John Bellany | Woman with Owl06 Oct 2020
by Guy Peploe
John Bellany was born in 1942 in the Scottish fishing village of Port Seton. He attended Edinburgh College of Art from 1960 to 1965. His early work in Northern European Expressionist-Realist tradition allied to personal symbolism and iconography, often drawn from his family’s seafaring past.
Bellany believed that art should show the realities of life and his art reflects both his personal triumphs as well as tragedies. His work is often highly challenging and at times autobiographical as epitomised by a series of brutally unflinching self portraits produced in hospital following a major operation in the 1980s.
This ambitious painting dated to around 1972 is associated with other works made in the artist’s Clapham studio, set in a theatrical interior like Lap Dog, c.1973 now in the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland.
The action is set on a floor, but curved, perhaps the top of a model’s throne, against a background here indicating a flaming, hellish maw in which spectral figures: human skeleton, bird skull and skate woman are lit with internal flames. On the stage a woman with a white face mask and long black hair and gloves sits on an amorphous throne, protecting an owl which, most disquietingly, looks up as well as out; has it pecked at her nose? In front is a self-portrait as a dog, wearing a painter’s cap, the only actor who engages the viewer directly, with a mordant resignation. Within a few years Bellany shifts towards a more Germanic inspired expressionism, an outdoors setting and dominantly sea-symbolism.
In Woman with Owl, he is in the thrall of Bacon, Soutine and Fuseli and a nightmare vision of sex and death from which he somehow remains detached and protagonist.
You can watch our short film below where Guy Peploe discusses John Bellany's Woman with Owl.