Exhibition: Cradle of Magic, John Bellany and Alan Davie
I don't often feel inclined to talk about a specific piece of work in 'critical depth', I feel that the act of singling out an individual piece seems somehow unfair, like chasing it in to a corner... There is also the risk of demanding far too much from it.
It's more comfortable for me to stand back a bit and observe an artists practice as a whole, enabling me to make safe sweeping statements. Though, Homage to John Knox, 1969 by John Bellany has been steadily chewing in my mind. After much ummMmMinng and arRrgHhing I have decided to finally attempt to outline what it is exactly that I find so successful in the work. I can safely conclude that my instant and rather positive reaction to the triptych can be put down to the noire colour pallet, aggressive brush strokes and melancholic subject matter, but this aesthetic appeal alone does not scratch the itch that I get from looking at it (despite it appealing to my emo roots) - Something else is happening. After countless hours of speculation (did I forget to mention that I am invigilating this exhibition?) I hold my candle up to the paintings composition. I found there to be many layers of historical context at play. The composition of Homage to John Knox owes so much to Max Beckmann's painting 'Departure', 1932-33. But despite Bellany so closely referencing Departure, he seems to have gone some steps further by more clearly implementing visual hierarchy.
Of course, Bellany openly references religious imagery right off the bat, just by adopting the triptych (arising from early Christianity in the middle ages, once sitting on everyones local alter) in addition to this, the use of traditional social stratification has been implemented. A map of hierarchy is at work (e.g Raphael, Disputation of Holy Sacrament, 1509-10) the figures together indicate an observable bilateral ladder of importance. In the bottom right, Bellany can be seen peering out in to this disturbed world, ruled by harsh worship. Top and centered is the bat... Carrying all of it's associated darkness (the bat in celtic symbolism). This structuring method is applied to animals, objects, symbols, women and men.
In addition to this, Bellany seems to have considered hierarchal proportion when forming this piece, much like the vertical/horizontal placement of certain elements in relation to their status, though expressed through size (seen in some Egyptian paintings). The sizing of the bat, and the cross for example seem to be intentionally out of proportion, demanding much more significance. This could be a subconscious decision, yet still apparent as a result.
What I find so effective about this work is that it adopts and benefits from these many layers of religious imagery, and all the while delivers a harrowing message concerning religion, specifically John Knox (a famously harsh calvinist preacher). Homage to John Knox takes long standing religious visual language and turns it back toward itself. Aesthetic tools have been used in conjunction with subject matter.
Despite all of it's anger, this painting entails open mindedness and freedom, being able to discuss and dispute stale belief systems and harsh ideologies is the only way to move past them.
Nice one, John xox
Who the Heck wrote this? Mitchell Smith Artist & Writer www.msmith.art
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