Published  24/01/2006

The John Bellany Odyssey - paintings from Italy, China and the Tsunami

The John Bellany Odyssey - Paintings from Italy, China and the Tsunami

Mitchell Library, Glasgow
4 June-10 September 2005

John Bellany Paintings

European Parliament Building, Brussels
28 November-5 December 2005

Royal Academicians in China

Jillian and Arthur M. Sackler Wing,
Royal Academy of Arts, London
23 December 2005-20 January 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 expressionist tradition in art, and to his own dramatic life, recent death and incredible survival, they are allegories of mortality that have no rival today.

Bellany belongs to the tradition of Hieronymus 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). 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. 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, 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 Brethren1 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.

Although the characters in many of Bellany's monumental paintings may inhabit a time warp, 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 remarkable paintings, often on an epic scale, are underpinned by his superb draughtsmanship. The paintings produced as a student at the Edinburgh College of Art testify to his commitment to the structure and craft of painting and give the works a monumentality that is rare in contemporary art. In 1965, Bellany saw the Max Beckmann exhibition at the Tate Gallery, London and was greatly influenced by him. 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. Few works of art present this confrontation with mortality in so grim and candid a form. So it should follow that when Bellany survived both his harrowing illness and liver transplant, his celebration of life would be more potent, more thrilling and visually more exciting than one might have anticipated. From the intense personal scrutiny that took place during his illness, Bellany's paintings have focused on other individuals in dire or tragic circumstances, such as the victims and survivors of the tsunami in Indonesia, Boxing Day 2004. They, too, are invested with a deep awareness of the power of the sea, and its potential for death and destruction.

This year has been a significant one for John Bellany's career. In Glasgow, at the Mitchell Library, 'The John Bellany Odyssey - paintings from Italy, China and the Tsunami' (4 June-10 September 2005) was a major show, and this month, in Brussels, at the European Parliament Building, came an exhibition to celebrate Bellany as Scotland's greatest living artist. The biography by John McEwen, John Bellany (Mainstream Publishers, 2005), has been updated from its first publication in 1994. Opening at the end of December this year, at the Royal Academy in London, is 'Royal Academicians in China 2003-2005', which includes the work of leading Academicians, John Bellany, Paul Huxley, Allen Jones, David Mach, Ian McKeever and Chris Orr, inspired by their recent travels through China. The exhibition coincides with the Royal Academy's great exhibition, 'China: The Three Emperors, 1662-1795'. The Academicians' work was shown at the China National Museum of Fine Arts in Beijing and the Art Museum in Shanghai earlier this year.

The painting, 'Premonition' (2005), was exhibited in Brussels and relates to recent events, as well as being fundamentally part of Bellany's distinctly personal iconography. Mortality is one of the central issues that dominate 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 (and friend of the late George MacKay Brown) 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'.2 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'. On Sundays, in the words of the hymns they sang,

Eternal Father strong to save,
Whose arm has bound the restless wave,
Who bidd'st the mighty ocean deep,
Its own appointed limits keep …
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea.3

Bellany's grandparents, pivotal characters in his early life, lived in nearby Eyemouth, near Dunbar, where a major disaster had taken place in 1881 involving 129 fishermen drowning in a great storm. Such tragic accidents were not uncommon in fishing ports around Scotland. Bellany's father, Dick Bellany, a fisherman, joined the Royal Naval Reserve during the war, becoming one of the very brave sea captains who used their own boat as mine sweepers in the Firth of Forth.

The mines were detonated by the percussive effects of the boats' propellers. Several of the Port Seton boats and their crews were lost on these virtual suicide missions, and Dick - as Second Hand R.W. Bellany RNPS - was mentioned in dispatches 1 July 1941, for his part in the operations. At the time of his son's birth, he was a petty officer with the Royal Navy in the Indian Ocean and Ceylon, where he spent the rest of the war. He did not return until the demob.4

In visual terms, Bellany incorporates boats at sea, boats being built, large gutted fish, monumental male figures with stern faces, and very often corpses and shrouds. The sea provides a visual ground and, 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 The Old Man and the Sea. The skate, used by Chardin (1699-1779) in his famous 'Lenten Still Life' in the Louvre, and, more recently, by Arthur Boyd in 'Australian Scapegoat' (1987), artists both admired by Bellany, is used to display a form of vulnerability. Boyd used the skate to express his opposition to the cruelty of war and to violence. In the fishing villages of Scotland, the skate had other associations - thought to enhance libido, girls were allowed to eat it but boys were not. The fish were considered by fishermen to be vicious and thorny, capable of inflicting injury. They were known as weird demons of the deep and were associated with the primitive force of the sea.

