John Bellany



Not on display

John Bellany 1942–2013
Screenprint on paper
Image: 915 × 685 mm
Purchased 1983

Catalogue entry

P07902 Janus 1982

Screenprint 36 × 27 (915 × 685) on cream Velin Arches, printed by Chris Betambeau and Bob Saitch at Advanced Graphics, not editioned
Inscribed ‘Bellany’ 82' b.r. and ‘A/P’
Purchased from Monika Kinley (Grant-in-Aid) 1983

The following entry is based on information supplied by the artist in a letter dated 20 April 1986. It has been approved by the artist.

‘Janus’ is ‘a plea from the heart’. It was created at a time when Bellany's ‘life and health were in a desperate state of peak emotional strain’ during which his wife Juliet was suffering from a chronic illness which eventually proved fatal. Janus was the Roman god of doors, gates and entrances and is normally represented with two faces looking to past and future. It was an image which had haunted Bellany ‘over a period of years’. In this work, and relating to the circumstances under which it was created, the double face is transformed into a self-portrait. As with the Roman original, the faces are turned to past and future but Bellany also uses the image as an icon of ‘self-appraisal’ and ‘self-challenge’. It invokes the questions ‘What are you? Where have you been? Whither do you go?’ and represents ‘an artist looking inwards on himself and on looking outwards is devastated by what he is seeing’.

This feeling of devastation and personal conflict with adverse external forces is amplified by and embodied in the words ‘Spes Bona’ which form part of the image at the bottom. Although these words may be translated, ironically, as ‘good hope’, they refer more directly to an incident in Bellany's childhood at Port Seton, Scotland which made an unforgettable impression. ‘Spes Bona’ was the name of a fishing boat which ran onto rocks during a heavy storm with the loss of all the crew. Bellany recalls that ‘the skeleton of the boat lay on the rocks of the harbour bar ... until the timbers were eventually completely smashed to pieces by thunderous seas over the years’. Relating this to the meaning of the work as a whole, Bellany has stated that ‘the paradox of the Latin name of the boat and her dreadful demise commemorates man's feebleness to contest in an elemental drama’. Bellany also produced a watercolour with the title ‘Spes Bona’ 1985 (repr. John Bellany, exhibition catalogue, Fischer Fine Art, February–March 1986, no.26). On a wider level, the ideas of human vulnerability and personal conflict, which find metaphorical articulation in the image of sailors pitched against an overwhelming and irresistible sea, are further connected with the Roman Janus who was also a god of war and peace. That Bellany sees the work as a ‘plea’ stems from the heart-shaped motif containing the initials ‘JB’ drawn on the neck of the Janus head. ‘JB’ stands both for John and Juliet Bellany. This symbol was designed by the artist's wife and made into a love necklace which she wore as a ‘ray of hope’ during her illness. Bellany has stated that ‘The prayer endemic in this is portrayed in the disturbing “Janus” silkscreen which is a plea from the heart.’

Although inscribed 1982, the work was executed between 1982–3. It evolved out of many preliminary watercolours and drawings including portraits made from life. All preparatory works were executed in the artist's London studio and are now in the artist's collection. The silkscreen was realised at Advanced Graphics in collaboration with Chris Betambeau and Bob Saitch at the same time as another silkscreen, ‘The Gambler’. Bellany has indicated that silkscreen was the chosen printmaking technique for this work because he valued the directness of drawing on the screen and the richness of colour which he felt was required. He explored the image further in ‘several [related] paintings and watercolours coming to a zenith in “Janus”’ 1983, oil on canvas (repr. in col., The British Art Show, exhibition catalogue, AC tour, November 1984–December 1985, no.17).

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986

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