Published  14/03/2008

John Bellany, Exhibition of Portraits

John Bellany, Exhibition of Portraits

Gainsborough House, Sudbury
Opens June 2008

The human image is central to the work of John Bellany. In his treatment of the figure, and in his remarkable portraits, there is a consistent harmony between his expressionistic language and his perceptive understanding of human experience - the capabilities and potential of humanity. The preoccupation with the formal qualities in art in the 1960s and 1970s has meant that relatively few living artists have expressed as explicit an understanding of portraiture and work in the humanistic tradition as John Bellany. The choice of an exhibition of portraits, many of family, and self-portraits is a fitting one. That he has accepted the invitation of Gainsborough House, and the opportunity to share his vision in Thomas Gainsborough's (1727–88) Suffolk might appear an odd one, but Bellany has the greatest respect for Gainsborough. They share a love of East Anglia itself, which has been Bellany's home for the past 20 years.

As a student at the Edinburgh College of Art, Bellany frequently visited the National Gallery of Scotland, singling out Gainsborough's Mrs Graham (1777), a famous beauty, which he greatly admired. Bellany found the alert and active character of the woman portrayed in Mrs Graham compelling and in stark contrast to the 18th-century norm of a pensive and passive female. Gainsborough evokes an intriguing atmosphere in his work with a dramatically lit, stormy background. Indicating a range of possibilities in terms of mood and implication, Gainsborough's exemplary work, with shimmering drapery and subtle atmosphere, inspired the young Bellany to aspire to great heights as an artist. East Anglia and East Lothian share many qualities - in this way Bellany feels at home in both places, and shares an affinity for Gainsborough's treatment of the sea.

The death of the portrait in the 20th century is well documented in the scholarly essay by Joanna Woodall in Portraiture: Facing the subject, in which she asserts, '… the status of naturalistic portraiture as a progressive form of elite art has been seriously undermined. Commissioned portraiture, long discussed as a source of artistic subservience, has become widely regarded as necessarily detrimental to creativity. More fundamentally, the early 20th century rejection of figurative imagery challenged the belief that visual resemblance to a living or once-living model is necessary or appropriate to the representation of identity (whether such identity is attributed to the sitter or the artist)'.1

Woodall points out, however, that naturalistic portraiture has never entirely disappeared from the 'progressive' arena, citing Joan Miró, Elizabeth Frink and Lucien Freud. The preoccupation with postmodern theory has made the appraisal of an artist working in an expressionistic mode in the 21st century, such as John Bellany, somewhat compromised. Yet before his tragic and untimely death in 1990, Peter Fuller, the protagonist of postmodernism, considered that Bellany was 'emerging as unquestionably the most outstanding British painter of his generation'.2 Furthermore, Fuller also lived nearby in Suffolk and described the impact of both the landscape itself and the tradition of the landscape painting of Constable as having a great impact on 'local' artists, namely Arthur Boyd and John Bellany, who both chose East Anglia as their home. It is a great loss to the understanding of Bellany's work in relation to contemporary art as a whole, that Fuller's book on Bellany, in manuscript form, was destroyed in his fatal car accident.

More than being purely naturalistic portraits, most of Bellany's portraits are imbued with aspects of a symbolist language, a theatrical masquerade of human experience and folly. So recognisable individuals – the self, family members, friends and local individuals – are put together with curious characters from the imagination, where masks and animal features are seamlessly included in an overall comment on the world today, on an inherited body of ideas.

Commissioned portraits hold a significant place in Bellany's oeuvre, in some ways making an appraisal of his work more complicated and in others liberating a critique of his work from much contemporary work, such as the photographic work of Cindy Sherman or Barbara Kruger (to name but two) that uses images of self or portraiture to a specific end. Although Bellany does not experiment with theoretical notions held by many contemporary artists, such as the deconstruction of the picture plane, and the questioning of mass media and gender roles, there is a constant questioning in Bellany's work on an implied level. To this end he employs a wide range of formal devices such as framing within the picture plane, images within images, thoughts layered from personal experience and universal belief systems. There is no complacency with his use of the formal language or his imagery, and yet his work spanning 50 years is immediately recognisable.

Bellany belongs to the tradition of Hieronymous Bosch (1460-1516), Pieter Brueghel (1520-69) and Max Beckmann (1884-1950), and more recently to Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) and the Australian painter Arthur Boyd (1920-99). Bellany brought European tendencies into direct contact with the softer precedence of East Anglia.

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, 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. From his early teens Bellany showed a precocious talent for naturalistic portraiture; some of his most tender early images included in the new exhibition are portraits of his parents and grandparents.

In the relationship with his family he also identifies with Gainsborough, for whom the family was central in his life and work. Bellany painted his family in a naturalistic vein as part of his visual education, largely self-motivated, and when he attended the Edinburgh College of Art in the 1960s he continued to use the imagery that he was most familiar with - images of boats and the sea. Only John Bellany can produce a family portrait in which dismembered fish - gruesome bloody creatures - are alongside his loved ones.

