Exhibition Review – John Bellany: A Passion for Life

Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh from 17th November 2012 to 27th January 2013

I’ve been a big fan of Bellany ever since first year at high school when I was introduced to his work by my art teacher. Bellany is not part of the traditional school curriculum, but he should be, especially in Scotland. My teacher hailed from the same part of East Lothian as Bellany and he spoke of visiting his studio as a student and witnessing him frantically painting a triptych halfway up a ladder and half cut. He used Bellany’s paintings to teach us about everything from symbolism to leading the eye around a frame. But the most important thing that these lessons taught us was about passion. Whether it was Bellany’s passion for creating art, his home, his loved ones, or finding inspiration from other artists, it was clear that when it came to art, passion was key. It was with this in mind that I went along to the aptly named retrospective: A Passion for Life.

This is the National Galleries Scotland’s second retrospective of Bellany’s work, the first being over 20 years ago. Prompted by an event which I’m sure Bellany himself often didn’t think he’d see, his 70th birthday, this exhibition spans from his early work as a student at Edinburgh College of Art right up until the habour-scapes that he is painting today. Bellany has distinct periods of work and the exhibition is laid out chronologically, something which suits Bellany’s work. For me personally, the most interesting period of Bellany’s work was the 60’s in which he was painting lot of figurative work such as fishermen in ‘The Obsession’ (1966) and holocaust victims such as ‘Pourqoui?’ and ‘Pourquoi? II’ (1967), all of which are on display in this exhibition. The 70’s brought the impressive triptych of my art teachers stories, while we see the deterioration of Bellany’s mind and health reflected in the wild brush marks in paintings of the 80’s. My mum, herself a nurse, was especially moved by the Addenbrooke Hospital Series and in particular the mere scribbles that Bellany managed at his most weak, following his life-saving liver transplant operation in 1988. It was reported that Bellany asked for a pencil following his operation stating that he would know he was alive if he could draw, testament to his passion for his work. Following this we see a new lease of life with bright, lively paintings that have characterised Bellany’s work since. The changing styles are all well represented in this retrospective with no one period gaining dominance of any of the others.

Even if you’re not a fan of Bellany (really!?) this exhibition is a must see. Spanning five decades and the whole spectrum of human emotion, A Passion for Life offers the chance to see the development of one of Scotland’s finest artists and reminds us how powerful painting can be.


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