The late 1960s were a crucial point in Bellany’s evolution as an artist. Following a degree at Edinburgh College of Art he continued his studies at the Royal College of Art in London, graduating in 1968. More significantly, in the previous year, he had visited East Germany on a cultural scholarship, discovering a range of German artists and attending the site of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Unsurprisingly this had a significant impact on the young artist, and in the ensuing years he produced paintings that helped process the emotional distress he experienced subsequently.
Artist and writer Janet McKenzie remembers ‘When I interviewed him in 2010, he recalled that, following the visit to Buchenwald, it took him many years to reconcile the experience of the Holocaust, and he was only able to do so through the creative process, through the visualisation of the sense of the dichotomous – horror and beauty – that constitutes the human condition . . . Bellany’s relentless struggle to make sense of the split between the love found in family bonds, in nature, in the human spirit in many instances, and the abject terror and evil that humans are capable of. These polar opposites drove him on a daily basis.’
In ‘The Persecuted,’ Bellany centres the people that were sent to camps such as Buchenwald: the sick; the disabled; the homeless; political prisoners; those convicted of crimes, to name but a few. Bellany does not baulk at their suffering, choosing instead to portray his subjects as emaciated and huddled together. We can sense the cold, their discomfort, their hunger but there is also a vitality and vibrancy here, a defiance. The approach is confronting, with the intimidating scale and imposing dark green frame crowding the figures while also compelling our gaze towards them, as they stare directly back at us. Thus, Bellany forbids the viewer to shy away from their grim reality and committed endurance in the face of adversity.
Bellany raises these dispossessed figures to an elevated position normally reserved for those hung on the hallowed walls of galleries or museums. He subverts our expectations, showcasing suffering rather than the dashingly heroic, framing and naming this group so that they cannot be erased or forgotten. The distinctive presentation also suggests Bellany’s acknowledgement of traditional trompe l’oeil framing devices. There is a sense, in the works of this period, of the inspiration Bellany found in the Old Masters, with his interest in classical works informing the committed realism that went against the grain of modern art in 1960s London.
Large-scale paintings like this from the mid-1960s cemented Bellany’s reputation as a contemporary artist of significance. A masterful work from a key moment in the artist’s career, we see this formidable talent utilising his superb artistic abilities to interrogate key matters at the very heart of the human condition: our capacity for good and evil, our suffering and our perseverance, our enduring hope.
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0131 557 8844