John Byrne says modern Scots artists don’t work

John Byrne with one of his self portraits. Picture: Neil Hanna
John Byrne with one of his self portraits. Picture: Neil Hanna
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HE IS revered as one of Scotland’s greatest living artists – still going strong after a career spanning five decades.

But as he unveiled his most high-profile exhibition to date, John Byrne has launched a stinging critique of the quality of visual art being produced in Scotland.

The 74-year-old, who is being honoured by the National Galleries of Scotland with a major retrospective, said he had not been impressed by the work of another Scottish artist for decades.

Paisley-born Byrne, whose show at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh opens tomorrow, told The Scotsman he had long considered himself an outcast from the arts establishment in Scotland and felt he was seen as “persona non grata” for his outspoken views.

More than 30 intimate portraits featuring Paisley-born Byrne himself, his wife Jeanine, his former partner, actress Tilda Swinton, and Byrne’s four children all feature in the exhibition, along with iconic images of the likes of stage and screen stars Billy Connolly and Robbie Coltrane, as well as the late singer-songwriter Gerry Rafferty.

John Byrne: Sitting Ducks will be staged more than 50 years after Byrne graduated from Glasgow School of Art.

He said: “This is definitely the most high-profile show I’ve had.

“It’s the first time I’ve had an exhibition in any of the national galleries. I was never asked in the past, but I’d rather have this now, rather than before.

“I think I’m painting better than ever and I’m working harder than ever. I did around 120 paintings last year. They’re not dashed off. I work a 14-hour day, seven days a week. These so-called self-styled artists today don’t work at all. They don’t actually do any work.

“They get other people to do it for them. I’m just not interested in looking at stuff that other people are making. It’s got no soul – it’s like electronic music.

“You cannot even see the work of any Scottish painters these days. I don’t even know who they are. I don’t really care what people think of me. I’m not paranoid either.

“But it feels like I am seen as persona not grata in Scotland, by the arts establishment and everyone else. This exhibition is actually a bit of an aberration.”

Byrne, one of the strongest cultural critics of the Scottish Government, said many artists were too “afraid” to speak out on the independence debate, claiming many of them were worried about how they would be perceived and whether they would lose out on funding for projects.

He said: “I think most artists in Scotland are terrified to speak out. They are cowardly in the Scottish arts scene. They’re all keeping their noses clear for fear that people will dislike them and will not buy their stuff, and that they will not get any funding from Creative Scotland.”

• John Byrne: Sitting Ducks is at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery until 19 October.