Saturday 1 August 2015

JOHN BELLANY, Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh 
In May 1988 JOHN BELLANY confronted a liver transplant in the artist's characteristic way - by working. Now among the most remarkable, extraordinary self portraits by any artist, these drawings record in unflinching detail his harrowing death-defying life in intensive care.  
Before & after he was an all-out, full-on artist, as this impressive EDINBURGH FESTIVAL show demonstrates. DON"T MISS IT!  

1988 marked a spiritual watershed. All or nothing. Life or death. Throughout Bellany's roller-coaster professional career & personal life, his raison d'etre was to paint exhilarating, richly hued imagery. 

Son of a Port Seton fisherman, this sea background never left him or his pictures. Lighthouses, gutted fish, lobsters, puffins, beaks, the Bass Rock, all were transformed into enigmatic settings for the prime figures, a sensual temptress & her swain, her lover, or oppressor. Serenades yet the clock is ticking. 

This Edinburgh Festival show is invigorating, breathtaking in its power, yet full of Bellany's special sunburst, sunset colour. Storms may be on the horizon but despite this, & a frequent black undertow, his work is essential life-enhancing. 
One has to take a deep breath while surveying these 5 rooms full of his work, their dense, chaotic imagery of masks, teeth, eyes, skulls, playing cards & piano keys jostling for attention amid the awesome sweeps of intense colour wash. Characteristic fluid abstract expressionist backgrounds offset precise striking portrait heads. Universal iconography is always infused with personal knowledge. As a fisherman's son, "death was always a day-to-day reality."  
The show is selected by Bellany's wife Helen, his lifetime muse. The exhibition includes some very early 1960s drawings, graphics, vibrant watercolours & oils which span 40 years. A wonderful drawing from 1986, Paris captures Helen exactly. I don't know how she can bear to part with it - but she does of course appear in almost all his paintings! 
Helen met Bellany in 1962 when they both studied at Edinburgh before leaving for London & the Royal College. As she writes so eloquently,"The narrow escape from ultimate destruction, the dramatic turnaround to a new direction of a life regained, which he embraced with joyful exuberance - & that lasted for nearly 30 miraculous years." Come what may in their tempestuous marriage, Helen Bellany's admiration never dimmed. 

 1983 New York.  
Back in 1989, among my many - nearly 40 pieces - on him & his work, (see ) 
I wrote that his new pictures from that period, "mark him out as a Northern European of great stature." Bellany did of course go on for another 25 years, painting painting, aspiring always for something better; determined always to realise his artistic dream of what he called world grandeur. "There's no room for clutter or kidology" he told me. "You have to aspire to something greater." And he did. 
Jack Knox, Bert Invin, JOHN BELLANY, Elizabeth Blackadder & John Houston. Early 1980s 

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