John Bellany: A Passion for Life
Biographical exhibition charting the life of the great Scottish painter
The curation of this welcome large-scale retrospective exhibition of the Scottish painter John Bellany’s work must have been, in one sense, an easy task. Lending itself to far more than merely a dry recollection of influences and periods of note, Bellany’s life is both blessed and cursed with a strong narrative thread which takes in alcoholism, marriage and remarriage, death, depression and an unlikely happy ending. What truly resonates is that it’s all there in his paintings, arranged here into an emotive journey.
Beginning with his early days at Edinburgh College of Art at the turn of the 1960s, we’re introduced straight off to the trio of obsessions which would return to Bellany’s work throughout the years: a fascination with the East Lothian coastline of his youth and the hard but somehow simple lives of the fishing communities which skirted it; an almost impudent enjoyment in casting these same communities within tableau which mimic the grandeur of the Old Masters; and a fearful and decidedly pessimistic sense of religious foreboding and iconography.
Right away, his early ‘Allegory’ triptych sets several recurring themes – mainly the recurrence of a Holy Trinity motif and the gore of a half-gutted fish (in this case hung in Christ-like pose) as metaphor for human suffering. Through the late 60s and 70s his work gains greater confidence and power, inspired by his viewing Otto Dix’s work in Dresden and seeing the remains of Buchenwald concentration camp. Dark sexual motifs involving butchered meat evolve and his portraits are weary-eyed and sad, with the representative quality eventually all but obliterated in a haze of alcohol. Following the death of his second wife and father, however, a liver transplant and a reconciliation with his first wife inspires works of sober clarity and dream-like imagery, with bright vistas of his current Italian home forming a cheerful coda filled with echoes of the past.
Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, until Sun 27 Jan.