The elemental character of Bellany's paintings gives form to the extremely hard physical life of fishermen, and the great danger they encountered. There is a humility and, at times, a tragic acceptance in his figures, in comparison with the monumental figures of Fernand Léger (1881-1955), which became politically charged in the context of 1920s and 1930s realism. Léger's work had a significant impact on Bellany in the 1960s, who on discovering it, was encouraged to work on a large scale.

Bellany's temperament also plays an important part in his ability to perceive the psychological drama and intensity of a situation and give it so potent a form. This is in contrast to the Scottish reticence to give expression to tragic or fearful experiences in the normal course of life. Yet, the literary tradition includes Neil Gunn, who wrote Morning Tide and Highland River, and George MacKay Brown, whose Greenvoe portrays the seafaring community tortured with religious guilt. Christopher Rush's novels, such as Hellfire and Herrings set in the east Fife fishing village of St Monans, also address the legacy of the potent mix of religion and modern life. Bellany's confrontation with Calvinistic guilt resulted in grotesque and alarming images of lovelorn figures in frozen sexual encounters, Calvin and John Knox in the bedroom being more than most marriages in the 1960s could survive. In 'Lovers' (1969) and other paintings of the period 1967-69, the work portrays couples as howling figures, barely alive in their desperation, with their mouths wide open like dead fish. Where the fish dies from lack of water the human dies from lack of air. Lack of air is used as a metaphor for a moral and creative asphyxiation: the devastating anguish in paintings such as 'Scottish Family' (1968) shows the married couple and their baby either side of the crucifixion, where, instead of the body of Christ, there is a massive gutted fish. The paintings of this period show the artist's unique attack on the frightful distortion of Christian values where a loving family is destroyed by sexual guilt and fear.

'Premonition' was painted in September this year after the Glasgow exhibition opened in June. On the way to the opening of the show, accompanied by his wife Helen, Bellany collapsed with a heart attack on the traffic island of a busy road. A young man attempted to revive him and a nurse, who had just left the hospital after her shift had ended, stopped and gave him heart massage. Bellany was brought back to life in the ambulance after her procedure. He describes the event as his 'second Lazarus experience', which has left him with a 'strange residual feeling', that he seeks to process through painting. Subjectively related to his own near-death experiences, 'Premonition' depicts two lovers surrounded by the minutiae of life, against the sea of death, haunted by their final goodbye. Framed by the window is the boat, on the sea, that will carry the dying individual (in this case the man, behind whom a shrouded skeleton hovers) to his death. The fishing boat is the vessel that will carry the individual from life to death; on board are the three figures of the Trinity seen as the crucifixion, holding the cross. The sea represents the River Styx, from classical mythology, where Charon - the grim ferryman of the dead, for the price of a coin in the mouth of the corpse - carries the dead bodies, across the river to the underworld. Without this passage across the river, the soul would be lost. Bellany refers to Michelangelo's depiction of the final rite of passage from Greek myth in the Sistine Chapel. Bellany here does not paint the boat in the water, sailing, but exposes instead its stationary keel. It is depicted, therefore, in the same way that model boats in fishing communities such as Port Seton and St Monans, are suspended above the altar in the village kirk or under the bell tower. It is not a working boat that Bellany portrays but a model of a boat (his father made superb models of boats) transformed into a ghost ship. Having drawn boats and models of boats from a young age, Bellany has developed a personal iconography that continues to resonate with meaning and personal conviction. While 'Premonition' is very much the product of a life's work, in visual and allegorical terms, it is a calmer work than Bellany's early paintings, expressing a sombre acceptance of the cycles of life.

'Premonition' was painted in response to Bellany's second brush with death, which precipitated a further response to the ordeal, and ensuing relief, of having his life saved, against the odds, by a liver transplant operation in 1989. In both cases, the artist had 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 of the earlier life, but a celebration of what transpires to be the wondrous and remarkable nature of life.

Dr Janet McKenzie

1. A stricter version of the Plymouth Brethren; most of the town were Presbyterian.
2. Conversation with Christopher Rush, December 2005, Fife Ness, Scotland.
3. Whiting/Dykes. Eternal Father Strong to Save.
4. McEwen J. John Bellany. Edinburgh/London: Mainstream Publishers, 2005: 22.

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