Published  25/05/2006

Celtic Vision

Celtic Vision

John Bellany: A Scottish Odyssey
Kunsthalle Jesuitenkirche, Aschaffenburg
16 June-3 September 2006

John Bellany's (b.1942) paintings are among the most confrontational humanistic paintings produced in Britain in recent history. Layered with references to the Expressionistic tradition in art (Bosch, Breughel, Beckmann) and his own dramatic life, recent illness and incredible survival, they are allegories of mortality that have no rival today. The drama of his own life is given artistic credence by his masterly use of references to artists from the past, as well as to the life of Scottish fishing communities like that of Port Seton, near Edinburgh, and Eyemouth, on the North Sea, where he grew up. Faced with the primal issues of survival in the elements and acutely aware of the dangers of life at sea, Bellany was attuned to issues of mortality from a young age.

There is no living artist more committed to the very act of painting than John Bellany. The last two to three years have been critical in the formation of a prolific and climacteric point in his career. Bellany's status as a global master has never been more highly rated. As early as 1990, the late Peter Fuller saw Bellany as, 'emerging as unquestionably the most outstanding British painter of his generation'.1 The Retrospective exhibition stands as testimony to the fact that he stands alone in Scotland, indeed in Britain today, as an artist whose work belongs firmly in the tradition that has its historical roots in Germany and the countries of Northern Europe. It is appropriate, therefore, that a major retrospective of Bellany's painting should be presented in Germany, bringing together outstanding examples of his monumental early works such as 'Kinlochbervie' (1966). A remarkable work executed when the artist was only 24, it is testament to the vision and astounding energy of Bellany's unique oeuvre. 'Kinlochbervie' is a pivotal work in which the artist assumed the weight of human guilt and suffering. Evil and perceived sin are acknowledged as powerful forces against the imminence of death. Bellany has portrayed these themes throughout his career, an intensely personal vision informed by autobiography, classical mythology and the history of art.

John Bellany's career as a painter has been dominated by the circumstances of his dramatic life, and eventually his survival against all odds from serious illness. Commentators have drawn on these to attempt to comprehend a career that is at once confrontational, contradictory and complex. Largely at odds with the dominant abstraction of the 1960s, when he was a student at the Edinburgh College of Art, Bellany chose to pursue a very independent path using the pictorial language of Expressionism and the imagery of the northern European tradition of Hieronymous Bosch (1460-1516), Peter Breughel (1520-1569) and later, Max Beckmann (1884-1950) and Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980). In marked contrast to Scottish artists before him and of his own generation who looked to the French tradition for inspiration and guidance, Bellany looked closer to home, encouraged by the Celtic renaissance poet Hugh MacDiarmid. Bellany took inspiration from literature, and the culture of his own community so heavily imbued with the religious fundamentalism of John Knox. Bellany created a potent mix of Calvinistic guilt and Celtic mythology to create an intensely personal iconography, to tell his innermost story.

EH Gombrich in his lecture on Kokoschka, at the Tate Gallery in 1986, 'Kokoschka in his Time', stated that Kokoschka believed, 'that he had no right to censor the words and images that he felt welling up from the depth of his being'.2

Putting the historic context to one side, Bellany shares much of Kokoschka's approach to art and life, not least being incensed by injustice, yet, he was not political in any conventional sense. Kokoschka wrote an angry letter, as early as 1919, in which he concluded, 'one must shut one's ears and only dream of future man, otherwise one's heart will break. Let the dream bear the name of humanity'.3 Gombrich had cited Kokoschka's work in, 'The Mask and the Face: The Perception of Physiognomic Likeness in Life and Art', where he presents it as an example of empathy: the artist projecting his own likeness onto the features of the sitter. The numerous portraits made throughout his career possess the kind of insights identified by Gombrich, in Kokoschka's works and which he attributes to the artist's special insights. Such perceptions are denied to artists who are less involved. Central to John Bellany's art is a passionate determination to find answers for life's mysteries and injustices, and never to shrink from the violence, terror and despair, personal or universal that the personal odyssey presents. More recently, as the Retrospective reveals, Bellany has found what Peter Fuller liked to call, 'redemption through form'.4 His early works were muted, oppressive works by comparison to those he began to produce after his unexpectedly successful liver transplant operation. Recent still-life paintings are clear celebrations of hope; paintings of boats reinforce the value that Bellany places on community life. He continues to paint the coast near Port Seton and Eyemouth, reinforcing the continuing necessity to express the importance on roots and the pivotal role of his extended family. A number of his recent paintings depart from most of his boat paintings in the numinous, ethereal atmosphere he creates. Reminiscent of Puvis de Chavannes' famous painting, 'The Poor Fisherman' (1881), a vital work in the Symbolist movement of the late 19th century, Bellany's painting continues to scale new emotional and spiritual heights.

