John Bellany: Painter acclaimed for his fusion of mythology and everyday life
Tuesday 03 September 2013
John Bellany was one of the greatest Scots painters of the postwar period and an artist whose work had a tremendous influence on others. He changed the face of Scottish art by breaking away from the Colourist tradition to define a new aesthetic, which combined everyday scenes with religion and mythology.
Bellany was born in Port Seton, East Lothian, in 1942, the son of a fisherman. "It was so beautiful, it was an idyllic childhood and the place was just staggering," He recalled of his early years. "Everywhere you looked there was something to catch the imagination... Everybody knew each other and cared about eachother."
He studied at Edinburgh College of Art, graduating in 1965, and at the Royal College of Art. Bellany's first major show was in 1964 when he and his friend Sandy Moffat tied their work to railings outside the Scottish National Gallery during the Edinburgh Festival.
Bellany's Allegory, a huge 13ft by 7ft triptych, was among the works shown. Based on the 16th century Isenheim altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald, the work interposes scenes from Bellany's life in Port Seton with the setting of the crucifixion, fishermen taking the place of Roman soldiers around the crosses at Golgotha. Religion, death and his fishing-port home town would remain constant themes.
"That was the period when our generation did make a stand," Moffat recalled of that outdoor protest show. "There was very little representation of Scottish art at the festival ... [We thought that] if we can't get in the official festival, we'll put it into the streets. Scottish art didn't really exist. It existed in the studios of Edinburgh College of Art, but it didn't exist in the arts establishment, which was completely Anglicised."
He had his first formal solo exhibition at the Dromidaris Gallery in the Netherlands in 1965, during one of a number of journeys he made to the Continent in the mid- and late-1960s. A visit to the former Buchenwald concentration camp around this time reinforced his engagement with the human condition and with religion. Alongside his own work, Bellany lectured at Brighton and then at Winchester, going on to Goldsmiths College from 1978 to 1984.
In 1986 the National Portrait Gallery organised a one-of-a-kind solo exhibition focussed on Bellany's portrait of the cricketer Sir Ian Botham, which the gallery had commissioned. However, despite his success, his drinking was taking its toll on his liver and by 1988 he was suffering from liver failure. A transplant was carried out in Cambridge by the pioneering surgeon, Sir Roy Calne, a keen amateur artist with whom Bellany became friends.
Waking from the anaesthetic, Bellany asked for paper and a pencil so he could draw and reassure himself that he was still alive: "I did a little drawing of myself and I think that that is the best drawing I've ever done in my life... It was three o'clock in the morning in a hospital bed, there was I sitting, the sweat was lashing off me on to the paper, the paper was burning, it was on fire..." Calne later commented, "I've never come across anybody who the day they came out of the intensive care ward started resuming their profession." The drawings and resulting paintings, the Addenbrooke's Hospital Series, have become some of his best-known works and a painting of Calne is now in the National Portrait Gallery.
When he had recovered he and his wife, Helen, moved to the Garfagnana area of Tuscany, near Barga, where he continued to paint, further inspired by the beauty and colours of the campagna, in addition to his own traditional themes. "Colours reflect what is going on inside," he said. "They are out there to be looked at depending on how one feels. It is not necessarily the case that the happier I am the more aggressive my use of colour becomes. More often, the opposite is true."
Bellany's work has been hugely influential. Damian Hirst told The Independent: "I first saw John's paintings as a teenager in Sheffield at the Graves Gallery and they completely blew me away. They made me realise that painting could be anything to anyone and since I've been lucky enough to be able to afford it, I've avidly collected his work. His work has that strange combination of visceral realism and the quality of dreams. They are never sentimental but always emotive. He claimed he was a mariner before a painter but the fisherman's life he presents speaks of the brutalities of life in the same way as Bacon does. They are universal.
"Though John's background is Calvinist and mine is Catholic, we've both spent a lot of time addressing the implications and indoctrination of religion, and the fear and hope and unknowing that comes with it. For me, his work is an unforgiving reminder of mortality and of the darkness that lurks in the centre of the human heart, but fundamentally his work is about the joy of life, which is all any art is about really."
Bellany has been the subject of a number of documentaries. One, John Bellany, Fire in the Blood, made by his son Paul, was broadcast in April 2010 and is to be shown again on BBC2 Scotland as a tribute. It tells the story of the family torn apart by his alcoholism then reunited following the transplant and his new lease of life.
The National Galleries of Scotland hosted a retrospective, "A Passion for Life", of more than 70 of his paintings, which ran until January this year. The gallery's Director-General, Sir John Leighton, said: "John Bellany will be celebrated as one of Scotland's greatest artists of the modern era. From his early, heroic depictions of fisherfolk on the Scottish coast to the vibrant, passionate images of his later years, he gave visual form to the big themes and narratives of human life.
"The retrospective show last autumn demonstrated how he was able to use the drama and crises of his own life as a starting point for powerful explorations of man's struggle with fate and, as he entered his 70s, it seemed as if he was still at the top of the game." Bellany died in his studio, surrounded by his family and holding a paint brush.
John Bellany, artist and teacher: born Port Seton, East Lothian 18 June 1942; married 1964 Helen Percy (divorced; two sons, one daughter), 1978 Juliet Lister (died 1985), 1987 Helen Percy; CBE 1994; died Cambridgeshire 28 August 2013.
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