal involvement. But there is a constant thread running throughout his work: a belief that personal experience can have universal validity, provided the artist expresses it with sincerity and shows that it is felt.
The Mysterious Submerging Village in Apuan Alps, John Bellany − ¬© the Artist / Bridgeman Art Library. All rights reserved.
Adapted from an essay in the John Bellany exhibition catalogue by Keith Hartley.