JOHN BELLANY FEATURE
it every line that makes up the frail.
painfully pinched face ofJohn Bellany‘s
I988 etching self-Portrait in Hospital 1.
there is an intense. life-affirming quality.
Although the image has a ghostly. almost
death-mask feel. each trembling mark seems to whisper ‘I‘m here. I survived.‘
This series of self portraits. drawn by Bellany as he lay in his hospital bed recovering from a harrowing liver transplant. were consequently made into some of the most powerful printed works that you are likely to see. In this work. tnade by a man dangerously close to death. Bellany has literally drawn himself back to life. The etching process has brought a permanent/impermanent scratchy feel to the drawings that reminds us of how lines can be expressive gestures in themselves. Each sharp black mark left by the etching needle is a life line in the truest sense.
C ()Ill(’lnp()t'(ll"\‘ British Art In Print at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art earlier this year presented us with an opportunity to see how artists as diverse as Ken Currie and
‘I’ve never seen any difference between painting and print-making as creative forces. To me they are very much interlinked,’ says Bellany. ‘When I choose between the etching needle or the paintbrush, it’s just like choosing to use an HR pencil instead of a 48.’
Rachel Whitercad had chosen to explore their ideas through printmaking. a medium in which many had never previously worked. For others. print-making is an integral part of their work. not subordinate but parallel to their painting or sculpture. John Bellany is one such artist. As Duncan MacMiIIan. Curator of Edinburgh‘s Talbot Rice Gallery and of John Bellany — Recent Paintings and John Bellany -— Print-maker. points out: ‘It is only a small group of artists whose achievements as painters is matched independently by their reputation as print-makers. The greatest of these are artists who have found a special affinity with the qualities of the print. especially the line of etching and engraving... John Bellany belongs among those artists whose prints represent an autonomous achievement.‘
This will be the first chance to see the range of Bellany‘s collected works in print in a show that spans twenty-five years. from prints made whilst at Edinburgh College of Art to etchings made as recently as two weeks ago. ‘I’ve never seen any difference between painting and print-making as creative forces. To me they are very much interlinked.’ says Bellany. ‘When I choose between the etching needle or the paintbrush, it’sjust like choosing to use an HB pencil instead of a 4B.‘
Instinct plays a large part in how Bellany decides upon his method. ‘sensitivity to the subject tells you what medium to dabble in.‘ he says. There are no themes that are exclusive to his print-making; the strange figures that inhabit the dream-like landscapes of his etchings or aquatints are of the same family as those found in his big allegorical paintings. In Woman with Tambour. a naked woman stands alone, framed by a dark. shadowy landscape. In her hands she claps a large drum. her expression is intense and her large almond
eyes stare into the distance.
If there is a quality that is special to his prints however. it can be described as lyrical. In his etchings we can see the draughtman‘s love of the line. “When I'm etching I‘m trying to create a poem with lines.‘ he says. ‘an etching needle can be so gentle yet piercing and concise.‘ Bellany is keen that his work should take people through a range of feelings from the dramatic intensity of the big meaty paintings to the lighter emotional pitch of the prints. ‘Beethoven didn‘t just write symphonies. he also wrote string quartets and piano sonatas. Shakespeare's Love Sonnets are in contrast to his tragedies but equally as powerful. In the same way. I have tried to provoke different emotional responses to my prints.
In Ernest I-Iemingway‘s heroic story of an old ('Tuban lisherman's obsessive struggle to capture a great marlin The Old Man and the Sea. Bellany found a number of poignant parallels to his own life. Twenty years after first reading the book. in the throws of serious illness. he worked with the Peacock
Printmakers in Aberdeen to produce a series of
twenty-one prints based on the book. This was prior to his operation and very dark days for Bellany. ‘l‘d been given the exit permit and I
was on my way out. these prints were definitely the work of a dying man.’ he says. ‘In retrospect. I wasn‘t so much illustrating the book as expressing my soul. It seemed so full of strange allegories to me. the old man who chases after what he considers to be the wonder of life. a beautiful giant marlin. After he has fought and caught this incredible creature. he realises that he has killed the beauty.‘
In this stunning folio of prints. Bellany’s etching needle has captured the very essence of loneliness and despair. In the sad. scavenged skeleton of the once magnificent marlin we can see the haunting quality of the etched line that Duncan MacMiIIan has described so well: ‘Bellany's line is the kind which. though it hardly ever seems to go anywhere by the shortest route. always seems purposeful and precise. plainly obeying the commands of an inner logic. a logic that is sometimes tortuous. but never flawed.‘
l)unean .iIaeA/Iillan ’s uorcls are taken from the eatalogue that will accompany the exhibition, John Bel/any Print-maker; published by The lit/bot Rit'e Gallery.
.lohn Bellany -— New Paintings and John Bel/any - Print-maker; Talbot th‘t’ Gallery. lz'tlinbutjeh ll) Aug -ll Sept.
The List 28 Jul-I0 Aug l99517