Today it’s World Mental Health Awareness Day, so we want to shine a spotlight on particularly special piece in our collection, which speaks about creativity and mental wellbeing. ‘Self Portrait with Juliet’ (1979) is an emotional painting by John Bellany, who is known for his expressive and confrontational artworks. This piece is infused with sorrow and anxiety, but it also shows the touching and supportive relationship Bellany shared with his wife Juliet.
It was painted at a particularly challenging time, for Juliet suffered from manic depression and had spent several periods very ill in hospital. Her sad face is partly obscured by her hair, her thin shoulders are hunched, and she leans heavily on Bellany’s shoulder. He grips his paint palette, a symbol of his trade which supported them emotionally and financially. The two of them seem to be hemmed in by their surroundings, which includes canvases behind and in front of them, and a boat in the foreground.
In many of Bellany’s paintings from this time, boats are symbolic of the voyage of life. The name inscribed on the side of the boat is MIZPAH, the Hebrew word for watchtower from the Old Testament, which goes with the text ‘The Lord watch between me and thee when we are absent from one another’. This was also engraved on Juliet’s engagement ring and the separation implied refers to her time in hospital. The sail of the ship reads, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night…Rage, range against the dying of the light’. This heartfelt quote from Dylan Thomas seems to be Bellany’s plea to Juliet not to succumb to her illness.
Though perhaps not the most cheerful painting in the collection, ‘Self Portrait with Juliet’ demonstrates the importance of communicating difficult emotions, and their potential for being transformed into powerful and affecting visual imagery.
Blogpost by Katie