John Bellany’s monumental paintings pay homage to the great masters while also reflecting his own journey through tragedy to happiness
John Bellany: A Passion For Life
Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh
Rating: * * * * *
John Bellany paints from the heart; his life has informed his painting; its ups and downs are reflected in his pictures. Nevertheless while this has been true from the very beginning, his art is far from being simply personal. On the contrary, it is monumental. It belongs squarely in the long tradition of European painting in which he set out to place himself from the start. The first room in the major retrospective exhibition that marks his 70th birthday is hung with big paintings done when he was a student at Edinburgh College of Art. Reproductions and studies show how he was deliberately taking on Titian, Piero della Francesca, even Giotto. He was brought up in the fishing village of Port Seton. The Box Meeting, Cockenzie is a homage to Titian’s Feast of the Gods, but the subject is the party after the annual blessing of the fishing boats. Homage to Piero della Francesca is just what it says, but with fishermen instead of Piero’s angels. Allegory is a huge crucifixion, but gutted fish replace the figures of Christ and the thieves. The picture is a sombre reflection on life and death and the fisherman’s need to kill to live.
It was remarkable at the time, or at any time, to think, as John Bellany did while still a student, “If I am going to succeed as a painter, I have to do so in the frame of reference established by the great artists of the past, but on my own terms.” He ignored fashion. Hugh MacDiarmid’s influence certainly helped persuade him that his own story and not some vague and rootless internationalism was his best starting point. Bellany and his close friend Sandy Moffat met MacDiarmid in Milne’s Bar in Edinburgh where the poet held court, but the teaching at Edinburgh College of Art was also important. Building a Boat, a massive composition that brings Noah’s Ark to Port Seton was painted in a class on mural painting at the College. He was also encouraged by teachers there like William Gillies and Robin Philipson. Alan Davie, an earlier Edinburgh graduate, was an example to be emulated too, though Bellany himself consciously rejected Davie’s abstraction.
Moving to the Royal College in London, Bellany continued to startle his tutors with monumental paintings of fishing and fishermen. They were also increasingly dark in mood. Kinlochbervie is a grim Last Supper. The Obsession is a haunted picture set against a sombre sea of five spookily grotesque men standing behind a table laden with bloody fish guts. No one before ever saw the simple act of cleaning a fish as so laden an image of death. His painting became even darker after a visit to Buchenwald in East Germany. The striped clothing of the prisoners became a frequent image. It is deployed to stark effect in Pourquoi II, a painting of three mutilated figures crucified on broken trees. The picture pays homage to Goya in its composition and matches him in its horror.
The dark mood of these paintings also reflects the burden of individual guilt that defined the extreme Calvinist preaching to which the artist was exposed in the kirks of his childhood. The Bereaved One is a portrait of his grandmother. She is in bed, her Bible open before her. Her fierce gaze affirms the stern and unforgiving message she finds in the book, even in the face of death. The Burden is an unforgettable image of that same sense of inescapable guilt. A man stands bowed beneath the huge fish he is carrying on his back. A dark shadow looms behind him. In the paintings of these years, the imagery become increasingly strange. In the haunting triptych The Sea People, beneath a lurid sky two bizarre figures stand like totems against a dark red sea. In the wings stand a skeleton and a half-naked woman. They are more freely painted than before, as Bellany’s imagination finds expression now not only in his talent for surreal invention, but also in the act of painting itself. In Cod End the actors in a wild drama loosely based on the Crucifixion are a phantasmagoria of creatures, half-formed and half-dissolved in a fury of energetic brushwork. Here Bellany borrows the abstract language of Alan Davie, but turns it to his own purposes by making these strange, animate forms emerge from the flux of his brushwork and dissolve again as though in dream or memory. Occasionally he paints in sharper focus, however, as in Requiem for My Father, a self-portrait holding an owl set against a view of the Bass Rock that he painted on the death of his father in 1985. His second wife, Juliet, died in the same year and she too is recorded in a raw and angry Requiem.
The artist was himself becoming increasingly ill with liver disease. In The Old Man and the Sea he confronts the prospect of his own death. The prize of life itself, like the skeleton that was all that Hemingway’s old man was left of his prize fish, seems no more than an empty husk. Almost in extremis, the artist’s life was saved by a liver transplant. He began to draw and even paint while still in his hospital bed. A series of watercolour self-portraits record this moment. Then, in a wild rainbow of joyful colour, Prometheus shows him reborn. He is looking both ways, one face dark and looking back, the other bright and looking forward.
The artist’s first wife, Helen, had nursed him through his illness. They remarried and their relationship and the delight of his reclaimed life fill these later pictures with light and colour. Lovers is a picture of reunion although it seems, here at least, not all the monsters have been completely banished. The Bellanys also travelled. Lake Patzacuaro was done in Mexico. It shows a man and a woman against a bright blue sea in a beautiful image of acceptance and reconciliation, not just between two people, but with life itself. Two pictures of Danae are erotic homages to Titian and Rembrandt respectively. Leda and the Swan is an evocation of the enigma of eros with a hint of lurking darkness. Much of the artist’s most recent work is landscape. There are paintings here of Mexico and of Italy where he and Helen now spend much of their time, but also of his native east coast of Scotland.
Bellany has always been a fluent and very gifted draughtsman. One of the joys of this show is that his drawings are displayed in cases throughout the rooms. He works constantly and the sheer volume of his production made selecting a retrospective a daunting task. Curator Keith Hartley has done a brilliant job, however. By concentrating on larger works, the pictures fill the rooms as though they belonged there. Many years ago, as students, Bellany and Sandy Moffat displayed their paintings on the railings outside the RSA. It was a challenge to the establishment. Now he has moved inside, it is as though it had always been intended. The pictures look completely at home in these grand rooms. That they do so, and so effortlessly, is a measure of his remarkable artistic achievement. As a student, he took on the great tradition of figurative painting and now he is part of it. He chose to go against the tide of fashion, against what seemed to be the grain of history, and he has triumphed.
• Until 27 January