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Born into the Scottish fishing community of Port Seton, on the coast north of Edinburgh, Bellany made his earliest drawings from careful observation of the small wooden fishing boats used by his father’s generation of fishermen. Dominated by the sea and by a guilt-ridden, unforgiving Calvinist faith, the fishing and boat-building culture of Bellany’s father and both grandfathers has remained a recurrent source of inspiration for him. He studied painting at the Edinburgh College of Art (1960-5) and at the Royal College of Art, London (1965-8). Early contact with the Scottish artist Alan Davie (born 1920), who remains a good friend, and the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978) inspired Bellany to attempt to create a specifically Scottish art. In the early 1960s, when the influence of abstract American art was all-pervasive, Bellany rejected the new fashion as well as the bland classical formalism constituting the dominant mode in Edinburgh at that time and embraced figurative painting engaged with the grand themes of life and death, good and evil. Earlier works are inhabited by a dark medieval moodiness which develops, as his palette brightens, to a vivid expressionism reminiscent of the later paintings of Edvard Munch (1863-1944). Bellany consciously allied himself with the northern tradition of Hieronymous Bosch (c.1450-1516) and Pieter Brueghel (1520-69) and later with the Nordic tradition of soulful expressionist humanism such as that of the German Expressionists Max Beckmann (1884-1950) and Oskar Kokoshka (1886-1980). Following a life-altering visit to Buchenwald in the late 1960s, Bellany’s work became extremely raw and, at points, almost despairing, as he repainted his autobiography, often as a series of epic and frequently nightmarish sea voyages populated by the artist and those closest to him. Here the main protagonists were often portrayed as anthropomorphic animals or birds, suggestive of classical or Celtic mythology. This is made overtly apparent in such a work as Celtic Marriage 1978 (see Tate T02333), made on the occasion of Bellany’s marriage to his second wife Julia. Fish and the sea are central motifs.
Since the late 1960s, Bellany has frequently employed the structure of the triptych for its narrative possibilities, allowing him to present several layers of a subject at once. The print Odyssey is based on a three panelled painting of 1995, Sweet Promise (City Art Centre: City of Edinburgh Museums and Galleries), which it closely resembles in main fact, although the detail has become somewhat scrambled by the sketchy style of the print. Bellany produced a more complex version of the same scenario in a triptych painting, also titled Odyssey, in the same year as the print. In the central panel a man and a woman appear in front of large expanses of blue sea and sky. The woman stands in profile looking towards the man; she has a long fish with zig-zag patterning balanced on her head and a baby wedged under one arm. The fish-on-head symbol recurs in several of Bellany’s paintings of this period. The man sits staring ahead out of the picture, a similar fish rising from his lap towards his face. The couple are surrounded by colourful paraphernalia, including a roughly-drawn bird and a fish carcase, in contrast with the empty sea and sky. In the right panel, next to the woman, stands a harlequin character wearing black tails, a top hat and a bow tie. His face is masked with a long pointed nose striped in red and white. Creating an opposing arrangement of the sexes, the left panel contains a blonde woman, staring ahead like the central male figure and clad only in a white corset and long black stockings. Her lower torso and leg appear in profile, mirroring those of the woman in the central panel. She is accompanied by a section of table with a vase of flowers and part of a brightly coloured painting on the wall behind her. The structure of this panel is mirrored by a similar section of painting behind the harlequin on the opposite panel.
Unlike Jason and the Argonauts, whose interminably adventurous journeys Homer described in his Odyssey, Bellany suggests that the male and female figure in the centre are embarking on a calm journey away from the decadent worlds that they appear to have inhabited in the side panels. Pencil annotations and sketches are printed on the margins of the print, extending the imagery. On the side next to the harlequin they refer to Buchenwald, ‘stoicism’ and ‘tenacity’ beside a skull and bones; on the other side next to the blonde, a boat named Adoration is labelled ‘waiting for the tide’ below a sketchy thistle and the words ‘from a Flower of Scotland’. Next to the title, and above another sketched fish, Bellany is an excerpt from the Lord’s Prayer: ‘though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for Thou art with me’. These words reinforce the theme of Christian salvation evoked by the fish accompanying the couple in the central panel of the print.
Odyssey was produced in an edition of seventy-five plus three printers’ proofs and two archive copies. Tate’s copy is the first of several additional hors commerce copies. The edition was screenprinted by Kip Gresham of The Print Studio, Cambridge in twenty-five colours. It was published jointly by Kip Gresham and Mary V Mochary, Washington DC attorney and former mayor of Montclair, New Jersey, USA, in memory of her father Alexander Kasser (died 1997), who founded the Kasser Art Foundation in 1969.
John McEwen, John Bellany, Edinburgh and London 1994
John Bellany: A Scottish Odyssey, exhibition catalogue, Beaux Arts, London 1998