THE artist John Bellany has led an extraordinary life: born in 1942 to a fishing family in Port Seton, he became the leading painter of his generation. His art combines his own personal mythology and private symbols with careful observation of the people and landscapes of his native East Lothian and, in later life, his adopted home in Italy.
Plagued by ill health and personal tragedy, he survived a pioneering liver transplant in 1988. But he has never stopped making his fierce, and fiercely personal, paintings. This month his 70th birthday will be marked by a major exhibition at the National Gallery of Scotland. We asked leading figures from the arts to tell us why Bellany matters and to choose a painting from the show.
ALAN RIACH: ALLEGORY (1964)
Alan Riach is a poet and professor of Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow. His choice of painting is Allegory, a triptych that includes elements of the real lives of Scottish fishermen with references to the crucifixion.
“The poet Hugh MacDiarmid was hugely important to Bellany… someone said to me recently that with MacDiarmid when you read his poems it was like listening to Beethoven, you know all the notes are in the right place. It’s immediately convincing and the Scots language comes across to people who grew up speaking Scots, even different dialects of it. Bellany recognised that. Here is absolute authority in poetry and in painting, and they are understanding each other.
“Bellany’s Allegory is partly allegorical and partly real characters, but it’s not literal, it has a metaphoric meaning: its about anatomising the living thing, that applies to human beings as such, as animals, and also to economics. To put that in the context of the art world you can see the influence of a painter like William McTaggart, who in the 19th century paints fishing in Highland landscapes. Not for tourists but as a working economy in a landscape that is humanly occupied.
“There’s a sense in Bellany’s work that, in a dark and difficult way, these people are some way crippled or debilitated or torn by whatever circumstances they live in. But they are also resistant to the oppressions and the dignity that he gives them in the work is harnessed and rings true. It’s not sentimentalised… this isn’t the heroic stag, this is something that is much more vulnerable but also much tougher.”
KEITH HARTLEY: ADDENBROOKE’S SERIES (1988)
Keith Hartley is chief curator at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and curator of John Bellany: A Passion For Life. Addenbrooke’s Series was made when Bellany was recovering from his liver transplant at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in 1988.
“Bellany is particularly important because in the early 60s he decided he didn’t want to paint just for drawing rooms in the Edinburgh New Town. He wanted to paint what he knew about and his father and grandfather were fishermen. In art, everyone was looking across the ocean to America and he said no, he wanted to look to his own life and to link the old masters with the contemporary world.
“Hardly had he come round from his liver transplant in 1988 when he wondered if he was still alive and asked for pencil and paper. He started drawing and then he knew he was alive. His surgeon said he could concentrate so much that he didn’t need the same pain relief as other patients. Everyone has gone through something like this, whether it is personal or a close relative, everyone knows this pain. To see John recovering is quite life-enhancing.”
MOYNA FLANNIGAN: MIZPAH (1978)
Moyna Flannigan is an award-winning painter who studied at Edinburgh College of Art and Yale University. She lives in Edinburgh and works in a studio on the East Lothian coast. Her choice of painting is Mizpah, a work Bellany painted just before his marriage to his second wife Juliet in 1979.
“Bellany is the most important painter of his generation. He has a singular vision and has been so focused on his painting decade after decade. Really, he’s a bit of a one-off, nobody else has had such personal and professional drive. It’s such a personal story, and that’s apart from the fact that he’s such a gifted painter.
“In the art world, he’s a lone wolf; he’s never been part of a trend and brings his own ambitions without too much obvious influence. I only met him a few years ago for the first time, but if you are dedicating your life to this crazy business then you must take your hat off to someone who has sustained their passion and not run out of steam. To do that takes tremendous imaginative energy – it’s a very rare thing.
“Since I moved studio, I see the powerful effect of the sea and of living in a small coastal community: in comparison with the city you have a very different relationship to the people around you. With the sea you can see how dangerous it is, how powerful it is and to imagine going out into it in a small boat. Although things have changed round here in terms of fishing, it’s a way of life and it’s very difficult for a city person to understand that.
Mizpah is a tremendous painting and would stand out for me in any museum: it’s the colour, the handling. I suppose there is something about the colour, that yellow, some colour theorists would say it was the colour of fear – it has a tremendous impact.” «
John Bellany: A Passion Of Life, National Gallery of Scotland, Saturday until 27 January, 2013. Alan Riach will give a talk on John Bellany and Modern Scottish Literature at the National Gallery of Scotland on 8 January.