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"John Bellany: A Passion for Life" retrospective opens at the Scottish National Gallery
John Bellany, Self-Portrait, 1966. Oil on board, 159.8 x 142 cm. Collection of the artist.

EDINBURGH.- The largest, most comprehensive exhibition of work by one of Scotland’s greatest living artists opened at the Scottish National Gallery last week. Marking his seventieth birthday, and celebrating his astonishing contribution to British painting, John Bellany: A Passion for Life brings together around 75 paintings, watercolours, drawings and prints from all the key periods of the artist’s remarkable fifty-year career. This is the first retrospective of this scale in almost three decades; it includes many works that have rarely, if ever, been exhibited before.

The exhibition is funded by players of People’s Postcode Lottery, who have raised over £21m for charities and good causes to date. People's Postcode Lottery Head of Charities Clara Govier commented: “This exhibition – a celebration of John Bellany’s 70th birthday – is a wonderful way to show the longstanding influence this artist has had not only internationally, but to local Scottish communities. We hope that the support from our players helps to ensure that this remarkable collection of works will go on to inspire further generations and communities.”

The exhibition begins with canvases produced while Bellany was a student at Edinburgh College of Art in the early 1960s and culminate in a selection of his most recent landscape paintings, highlighting the significant themes and events that have fuelled his deeply personal art: a strict Calvinist upbringing, his rebellious beginnings and artistic influences, the unwavering belief that art should be grounded in the realities of life, his use of a complex personal symbolism, and his unflinching reflection upon his own tragedies and triumphs.

Bellany was born in 1942 in Port Seton, a close-knit fishing community 10 miles to the east of Edinburgh, and his painting is filled with imagery that derives from his close connection to the sea. His early canvases, painted on a monumental scale, were marked by an extraordinary ambition and self-confidence. These intensely felt paintings of fisherfolk and their precarious existence were a direct challenge to the decorative landscapes and still lifes that characterised much contemporary Scottish painting in the 1960s. During the Edinburgh Festivals of 1964 and 1965 Bellany and his colleague Sandy Moffat famously mounted their own outdoor exhibitions, hanging their paintings on the railings outside the Scottish National Gallery and Royal Scottish Academy. Almost half a century on, a number of early masterpieces from this rebellious period, including The Boat Builders (1962) and The Box Meeting, Cockenzie (1965) will make a triumphant return to the building.

The heroic social realism of Bellany’s early work also ran counter to the prevailing trend for abstraction, and revealed his admiration for modernist artists like Fernand Léger whose celebrated series The Constructors from the 1950s was a direct inspiration. Importantly Bellany also looked to the Old Masters, such as Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens and Poussin. The composition of The Box Meeting, Cockenzie (1965) is based on a copy of The Feast of the Gods (c.1625-50) by Giovanni Bellini, in the Scottish National Gallery. The painting depicts the revelries that follow a traditional ceremony to bless the deeds of local fishing boats, and perfectly illustrates the sacred and profane theme that is central in much of Bellany’s work.

The deeply felt but sometimes harsh religion of Bellany’s childhood made an indelible impression on him. Paintings like Scottish Fish Gutter (1965), Kinlochbervie (1966), The Obsession (1966) and Bethel (1967) are rich in symbolism and borrow elements of traditional Christian iconography, such as the Crucifixion and the Last Supper, to transform images of ordinary fishermen into powerful allegories, and link Bellany’s own experiences to the grand and universal subjects of Western art.

A formative trip to East Germany in 1967, during which Bellany was shaken by a visit to the site of the concentration camp at Buchenwald, introduced still darker notes into his work. Bellany’s world view had become more tragic, ambiguous and complex and, influenced by the work of the German Expressionist artist Max Beckmann, he embarked upon a series of paintings, such as Skate Fetish (1973) and Lap Dog (1973) that dealt with the issue of original sin, sex, guilt and death. He also began to develop a complex repertoire of symbolic creatures, including the skate, the seagull, the puffin, the skeleton, the dog, the cat, the fish, the owl and the monkey, that populate many of his paintings, providing a disguise or cover for the artist, or embodying his personal demons.

The paintings of the 1970s were haunted by a growing awareness of fate and doom, with the familiar motif of the boat becoming a symbol of the voyage from life to death. Bellany’s brushwork, in paintings such as The Sea People (1975) and Cod End (1977), became wilder and more expressionistic, leading to a period of semi-abstract work in which themes of aggression, violence and general breakdown predominated. In the late 1970s this process was arrested as Bellany embarked on a new relationship and painted several very tender pictures of his second wife Juliet. However, the highly gestural, attacking manner in which he painted the works of the early 1980s, such as the Voyagers II (1982) and Time Will Tell (1982), reflects renewed turbulence in Bellany’s life, including Juliet’s struggle with depression and his own difficulties with alcohol.

In the mid-1980s, following a serious illness and the death of both Juliet and his father, Bellany reunited with his first wife Helen and reconsidered his whole personal life. The paintings of this period are marked by a feeling of reflective calm, and are characterised by a much tighter handling of paint, a lightness of touch and the use of a narrow range of warm yellows, oranges and reds, with blues as a contrast. Perhaps surprisingly, the requiem pictures of 1985 (Requiem for my Father and Adieu, Requiem for Juliet) are not anguished so much as elegiac, sad farewells to loved ones.

In 1987 it became clear that, despite having given up alcohol, Bellany would die without a liver transplant. In spring 1988 he made a remarkable set of drawings and self-portraits that document every step of his near-miraculous recovery and convalescence, following a successful operation performed by Sir Roy Calne. These remarkably honest and occasionally searing depictions (The Addenbrooke’s Hospital Series) are a startling testament to Bellany’s ‘will to draw’, which according to his surgeon, greatly contributed to the speed of his recovery from one of the longest and most complicated operations a person can have. Bellany is now one of the longest surviving liver transplant patients in the UK.

Restored to health, Bellany was fired by a new energy to rival that of his youth. In the early 1990s he once again tackled large canvases with ambitious compositions, such as the sensuous Danäe (A Shower of Gold) Homage to Titian (1991) and Danäe Homage to Rembrandt II (1991) in which he measured himself against the Old Masters he revered. He also returned to the themes he had explored so memorably twenty years earlier – the pleasure of earthly delights and the guilt consciousness in the Calvinist imagination, evident in paintings such as Love’s Sting (c.1990-1).

In 1995 Bellany made a three-month trip to Mexico that was to have a profound effect on his art. His experience of seeing the traditional Day of the Dead celebrations led him to question his whole Calvinist outlook on life and death. In 1998 he bought a house in Tuscany and began to spend part of the year there, living the Italian way of life, which reinforced a more life-affirming, optimistic view of the world. As a result, Bellany’s paintings became brighter and more colourful; the sense of guilt and personal doom was lifted.

In the past decade Bellany has begun 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 by his frequent visits to Scotland. In a way this is Bellany coming home, both in terms of subject matter and in terms of a voluptuous use of paint and a new joy in colour.

Over five decades Bellany’s art has seen a dramatic trajectory in part, mirroring his personal life. In his defiant resolve to resist the tide of fashion and to uphold the value of traditional figurative painting, he helped to change the course of painting in the UK. Despite the many developments in his art, and his own brushes with death, he has kept faith with this singular vision, grounding his paintings always in the visible world about him, and expressing his deepest emotional response to it. John Bellany is celebrated around the world today as one of the foremost standard bearers for this vital strand of modern art.

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