Madonna of the Bass Rock
By John Bellany

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Year
1997
Media
Watercolour
Subject Matter
Abstract - People
Reg. Number
P853
Size
90 x 71 cm

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This striking watercolour portrays the Bass Rock off the coast of North Berwick, an important landmark in Scotland's natural, political and cultural history. The artist, John Bellany, is a native of East Lothian and his work often displays influence from the coast of the Firth of Forth. John has fully used the qualities of watercolours to create a violent seascape, with clashing bands of paint forming waves. The artist has chosen a dark, turbulent colour palette, where blues and greens clash with reds and yellows. The pencil outlines of the original image are still visible, even where there is no painted outline, adding to the rough sense of composition. The outlines also provide detail to the elements of the composition, such as the figures in the lower right corner and the details of the rock itself. Instead of using white paint, which would have been difficult in watercolour, the artist has left space blank in order to create white patches and lighting. The eyes of the figures in the foreground have not been created with solid colour, but rather with a series of concentric circles and crosshatches.

The image is highly stylised, with the oversized facial features and irregular outlines typical of John's figurative work which emulates a time in art history before modern perspective became commonplace. The name and subject matter is reminiscent of traditional Christian artwork, a fitting theme given the Bass Rock's history as a Christian hermitage. A Madonna refers to a depiction of the Virgin Mary, often accompanied by the infant Christ, which was a popular subject in medieval icons. This painting has many aspects that refer to traditional iconography, such as the expressions of the foreground figures, which do not reflect human concerns but divine detachment, with the eyes of the mother and child focused on Heaven. The range of yellow and orange paints used to colour their skin reflects the gold of Byzantine icons, and the bright patch in the mother's hair suggests a rudimentary halo. Yet the form is also subverted: the background represents a contemporary seascape. Far from the beatific ideal of the Virgin, this mother is straggling haired, sunken-eyed, and emaciated: she is not a conventional Madonna, but a post-humanist figure, full of mortal frailty. It is her motherhood that is emphasised, not her divinity. The artist himself underwent a liver transplant in 1989 and mortality and human vulnerability became important themes in John's later work as a result.

John Bellany is recognised as one of the most influential post-war Scottish artists. Born in 1942 into a family of fishermen and boat builders in Port Seton, fishing communities and life by the coast have long influenced his work. He attended the Edinburgh College of Art and the Royal College of Art in London. His work can be found in the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Tate Britain in London. In 1994, he received the CBE