One of a number of paintings of ‘Sea People’ painted by John Bellany during the 1970s and 1980s, in which the figures are shown in a boat at sea, symbolising the journey each of us makes through life. Both in its composition and subject matter, this painting shows a debt to Max Beckmann's Departure triptych, in which the central panel depicts figures on a mystical voyage. In the side wings, sinister characters from a mythical world – including two skulls and fish-like creatures – reflect Bellany's fascination for the Darwinian idea that the whole of the animal kingdom, including homo sapiens, had its origins in the sea. The sea in this mythological context is regarded not only as the source of life but also its goal, and ‘to return to the sea’ is to die. The two birds accompanying the woman in the central panel mark the beginning and the end of the life span. In mythology the heron symbolises the morning and the generation of life, while the owl represents night and death. The bird-shaped head-dress worn by the woman probably refers to the symbolism of the bird as the soul. In later paintings Bellany went further and actually painted bird-headed women, such as in Totentanz (Dance of Death) of 1983, where he included skulls in the composition, linking women with temptation and death.
John Bellany was born at Port Seton on the East Coast of Scotland into a family of fishermen. Images of fishermen, boats and the sea have continually figured in his work. He studied at Edinburgh College of Art and then the Royal College of Art from 1965–68. The symbolism in the monumental Max Beckmann painting The Departure (1932–33), exhibited at the Tate in 1965, was revelatory to Bellany. After visiting East Germany in 1967, his work became darker and more complex, with images of concentration camps symbolising humanity’s irredeemable fall from grace. After suffering periods of ill-health in the 1980s, he produced a series of life-affirming portraits which were exhibited at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in 1989.
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