Much of Bellany's imagery is intensely autobiographical, referring to his own childhood in the Scottish fishing communities of Port Seton and Eyemouth. Faced with the primal issues of survival in the elements, and acutely aware of the dangers of life at sea, Bellany was attuned to issues of mortality from a young age. Bellany's lifelong preoccupation with death, as a consequence of his fundamentalist, seafaring upbringing in Scotland, became acutely personal in the 1980s when, gravely ill, he underwent and recovered from a liver transplant operation.

The use of boats, giant skates and dismembered fish is intended to conjure images of death and survival; it was also the most immediate imagery he could use to depict his own life. 'Obsession' (1968), belongs to a remarkable body of work that Bellany produced in the 1960s in response to his upbringing. Informed by a Calvinistic worldview of hellfire and damnation, of anxiety towards activities of the flesh, sceptical and fearful of the consequences of perceived sin, Bellany's paintings are inextricably bound to a pre-20th-century worldview. His upbringing and adolescence were dominated by the condemnation of alcohol (the Close Brethren5 preached that wine in the time of Christ was not fermented), for according to the Gospel of Paul, 'drunkenness is an affront to God'. Sexual activity, other than for procreation within marriage was also condemned, making the life of a typical student in the 1960s, fraught with conflict. By contrast, the portraits of the artist's family such as 'My Father' (1966) express the warmth and respect that Bellany feels towards the individuals who were pivotal in his life, and their values of compassion and forgiveness in turn inform Bellany's work at all stages of his career. 'The Bereaved One' (1968) pays homage to his grandparents and their pivotal role in his early life; he and his mother lived with them in Eyemouth during the war, when his father was serving abroad in the Royal Naval Corps. When Sonnie Maltmann died in 1968, Bellany painted his widowed grandmother in the marital bed, alone. The headboard forms a tombstone, the Bible is open on her lap. In contrast to the menacing portrait of his own family, of the same year, the painting of his grandmother is a tender and respectful image of grief and love.

Perhaps the greatest catalyst in Bellany's artistic career was a visit to East Germany in 1967. There he saw painting that altered his very perception of life. Otto Dix's War tryptich had the same profound effect as Goya's 'Disasters of War' had, previously. It was the visit to the concentration camp at Buchenwald that transformed Bellany's artistic vision, the menacing and horrific images becoming firmly etched on his mind. Any less involved artist, to use Gombrich's observation of Kokoschka, might have come away from this haunting experience emotionally intact. An individual of Bellany's sensibility, however, was utterly devastated by the experience, and, thenceforth, became obsessed by images of hell. Such a loss of innocence cost him dearly in personal terms; hence the self-portrait within the family portrait is candidly alcohol-dependent. In artistic terms, Bellany embarked on a solitary path; in emotional terms, choosing to confront evil in his art took him on a personal odyssey that cost him his marriage and very nearly his life, to alcoholism. The profound and prolific career on show here needs be viewed against such overwhelming personal courage and sacrifice.

'The Bellany Family' (1968) is one of a number of monumental works painted by Bellany during the late 60s, when he himself was suffering acute personal crisis. Far from being a conventional family portrait, the 1968 painting shows the alcohol-dependent artist with his heavily pregnant wife, Helen, and victims of the Holocaust. Bellany had grieved most intensely for the thousands of lost souls since his visit to Buchenwald. Even in the privacy of his own home there is no escape for the artist, who has discarded the Bible, but portrays himself in a painful juxtaposition with toys and the infant Jonathon, whose tiny face represents the innocence that Bellany himself has relinquished.

The characters in many of Bellany's monumental paintings sometimes appear to inhabit a timewarp; the boats and sea are, however, timeless images which Bellany presents as representative of dying values in the face of an increasingly impersonal life in cities. The sensual and immediate use of thick paint, vivid colour and frontal-tilting of the picture plane, make these images both immediate and utterly contemporary. Bellany's subject matter implies a questioning of many modern values where the family unit and communities are threatened by the pressures of globalisation. Roots, Bellany implores, are vital to living a full and intense life.

The drawings and etchings made in the 1980s, when Bellany confronted his own death from alcoholism, possess the quality of Rembrandt's marvellous self-portraits. 'Addenbrooke's Hospital' (1988), drawn just hours after coming round from his operation, presents this confrontation with mortality in a grim, and candid form, yet it also possesses a humility and gratitude for the brilliant surgeon and medical team who saved him, and for the love of his family. The painting, 'Confrontation' (1986), was painted shortly before the medical crisis that precipitated the liver transplant. It is a poignant image of the artist, his back towards the viewer, preparing to confront his demons and find the strength to face a future free of alcohol dependence.

From the intense personal scrutiny that took place during his illness, Bellany's paintings since then have focused on other individuals in dire or tragic circumstances, such as the victims and survivors of the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004; they are invested with a deep awareness of the power of the sea, and its potential for death and destruction. Bellany gave paintings to the Aberdeen Fishermen's Association, which were auctioned to raise money to buy boats to send to the coastal areas in Asia that were utterly devastated by the tsunami; yet their livelihood continued to depend on the sea. Perhaps only an individual who has grown up in the face of the dangers of the sea can identify with the victims of such a shocking experience to such an extent, and create universal images based on that disaster.

