Art for all and all for art

30 Jun 2004
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Contemporary Scottish painting is flourishing, and some of the nation's most successful names come from backgrounds not usually associated with fine art.

It's perhaps in the sphere of the visual arts where the vision expressed back in 2003 to break down 'elite' barriers has been most successful, often through the efforts of gallery programmes and initiatives that encourage wider participation in making, and viewing, art. And there's another pattern emerging: a significant number of contemporary Scottish artists have lived previous existences in a more mundane world as miners or steel workers and they hail from surroundings that are culturally a million miles away from the hushed atmosphere of an art gallery. Not for them the seamless rise to fame straight from art school. Some might say this informs an artist's work with the grittiness of real experience, or perhaps makes the profession itself seem less rarefied. Whatever the influence, the lives of many of Scotland's artistic names makes for interesting reading...

From fish to fame and fortune

Born in the fishing village of Port Seton in East Lothian, John Bellany chose to take a very different path from that of the generations of fishermen before him when he enrolled at Edinburgh College of Art in the late 1950s. Now arguably Scotland's greatest living figurative painter, Bellany has produced an extraordinary body of work, including large scale paintings using his trademark mythological-figurative style, often focusing on strange half-human half-animal forms, as well as many acclaimed watercolour portraits. Bellany's work now hangs in prestigious museums and galleries all over the world, including the National Galleries of Scotland, Tate Britain and in New York, the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Swirls and whorls

The factory floor of a Paisley carpet manufacturer was another unlikely beginning for an international artist. The multi-talented John Byrne was born in 1940 and brought up in Ferguslie Park housing scheme. He was accepted by Glasgow School of Art but after graduating had to take a dead-end job at a carpet factory to make ends meet. Uninspiring surroundings for an artist, perhaps, but in some ways the tedium of working on the production line was the making of Byrne. Desperate to escape the monotonous work, Byrne re-invented himself as 'Patrick', a supposedly self-taught painter of faux-naif images. 'Patrick' was a great success and his pictures appeared on record covers for , among others. Byrne revealed his true identity early on, and eventually let his own idiosyncratic style and mastery of oil paint speak for itself. His early experiences at the factory were not just an incentive to pursue artistic success he also drew heavily on his time in Paisley for the highly-acclaimed play , now considered a classic piece of Scottish drama, which was also made into a feature film designed and directed by the author. John Byrne is however, first and foremost a visual artist and his large-scale paintings are a tribute to his exemplary technique and charismatic personality. Despite the lure of international fame and fortune, Byrne continues to live in his native Scotland, along with his wife and sometime collaborator, actress Tilda Swinton.

The Vettriano phenomenon

No discussion of Scotland's contemporary arts scene would be complete without the name Jack Vettriano. He's the country's most commercially successful artist and his work can be seen everywhere, from calendars to tea towels. His most famous picture is (prints of which outsell those by Van Gogh or Monet) Sothebys recently sold the original for a record £748,000 in Edinburgh. And yet, Vettriano is not truly accepted by the art establishment, even with the honour of an OBE and celebrities such as Jack Nicholson and Terence Conran among his collectors.

Entirely self-taught, Vettriano, now 53, is a Fife-born miner's son, who followed his father into the pit until he was given a paintbox on his 21st birthday and began copying the Impressionists and Old Masters. Eventually his own style emerged, within a 'cool, sharp world of edgy romance and sexual tension' as lyricist Tim Rice, a fan and collector, puts it. Some liken Vettriano's work to Walter Sickert, Norman Rockwell and Edward Hopper, while others are less complementary a Vettriano painting has yet to hang in a major public gallery in Scotland, with the exception of his native Kirkcaldy where the town's gallery proudly displays two paintings donated by the artist.

Rocky road

An unlikely defender of Jack Vettriano is Peter Howson, a central figure in the so-called New Glasgow Boys movement of the 1980s, a collection of like-minded painters which includes Ken Currie and Stephen Campbell an ex-steel fitter whose portrayal of Burns as a sharp Armani-dressed rockstar caused quite a stir. Although Howson began training at Glasgow School of Art, in the best tradition of undiscovered genius, tutors didn't fully appreciate his strong, even disturbing figurative style. He took the unusual step, for an artist, of joining the Royal Highland Fusiliers, followed by a series of menial jobs including one as a nightclub bouncer. He was intrigued by this shadowy and sometimes violent world, and also became fascinated by the fast-growing body building culture, with the grotesque form of over-developed figures eventually becoming the focus of much of his most praised work. When his artistic career returned to the rails he was rewarded with almost instant success and a star-studded list of devotees and collectors including Madonna, David Bowie and Bob Dylan.

Another artist with a well-known fan is Cumbernauld artist Gerald Burns, a former teacher who is a dedicated figurative painter with a rich and detailed style. Burns won the Daily Mail's 'Not the Turner Prize' in 2004 with a huge canvas that is almost photographic in its powerful depiction of a young girl leading a massive white bull, a painting that was snapped up by none other than Ewan McGregor who spotted it in Glasgow hotel/restaurant St Jude's.

Galleries on-line

But you don't have to be a celebrity to buy Scottish art. While the general perception is often that original art costs a fortune and can only be found in austere galleries, more and more people are now turning to the internet when they want something for that spot over the fireplace, and many find that this can be a relaxing and easy way to go picture-shopping. Scotlandart is the largest original art website in Scotland where around 1500 paintings and sculptures can be viewed on-line and even hired by the month. The Doggerfisher Gallery shows contemporary Scottish-based artists' work on line.

'Art for all' might be a tall order, but with interest in alternative ways of buying and collecting soaring, and less expensive work becoming more widely available, perhaps it's a real possibility.

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