Bellany’s paintings are always concerned with the human condition rather than superficial appearances and he has repeatedly addressed the themes of pain and anguish. He painted this intense and haunting self-portrait during his years as a student at Edinburgh College of Art, uncannily prefiguring his later struggle against ill-health which led to a liver transplant in 1988. Rebelling against art school discipline, he seems to be challenging the legacy of both Van Gogh and Manet’s Bar at the Folies Bergère, while at the same time following their creed of realism in depicting a bar in modern-day Scotland. Bellany has subsequently painted many self-portraits, the most graphic and original being produced in the days immediately following his transplant operation, while he was actually lying in bed at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge.
Oil on canvas
59.9 × 100 cm
71.5 × 112 × 5.5 cm
Ⓒ The Artist's Estate. All Rights Reserved 2019/Bridgeman Images
John Bellany RA HRSA, 1942-2013
Bellany trained at Edinburgh College of Art under Robin Philipson from 1960 to 1965. Awarded travelling scholarships, he visited Paris in 1962 and The Netherlands and Belgium in 1965. However, he turned away from the Edinburgh tradition of belle peinture, feeling that subject-matter should be of more consequence than the fashionable landscapes and still lifes of the Edinburgh School - it should address the human condition. He decided to go to London, enrolling at the Royal College of Art, where he studied under Carel Wright and Peter de Francia.
Bellany long admired the Old Masters, including such North European artists such as Bosch, Bruegel and Steen. In London he 'discovered' Max Beckman and Picasso. In 1967 he travelled to East Germany on an official cultural mission, and a visit to the site of Buchenwald concentration camp made a deep impression on him. By 1970 his painting had shifted from the representation of the fishing community to an intense self-analysis, concerned with such issues as life, death, sexuality and guilt. Bellany's work of the early 1980s is more overtly biographical than previously, as well as wilder and more aggressive, approaching abstraction. By 1984 his health was deteriorating, and in 1988 he underwent a life-saving liver transplant. With the aid of a mirror he produced a remarkable series of watercolour studies of himself, starting almost from the moment of his emergence from the anaesthetic.