John Bellany: A Passion for Life, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh

As students at Edinburgh College of Art, John Bellany and his friend Alexander Moffat mounted their paintings on the railings of the city’s Castle Terrace during the 1963 Edinburgh International Exhibition. In 1964 and 1965 the rebellion went further as the pair displayed their work outside the adjacent buildings of the Scottish National Gallery and Royal Scottish Academy – a direct challenge to their institutional tastes. Almost 50 years later, Bellany’s paintings have made it inside those very galleries for a deeply affecting retrospective marking his 70th birthday.

But what may seem a contradiction is really a homecoming. For rather than dismissing the gallery’s Old Master paintings, Bellany wished, even as a student, to place himself among them. Although the Scottish Colourist tradition still ruled in Edinburgh, and London looked to America – to Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art – Bellany’s vision was grounded in the achievements of the Old Masters. In his student flat, he discovered by chance an ottoman full of reproductions of drawings by Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Dürer, Cranach and Holbein. He pinned the prints all over his flat, a constant source of inspiration to the young figurative artist.

Bellany’s large-scale “The Box Meeting, Cockenzie”, painted in 1965 while he was still a student, was inspired by a copy of Bellini’s “Feast of the Gods” that he used to study obsessively at the Scottish National Gallery. He resets Bellini’s mythological painting in Cockenzie, a small fishing community east of Edinburgh neighbouring his native Port Seton. His subject is a ceremony called the Blessing of the Box, which contained the deeds of the local fishing boats and was carried through the town by fishermen to the church. The dark-eyed, weather-beaten folk are elevated in Bellany’s monumental picture, its dynamic composition revealing a confidence beyond his years. Its subjects are rooted in place yet, like Bellini’s, forever suspended in time – one man swigging from a bottle, another placing his hand tentatively on a woman’s thigh.

In this way, Bellany looked not only to the Old Masters but to the modern Realists such as Gustave Courbet who, against the prevailing trend for history painting, depicted the harshness of life for the rural poor. The earliest paintings and drawings in the exhibition are firmly grounded in the world Bellany knew – one of superstitious fisherfolk, dreich skies and “harrowing” Calvinism – and yet the sacred informs the profane. “Kinlochbervie” (1966) is at first glace a group portrait of fisherman – some standing in a boat against a pale sky, others at a table messily gutting fish – but there is more at stake. One man holds a yoke across his body, knowingly making a crucifix, while the fish-gutters assume the proportions of a Last Supper. There is a muted grandeur to the huge work. Each man looks out of the painting as if unaware of the others populating it, lost in some private imagining. Bellany describes such men as “deep thinking people; very religious, superstitious [for] every day they go out dicing with death”.

Death – or rather the precariousness of life – underpins much of Bellany’s work. In 1967, on a trip to East Germany, he visited the Buchenwald concentration camp. The pair of paintings “Pourquoi?” and “Pourquoi? II” – striking in the RSA’s top-lit central gallery – attests to this harrowing experience. Each contains three figures in starkly frontal poses similar to the fisherman, but unlike those portraits the scarring here is physical as well as psychological. In the second work, an emaciated half-body is nailed to a wooden cross, a pair of contorted legs strung from a tree on either side of him; a sign above his agonised face reads “resurection?” [sic].

Bellany had seen Tate’s 1965 exhibition of German Expressionist Max Beckmann’s work and was influenced by his complex symbolism. In the early 1970s Bellany’s naturalism dissolved into experimentation with lurid colours and symbolic creatures. The Francis Bacon-esque “Lap Dog” (c1973) shows a naked woman on a bed-sized joint of meat wearing a sheep mask (a symbol of self-sacrifice), a dog (marital fidelity) sitting suggestively upright in her lap. A male figure stands in the doorway, a monkey at his feet (signifying both lust and art), and there is a crucified head of a giant fish on the wall. The duality in Bellany’s style – the loose handling of paint in all but the clearly defined woman – echoes the conflict between sexual desire and strict moral codes.

The exhibition, which is organised chronologically, encourages such biographical reading – indeed it seems apt with an artist who draws on personal experience as much as Bellany. In the late 1970s he began to use the triptych form to explore themes of ancestry, death and damnation – the side panels often containing ghostly symbols of the past. Even here – where his figures break down into shapes and symbols, and his tight brushwork loosens into expressive sweeps – the sense persists that life is tough and guilt inalienable.

Such works became increasingly aggressive as Bellany’s second wife Juliet battled depression and he himself turned to the bottle. Bellany’s imagery became more generalised as his own world fell apart: in “Time will Tell” (1982) the clock face is all that’s discernible in the violent, brushy confusion of shape and colour.

In 1985, both Juliet and Bellany’s father died. It proved a turning point in his life and art: with the help of his first wife Helen, whom he then remarried, he gave up drink. “Requiem for my Father”, painted that year, stands in marked contrast to the angry, highly gestural works of the previous room. In a controlled linear style, it shows the artist holding an owl – suggesting a new wisdom – with the iconic Bass Rock rising out of the calm waters of the Firth of Forth.

But years of heavy drinking had damaged his liver beyond repair. In 1988 he underwent a transplant operation. When he came round, he did not believe he had survived: he asked the nurse for a pencil and paper – only when he discovered he could still draw did he know he was alive. The series of self-portraits and portraits he made while recovering in hospital, some of which are on show, speak of struggle and, movingly, of hope.

After the operation Bellany began making work with a renewed vigour, turning back to his beloved Old Masters. A room of fleshy nudes responding to Titian, Rembrandt and Delacroix heralds a return to the theme of earthly pleasure – but without the guilt of his youthful explorations. The shift was inspired by a trip to Mexico in 1995, his experience of the Day of the Dead celebrations calling into question his Calvinist outlook.

Soon afterwards Bellany bought a house in Tuscany and the colours, light and indeed the less dour, more life-affirming attitude there began to infuse his work. The exhibition’s small final room is pure pleasure: bright yellows sing out of his recent landscapes, each painting radiating warmth. There is nothing sugary here – it is all the more joyful for being hard-won, and the paintings more resonant within the narrative of the show. To visit this exhibition is truly to experience a life in painting.

John Bellany: A Passion for Life, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, until January 27,

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