John Bellany

January 2001

Publication: The Times

The painter John Bellany received a degree of notoriety when, in the early ‘sixties, he exhibited his paintings on the railings outside the Royal Scottish Academy.  It was a gesture which generated a good deal of publicity.  Bellany’s stance was clear: he was anti-establishment and wished to point the way for a new generation of Scottish painting keen to discard the perceived constraints of the Edinburgh School of painters such as Philipson, Gillies and MacTaggart.

For Bellany, painting was not merely aesthetic gesture and experience — it was also a sharp political and social tool, charged with emotion and message.  Although Bellany absorbed some of the painterly techniques of his teachers, his art took much of its inspiration from a northern tradition as practised by Munch and the German Expressionists and was therefore in opposition to those French and Italian artists who had exerted such a profound influence on the older generation.

No one could doubt the power and energy behind Bellany’s early works evidenced in such paintings as such as ‘Allegory’ from 1964 which conflated the iconography of the crucifixion with personal elements derived from his upbringing in the east coast fishing community of Port Seton.  In 1967 Bellany visited East Germany in a trip which included a visit to the site of the Buchenwald concentration camp.  The emotional impact of this experience deepened Bellany’s range and widened his concerns and the resultant series of works showing death camp victims was shocking and deeply powerful. These works took inspiration from Goya, amongst others, allowing Bellany to apply a twentieth century perspective to the Spanish artist’s depictions of the horrors of war.

It is one of the paradoxes of art history that ground-breaking and innovative artists are often, by degrees, subsumed by the machinery of acceptance and familiarity.  This is indeed the case with Bellany and his work is now an perceived as part of the ‘cannon’ of painting on which popular and critical opinion base their notions of the acceptable.

In the present show, which consists of prints, paintings and ceramics completed in recent years, Bellany’s stylistic methods are still readily apparent.  But much of the brutal and painful edge has been removed.  Although Bellany still continues to paint in a manner unmistakably his own, much of the subject matter has been mediated by the mellowing influence of time and experience. 

Nevertheless in these works there still persists a complex relationship between the objective world of place and people and the subjective world of experience and imagination.  Much of the subject matter is instantly recognisable as actual — for example, the fishing villages of the Firth of Forth. But more importantly perhaps, these are inner landscapes  which map the artist’s psyche. ‘Bass Rock Enigma’ for example, is a stylised seascape; in the foreground are two figures — a woman, and the hybridised form of man and bird.  The painting is enigmatic: ‘what does it mean?’ seems the obvious question.  As with almost all of Bellany’s work, the answer relies as much on our own perception as it does on our understanding of Bellany’s iconography, both personal and universal.


John Bellany

Open Eye Gallery

75-79 Cumberland Street


0131 557 1020

Until Feb 15


Published in The Times, Around the Galleries, 31-01-01