Mortality is one of the central issues that have dominated Bellany's oeuvre. From the fear of death in the small, insular fishing village of Port Seton in the 1940s and 1950s, Bellany absorbed an atmosphere of extreme anxiety. Port Seton had a population of between 2,000 and 3,000 and, remarkably, 13 churches; the Bellany family attended church two or three times on a Sunday. Christopher Rush, Scottish author of Hellfire and Herrings, observed, 'Religion and the sea went hand in hand - there was no escaping God. It was not intended to be fear of God but respect for God. Fishing in the pre-echo sound era was itself an act of faith, leaving terra firma and casting a line into the sea, the unknown'.6 The fatalism that developed in response to the profound uncertainty of so primal a life required faith and hope in God. Before casting the net, fishermen uttered, 'In the name of God'. Numerous hymns contain references to the perils of the sea and disasters at sea were part of life in fishing ports around Scotland. Bellany's father was a fisherman and a naval sea captain during the war.

In visual terms, Bellany incorporates boats at sea, boats built, large gutted fish, monumental males with stern faces and, very often, corpses or shrouds. The sea provides Bellany with a visual ground; metaphorically, it becomes the stage on which players enact personal rituals of life, love and death, yet they rarely interact with each other. Bellany's paintings suggest narratives but they are fixed, enigmatic, sometimes bizarre creations. Complete with humans, animals, birds, or composite creatures and resembling a Goya or Ensor mask, they look not at each other but at the viewer. There is, at times, a resignation that chaos abounds and cannot be altered or improved; at others, there is a plaintive demand made of the viewer to intercept. Although there is not a fixed reading or clear intention from the artist, layers of poignant messages, are alluded to.

The open-ended nature of Bellany's message gives it an overwhelming mystery and power. References are made to literature, such as Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea. The skate is used by Chardin (1699-1779) in his famous 'Lenten Still Life' in the Louvre. Bellany had first-hand experience of these strange creatures, known by fishermen as 'demons of the deep', and highly dangerous to handle, when he worked in the local fish sheds on Saturdays and during summer holidays. Bellany was drawn to the northern tradition in European art; numerous visual references are made to the grotesque imagery of Breughel and Bosch. In the context of a major retrospective exhibition of Bellany's work in Germany, it is appropriate to celebrate the works that, chosen by the German curators, seek to make the same cultural link that Bellany has unwittingly demonstrated all of his life. Bellany's paintings are marvellous and evocative works that incorporate in a strangely familiar place, the irrational imagery of dreams, the fantastic half-human, half-bird creatures with emphatic beaks. Boats and the sea ground the work in Bellany's coastal identity and the abstract application of paint in the foreground of the canvas reinforce the energetic dialogue that Bellany continues.

Bellany's temperament plays an important part in perceiving the psychological drama and intensity of a given situation and giving it so potent a form. This is in contrast to a Scottish reticence to give expression to tragic or fearful experiences in the normal course of life, yet there is a literary tradition (including Neil Gunn who wrote Morning Tide and Highland River), and George MacKay Brown whose Greenvoe portrays the seafaring community tortured with religious guilt. From the age of 18, in Edinburgh, Bellany was a close friend of MacKay Brown, in whom he found a kindred spirit. In the same tradition, Christopher Rush's novels, such as Hellfire and Herrings, set in the East Fife fishing village of St Monans, address the legacy of the potent mix of religion and modern life. The paintings of this period show the artist's unique attack on the frightful distortion of Christian values where a loving family can be destroyed by sexual guilt and fear.

John Bellany survived a liver transplant in 1989 and in the past year has suffered from two heart attacks. He responded to each medical drama with a remarkable outpouring of images that confront his mortality and celebrate life itself. Flowers, wonderful and more life-enhancing portraits, images of Italy where he has a home and studio, and recently his paintings in China, all testify not to his fear from the earlier life, but a celebration of what transpires to be the wondrous and remarkable nature of life. The sheer volume of his output and the quality of his recent work make us aware, again, that Bellany is not just an extraordinary artist but an individual of quite superhuman strength and determination; his survival is miraculous, and one to celebrate and treasure.

Dr Janet McKenzie

1. Fuller P, Bellany J. Raab Galerie, Berlin, 1990. In: Modern Painters: A Memorial Exhibition for Peter Fuller. Manchester City Art Galleries, 1991: 6.
2. Gombrich EH. Kokoschka In His Time. London: Tate Gallery Publications, 1986: 25.
3. Ibid: 25.
4. Fuller P. In: Op cit: 6.
5. A stricter version of the Plymouth Brethren; most of the town were Presbyterian.
6. Conversation with Christopher Rush, December 2005, Fife Ness, Scotland.

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