A great British painter showcased
John Bellany at Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh until 27 January 2013. Encountering the vibrantly expressive imagery of John Bellany, one of Scotland’s greatest living painters of global renown, is to be both astonished and puzzled. The profusion of human and animal figures, and intriguing allusions, in vivid, often big-scale compositions, astonish by their dynamic energy and imaginative range. Grim-faced fishermen and dour fishwives, bloated fish carcasses and beached boats, strangely angled heads and bizarre menagerie of dogs, sheep, birds and apes, fascinate and bewilder.
Glimpsing Cross motifs and disciplestyle tableaux, and recalling Bellany grew up in strongly Presbyterian Port Seton, a tight-knit fishing village close to Edinburgh, one sees his 50-year artistic odyssey reacting with these powerful Calvinistic childhood influences, and expressing his honest social realism and life-affirming visual vitality, all in personal style free of fashionable trends.
Scottish National Gallery’s show of 75 works, JOHN BELLANY: A PASSION FOR LIFE, comprehensively reveals the scope of his distinctive art. Awe of God and the sea, and deep respect for those living by it, pulsate through major early paintings. Box Meeting, Cockenzie, tumultuously images the annual procession to bless the ships’ deeds in the local church, while Kinlochberbie transforms a fishermen’s gutting-table into a Last Supper setting, with black-garbed figure ominously holding a Crucifixion cross-beam. In Allegory, a huge triptych of giant fish on towering crosses, fishermen replace soldiers and Christ’s family, with crudely gutted fish symbolising humanity’s ongoing suffering. Similarly evocative, Scottish Fish Gutter makes the killing of fish metaphor for the killing of Christ himself. These 1960s works strikingly recall Francis Bacon’s a decade earlier.
Bellany’s debt to the Old Masters and ongoing grappling with the challenge of suffering are searingly evident in the horrific Pourquoi? imagery, very much in Grunewald and Goya idiom, following his 1967 visit to Buchenwald concentration camp. Five years later, a 30th birthday self-portrait shows him contemplating his own mortality, a figure in black cloak over blood-flecked shroud with blue skeletal ribcage, with fish and ape signalling the transience of all life.
Human and animal figures wrought in garish brushwork people grim 1970s’ Expressionist works probing original sin, sexuality, guilt and death: Cod End, its symbols tangled menacingly, sets recall of the past in a Crucifixion framework.
When both his father and his second wife, Juliet, died in 1985, he responded to tragedy with remarkably elegiac Requiem pieces in soft hues, reflecting a new calm after breaking with alcohol, his years-long curse. Yet by 1987 it was evident he would die without a liver transplant, and after the successful operation by Sir Roy Calne at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, Bellany celebrated his amazing recovery in a series of hospital portraits, highlight of the exhibition. Joyful colour and rich humanity characterise many of his works since then, especially bright Italian and Scottish landscapes, while Prague Easter, its crowds swirling around the Charles Bridge Crucifixion statues as a first Passion re-enactment, shows faith themes retain their appeal, albeit devoid of Calvinist severity.
This landmark exhibition reveals a deeper and far more intense Bellany than hitherto known by many devotees.
John Bellany is at National Gallery of Scotland, Princes St., Edinburgh, until 27
January. Admission £7 ; Concessions £5.