A great Bri­tish painter show­cased

The Church of England - - ENGLAND ON SUNDAY -

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.

Brian Cooper

John Bel­lany is at Na­tional Gallery of Scot­land, Princes St., Ed­in­burgh, un­til 27

Jan­uary. Ad­mis­sion £7 ; Con­ces­sions £5.

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