them never previously shown — painted over the last twenty years. not a retrospective. he says. ‘l’ve already had a retrospective in 1986 and that was very harrowing because it was at a time when there wasn’t really very much hope for me. I was like a drowning man. I think that made me look harder at my work than I ever had before; really I was fathoming out which of the work was relevant, and which was going to survive. It was a very eerie experience; I had to reassess my whole existence.‘
The Kelvingrove show is a more positive affair and comes in three parts. The first part of the show revolves around 1972. a ‘seminal year‘ and a time when Bellany’s work was often bleak. marked by his obsession with death. guilt. sex and original sin. At about this time he began to use the kind of symbols that confounded the Americans in the Metropolitan Museum: the fish, which often has religious overtones. sometimes hinting at death. sometimes reaffirming life, as well as the seagull (female figure) and puffin (Bellany himself). In his self-portraits he and his wife were often disguised by animal masks. The focal point of this section is his resoundingly grim triptych Journey to the end ofthe night.
The middle section he calls his ‘Lazarus paintings’ — all the work that he did after his transplant — and the third part of the show features Bellany’s work since then. triumphant paintings celebrating his second chance to live. The new works once again draw on the symbolism that made such a
great impression on Bellany as a boy growing up in Port Seton, his microcosm of the world and a place he remembers as being ‘a bit like Under Milk Wood— there was a sense ofexcitement in the air all the time’. But it is tempting to wonder ifhis great happiness has detracted at all from his recent work, if, like the man in the ad, he can no longer sing the blues because his life is too sweet. Bellany says this isn’t true: ‘I’m a man ofextremes. I can hit the depths of
‘I’m a man of extremes. I can hit the depths of despair, but I’m an expert on enjoying myself and have been all my Iite.’
despair, but I’m an expert on enjoying myselfand have been all my life. I’ve never fitted into the middle road, but I’m not interested in that. I can’t stand ordinariness. I’m just so happy to be alive, and hopefully all those feelings give some optimism.’
He is particularly grateful that people should be interested in his paintings and very touched to have been described, by the late Peter Fuller, as ‘unquestionably the most outstanding British painter ofhis generation’. Forthcoming projects include painting a portrait of Terry Waite, who has become a good friend, and a two-year stint working in Warsaw, Vienna, Berlin, Prague and Budapest. The British Council has invited him to create a work, ‘anything I want’, for each of the five capitals.
Although he has lived in London for more
JOHN BELLANY FEATURE
DANAE: HOMAGE TO 8.11 than half of his life, it is reassuring to hear that Bellany still spends a great deal of his time in Scotland, although bizarre that he particularly relishes the Scottish climate. ‘You get these marvellous wintry days, grey on grey on grey. You can really hit the depths of your soul on days like that. Then three days later you’re staggered by the most beautiful sunset.’ But he won’t be drawn on the subject of Scottish Nationalism: ‘I think I’ll do a Magnus Magnusson on that and say “ ass”.’ IIf the Kelvingrove show is a metaphor for Bellany’s own artistic and emotional ‘journey’ so far, then it looks like we’re in for a happy ending. Fears that his illness might somehow have diluted the passion of his painting evaporate in the face of Bellany’s new works; he says he is now returning to the richer colours he used twenty-five years ago. There is a tremendous warmth about this man who makes friends with all his portrait subjects. and a good deal of passion. He still rails against what he calls ‘mealy-mouthed, insipid, airport lounge art’ and champions fearlessness. When he refers to himself as the luckiest man alive, which he does frequently, you know he means it.
A Long Night’s Journey into Day: The Art of John Bellan y is at the Art Gallery and Museum, Kelvingrove, 1 OJ uly—30 August. Heart of the Matter’s programme about Bellan y ’s transplant operation will be shown again on Sun 5July.
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