Ian Hughes, who has died aged 55, was a well known, inspirational artist producing dramatic paintings on serious themes. Glasgow born, he graduated from Dundee College of Art in 1980, and after various travelling scholarships and awards, settled in Edinburgh.
He was a courageous painter and a kind man. Throughout his career he tackled the difficult issue of mental instability in a most impressive way, both in his pictures and as a psychiatric nurse, never deviating from his cause, never painting for the market place, never sensationalising his subject. His work was recognised with major exhibitions at the Scottish National Gallery, and in Rostov-on-the-Don. He is also represented in many UK public museums, including The Whitworth Museum Manchester, Talbot Rice Edinburgh, Tate Gallery, Fleming Collection London, Coutts Bank and Shell. Abroad, his work is found in France, the US, Russia and Poland, and Sean Connery, Bob Geldof, Nick Nairn, Madonna, Peter Gabriel and Lord Maclennan MP are among his many collectors.
In 1986, Hughes and his friend Phil Braham showed together at Main Fine Art, Glasgow in Double Vision. It was a memorable year. The pair had objected to the lack of Scottish art in the festival programme and decided to stir things up by hanging pictures on the railings of Edinburgh's Royal Scottish Academy.
Festival director Frank Dunlop took up the challenge with a show of young emerging Scottish artists, which evolved into two big official festival exhibitions, Artists at Work in 1986, and 1987's The Vigorous Imagination, a seminal exhibition which finally asserted the vitality and diverse potency of contemporary Scottish art. It is an added poignancy that Hughes died on the eve of the opening of Generation, the biggest celebration of Scottish art ever.
He was one of many artists from The Vigorous Imagination who were swept up by London or foreign galleries and went on to forge international careers. Berlin's Raab Gallery approached him, resulting in many successful exhibitions with them for several years. He also often exhibited with Edinburgh's 369 Gallery.
In 1989 The Scottish National Gallery gave him a big solo show. It was a major breakthrough. "Hughes strides from good to great," I wrote back then in The Herald. "Disturbingly, the main impetus to greatness seems to be anguish, grief, suffering: a personal calvary. Hughes draws on his own personal experience to probe and lay bare raw emotion. Courageously, never sparing himself nor his public, he delves deep, examining imagery teeming with trauma and pain."
In his catalogue statement, Hughes allied himself with outcasts of society, accepting his aesthetic burden. He wrote, "My new oil painting lying against the studio wall stared at me intently, accusing me of cowardice. I was feeling tired, ill, depressed. For eight long hours I had struggled with these works. Dragging myself up, I began to physically attack the images. I felt like a frenzied, wounded creature. I sacrificed my rational mind to the instincts of the animal, the madman, the psychopath."
Paintings often took the form of self portraits, or portraits of afflicted artists or writers such as Van Gogh, Goethe or Kafka. In the 1980s his large-scale Kafka portraits — boldly expressionistic, fiercely coloured, full of streaks and slashes — were mesmerising. Some of his best work dates from this period.
He was also an impressive realist portrait painter. Commissions for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery include chef Nick Nairn and Professor John P Mackintosh. Other portraits include Ronald Robertson CBE and an especially fine John Munro, friend, counsellor and patron, for the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh.
More recently his painful self-portraits were cruelly distorted and over-painted in vivid disfiguring daubs, lashes and tiger patterns. His last powerful series, Testaments Betrayed, depicted the 12 disciples as recognisable outcasts, the homeless who inhabit doorways of any large city, or are seen wandering the streets at night. Among these lined, aged, dirty, battered, tragic men, Hughes paints himself as Judas, the divided self.
Braham says: "Ian was deeply compassionate and he was obsessive about the horrors committed during the Second World War. Many later paintings coupled Christian iconography with historical photographs of tortured Jews in Auschwitz."
He visited Poland and Russia several times between 2002 and 2010. The Holocaust works were first shown there and, fortuitously, at Summerhall between February and March, in his solo show, Unearthed Tongues Set Free.
Hughes had worked on Holocaust tragedies for the last 17 years. "It's the inversion of morality and continues today in Syria. I use hair, dust, lamb's blood and gold in my pictures. I use gold as these are secular icons; these people are secular saints."
Latterly he suffered from Parkinson's disease. In the 1990s, while working as a psychiatric nurse, he received extensive facial injuries when he was attacked by a patient wielding an oxygen bottle. In Testaments Betrayed, this is evident.
He will be remembered for his own intensity and the fractured, powerful thrust of his work.
His impetus came from a spiritual need which, though his works often had a religious aspect, (Dead Christ, Ship of Fools, Reliquary Boxes, Dear Lord, Stay by my Side) encompassed a profound and universal caring humanity. "My aim," he told me, "is quite simply to take these people out of asylums, out of textbooks, out of nightmare, and reintroduce them in all their beauty back into society."
He is survived by his son Jacob and his daughter Anna.