John Bellany (1942-2013) was one of Scotland’s most outstanding contemporary artists, and to celebrate his 70th birthday year, works from a career spanning over fifty years were brought together in this retrospective exhibition; displaying paintings, watercolours, drawings and prints many of which have been rarely, if ever, exhibited.
Beginning with works produced while studying at Edinburgh College of Art in the early 1960’s and ending with his late landscape paintings, the show plotted key periods within Bellany’s life: a deeply religious upbringing, his rebellious beginnings and important artistic influences, his unwavering belief that art should show the realities of life, his use of symbols, as well as the reflection in his art of his own personal tragedies and triumphs. During a period in Europe and America when expressive realism has not always been fashionable, Bellany was one of the key standard bearers for this vital strand of modern art.
When Bellany first entered Edinburgh College of Art in 1960, the Scottish Colourist tradition was still the dominant strand in Scottish painting, although internationally abstraction was very much in vogue. Bellany rejected both. He wanted to create an art that was firmly based on the achievements - in drawing as well as painting - of the Old Masters, but brought up to date by the great modern Realists, such as Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) and Fernand Léger (1881-1955). He wanted his art to focus on the everyday life he knew, especially the fisherfolk and boats from Port Seton, Cockenzie and Eyemouth, the ports on the Firth of Forth where he grew up. It was the heroism of ordinary people that he wanted to celebrate in large, monumental paintings, some of which he displayed on the railings outside this very building on the Mound: a direct challenge to the Establishment.
Hand in hand with Bellany’s development of a symbolic repertoire (the puffin, gull, fish, monkey etc.) went an ever-increasing dissolution of the image. The gestural brushwork seen in previous works became increasingly expressionistic and there was a distinct loosening of forms. In 1974 Bellany introduced the idea of two framing strips at the side of the canvas, containing the blurred images of former voyagers, of ancestral voices. Gradually such images became predominant, almost to the point of illegibility, and Bellany began increasingly to use the triptych format. Underlying all was Bellany’s concern to explore the interplay of human relationships and central to this was the artist himself.
By the mid-1980s Bellany had given up drink and his paintings became quieter and more measured. Even the works that he made as requiems for the deaths of his wife Juliet and his father in 1985 are restrained and elegiac. He remarried his first wife and a more serene period in his art seemed set fair. In 1987 and early 1988, however, it became clear that, despite having given up alcohol, Bellany was not going to get better unless he had a liver transplant. He managed to get through all the tests and in the spring of 1988 he had the transplant operation. It was successful. Spurred on by new hope for the future, Bellany drew himself, his doctors and nurses as he recovered from the operation. These remarkably honest and occasionally searing depictions make up a rare record of art overcoming physical disability.
The effect of his restored health was to give Bellany new ambition. He painted a number of homages to some of his revered Old Masters—Titian, Rembrandt and Delacroix, in particular. Courtesy of the British Council he travelled in Central Europe for three months in 1992, visiting Prague, Dresden, Vienna and Budapest, drawing inspiration from the resilience of the people in the former communist countries, as they struggled to make a living. In 1996 he went to Mexico, and was astonished not only by the vibrancy and colour of the country, but also by the way the Mexicans smiled in the face of adversity and death. Bellany’s experience of seeing the celebrations of the Day of the Dead made him question his whole Calvinist outlook on life and death.
In 1998 Bellany bought a house in Tuscany. Living the Italian way of life for several months a year reinforced a more life-affirming, optimistic view of things. His paintings became brighter and more colourful; the sense of guilt and personal doom was lifted. He began to paint more and more landscapes, townscapes and harbour scenes. This was no doubt triggered by his frequent travels to other countries (such as China in 2003), but also by his feeling more at home in Italy, surrounded by glorious countryside and charming old towns, and by his frequent visits to Scotland. In a way, this was Bellany coming home, both in terms of subject matter and in terms of voluptuous use of paint and a new joy in colour. Bellany’s late paintings of port scenes in Scotland, Italy and France come full circle, with the artist painting what he knew best.