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. Informed too by a Calvinistic worldview - of hellfire and damnation, of anxiety towards activities of the flesh, and 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 Closed Brethren 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. In group portraits, as in his allegorical works, the artist assumes the full weight of human suffering and guilt. 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.

'The Self-Portrait: A Modern View' was an exhibition organised by Artsite Gallery at the Bath International Festival in 1987, the organisers of which invited over 60 artists to produce a self-portrait for the show. The exhibition then travelled extensively. John Bellany's poignant work is used for the cover of the exhibition catalogue. Edward Lucie-Smith traces the history of the self-portrait from the sculpture of Ancient Egypt to The Scream by Munch. His concentration is on the famous self-portraits by Rembrandt; he places the modern self-portrait within the historical context. Lucie-Smith asserts that great significance of our perceptions of the artist can be found in the self-portraits of Vincent Van Gogh.

The powerful legend which gathered around Van Gogh's personality in the years after his suicide, made him seem the very epitome of the modern artist - misunderstood, self-destructive, neglected by his contemporaries. The self-portraits made an important contribution to the myth, and much was read into them. It was inevitably assumed that all self-portraits were now painted for the reasons, which seem to have moved Van Gogh to produce so many - that they were a statement concerning the artist's alienation from society, and an outcry against it.3

Bellany submitted Self-Portrait in watercolour in which he incorporates a mask, a cat and a self-portrait by Van Gogh behind him. He signs the work: Giovanni Bellini, March 87, his Italian namesake ­- a pun - with the words to Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Produced at the time of Bellany's fight for life with alcoholism and the liver transplant performed in Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge that saved his life, this is a poignant and pivotal work. Lucie-Smith argues that the self-portrait enables the artist to reaffirm his right to link his own art to that of the great artists of the past. John Bellany already had a deep connection to art from the past, indeed his dialogue with the northern tradition and his admiration of a great range of artists from the past has characterised his work from student days. A dialogue with the past sustains Bellany on a fundamental level.

John Bellany's career as a painter has been dominated by the circumstances of his dramatic life, and, against all odds, his eventual survival of serious illness. Commentators have drawn on these facts to attempt to comprehend a career that is at once confrontational, contradictory and complex, and largely at odds with the dominant abstraction of the 1960s, when he was a student. 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 from 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, in a manner not readily found among his contemporaries in Scotland or England.

The drawings and etchings on show at Gainsborough House, which were made in the 1980s when Bellany confronted his own death from alcoholism, possess the quality of Rembrandt's marvellous portraits. Addenbrooke's Hospital (1988) was drawn just hours after Bellany came round from his operation, and presents his confrontation with mortality in a grim and candid form. It also possesses a humility and gratitude for the surgeon and medical team who saved his life. 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. It is in stark contrast to a Scottish reticence to give expression to tragic or fearful experiences in the normal course of life.

Central to 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 he has become widely exhibited and published, it is possible to look retrospectively at his career and see that Bellany has found what Peter Fuller liked to call, 'redemption through form'. His early works were muted and oppressive paintings compared to those he began to produce after his unexpectedly successful liver transplant operation. Recent family portraits, portraits of his many grandchildren and still-life paintings are clear celebrations of hope.

The vast triptych Fortunatus forms a centrepiece for the exhibition at Gainsborough House. In this monumental work we find many aspects of life itself - autobiography dominates the narrative but it is presented as a theatrical symbolic performance. The characters include family - past and present - the sea, characters from the imagination, birds, fish, lovers, against the sea. These are not typically naturalistic portraits, yet they are rendered with the qualities that one might normally attribute to portraiture. In addition to resemblance, Bellany charges his early allegorical work with the passion for life that can only be felt by one who has grown up always in the shadow of death. Personal identity becomes empowered with the strength of a superhuman force. The family portrait, a portrait of an individual becomes a universal image of the great struggle for survival against the real danger of life at sea, and by the demons within, of the guilt and fear that can destroy that which as individuals we cherish most.

Fortunatus is a deeply moving work where the message is both powerful and understated. The enigmatic characters in Bellany's monumental works sometimes inhabit a time warp; the boats and the sea are, however, timeless images, which Bellany presents as representative of dying values in the face of an increasingly impersonal life in cities. All three of Bellany's children live locally in Suffolk, married with their own children, eight in all; an uncommonly cohesive family unit. Bellany's subject matter implies a questioning of many modern values where the family unit and communities are threatened by the pressures of dispersal and of globalisation. Roots, Bellany implores, are vital to living a full and intense life.

The Gainsborough House exhibition, which opens this summer, provides the opportunity to view a remarkable body of work from one of Britain's most remarkable artists.

Dr Janet McKenzie

1. Woodall J (ed). Portraiture: Facing the Subject. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1997: 7.
2. Fuller P, Bellany J. Raab Galerie, Berlin, 1990. In: Modern Painters: A Memorial Exhibition for Peter Fuller. Manchester City Art Galleries, 1991: 6.
3. Lucie-Smith E. The Self-Portrait: A Modern View. London: Sarema Press, 1987: 20

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