Issue Number: 117
In his Edinburgh show John Bellany RA looks back on his life's work, writes Emma Crichton-Miller
It is the big questions that preoccupy John Bellany RA. His large, colourful figurative paintings, with their surreal juxtapositions of objects and people, are fraught with metaphysical interrogations. A painting from 1986 summarises, in its title borrowed from Gauguin: Whence do we come, who are we, whither do we go? Now a major retrospective at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh celebrates the 70th birthday of this artist whose work is deeply rooted in personal experience.
John Bellany RA, 'You’re 30 Today, John', 1972, one of his many self-portraits. © John Bellany. Bellany was born into a devoutly Calvinist fishing community on the coast near Edinburgh and enjoyed, as he reports, an idyllic childhood. His early paintings, with their bold colours, raw emotions and vigorous lines, reflect the physical harshness and moral drama of this environment.
A visit to Buchenwald in the late 1960s, however, darkened his imagination, triggering periods of despair and heavy drinking, exacerbated by the breakdown of his first marriage and the death of his second wife. His art reflected this inner turmoil, as seen in You’re 30 Today, John (1972). In 1988, a liver transplant saved his life, and he embarked on a set of frankly self-scrutinising drawings and watercolours, The Addenbrooke’s Hospital Series.
This second lease of life and the subsequent healing of his first marriage initiated a more optimistic phase, with his later paintings developing an allegorical richness of allusion. Now he is based part of the year in Tuscany, yet the softness of the warm south has not driven philosophy from his work. His sun-filled later paintings reflect a joy wrested from an intensely lived life.